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6 Long-Term Consequences of Passive-Aggression

Distrust, social exclusion, and even higher blood pressure.

Key points

  • Silently stewing, rolling eyes, silence, and obstructing what people want are tell-tale signs of anger.
  • Passive-aggressors keep score, let grudges fuel them, and deliver payback with plausible excuses.
  • Victims may be doormats or may speak up; passive aggressors can then become aware and give up grievances.
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Limiting yourself at any age to new information and change in others limits your life.
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Some feelings just aren’t easy to express. What's less well understood is that whatever is mentionable is indeed manageable, as Fred Rogers taught millions of followers.

Hidden anger is indirect, incongruent, and unproductive. It shows in subtle, at times purpose­fully manipulative acts, inactivity, and what’s omitted. It stems from harbored grudges—a need to hurt born out of perceived unfairness.1

People lapse into passive-aggression hoping it’s successfully veiled; in reality, it’s far less anonymous than most people think.

Here are six forms of sly behavior, how they backfire, and four tactics to fix it.

1. Promises Unkept

A classic pattern of no follow-through leaves people hanging. It stems from ambivalence, the need to deflect, perhaps fence-sitting, but rooted in fear-based avoidance.

  • Long-term consequences: Promising action with no follow-through brands people as less than honest, or as liars, over time. Most who implode, hiding their true feelings, explode when it's least expected. Realize, too, that if you leave people hanging, they soon leave you out.

2. Empathy Omitted

In contrast to evident sarcasm, key support left unsaid speaks volumes. How many times have you faced difficulty at work, asking for collegial aid, only to receive no email reply or helping hand?

Have you gone through a tough life passage—illness, death in the family, divorce—only to have those closest say or do nothing? No kind remark, no hug. No encouragement. Worse yet, insensitive remarks rather than just “I’m so sorry” in your darkest hours.

  • Long-term consequences: People sit back and realize who showed up and who did not. Friendships fade, and marriages end when one spouse refuses to budge for the other, while other relatives incorporate charities, causes, and compassionate friends into their estate plans. Caring for others helps us feel good about ourselves. The phrase It takes a village can guide us. Where are you in someone else’s village?

3. Silent Sulking

“In a civil society, you don’t always show your emotions to a clerk, coworker, or even a confidante,” as I have written. Yet angry non-verbal behavior—sighs, eye rolls, pouts, zoning out—replaces words. People pay attention. This happens even as you do speak, making unkept promises or incongruent remarks.

The plausible reasons passive-aggressors hold in their pocket are weak excuses or “I didn’t say that.” They fail to realize they have communicated. Loudly. Through action or inaction.

The teen stands in the photo defiant. The self-absorbed makes an event all about them. The house­warming guest is in stony silence. Interpersonally, people avoid sulkers. They suck the lifeblood out of any gathering.

  • Long-term consequences: Concealed negative emotions lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, and/or escalated cortisol, adrenaline, and C-reactive protein, which increases stroke and heart disease risk. Mental health decreases as does immune function.

4. Scorekeeping

These folks tally shortcomings, without noting their own part in discord or tension. They’re always right, their needs considered first. If one partner tallies bank deposits or bills paid, they forget transfers the spouse made, or the credit cards or taxes the other partner solely handled.

We call this selective memory. It begets the perceived notion of unfairness, that if the score­keeper dared to check out his automatic thoughts, this cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) tactic would dispute false notions with evidence to the contrary.

  • Long-term consequences: Holding alternative facts close to the vest spawns more grudges and grievances. Payback festers the harmful effects of hidden anger. That sack carried around becomes heavier over time. This is key to the corrosive nature of hidden anger.

5. Invented Obstacles

People who conceal their anger dish up difficulty for their targets. One adult invited immediate family to the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, hosting and housing their fun. How generous, right? Except that he told his resented sister to find a Manhattan hotel at holiday prices when she, as a solo parent with two kids, could least afford it. Hence, these three remained at home—likely the grudge-filled Grinch’s intended outcome.

Placing a foot in the path of someone is childish and petty, but enduring passive-aggression is a juvenile defense against something psychologi­cally deeper. Over time, when you see entrenched traits, realize that there may be a personality-disordered problem. A few difficult traits or a disorder. Not yours to diagnose but do decide how much oxygen you fuel to this subterfuge.

  • Long-term consequences: With repeated behavior, people puzzle together the obstacles: This event was thwarted. That weekend was ruined. This memory over here was hijacked by a grievance. Those moments were tainted. The behavior hinders warm relationships and destroys precious time to build memories. The one who wants his own way rarely changes. But you can change yourself and your path.

6. Black-and-White Thinking

Confirmation bias means the tendency to interpret new data as confirmation of existing beliefs.

Your ex remarries, and despite being good to your children, anything their new stepparent does fuels your original, negative perception. You accept a new job and months later an offer for the spot you’d originally hoped to get appears. Though you’re struggling, you still see the job you have as perfect preventing you from even considering another opportunity.

People become so wedded to grievances—doubling down on them, afraid to lose face—that they seek out faults or pick holes into the fabric of great possibilities. Your father’s new wife can do nothing right. Your younger sibling remains the devil even if you're both now adults, in theory anyway.

  • Long-term consequences: Bias fuels the inability to reason. Relation­ships, without flexing your mind, become self-fulfilling prophecies. As your logic grows ever more incredulous you live cut off from meaningful experiences and people.

4 Solutions

  • Ditch the Doormat. When you stop letting people walk over you, you can breathe, free from the crushing weight of people-pleasing. Do we never then give people what they want? Of course, we please others, sometimes. Give and take makes for collegial work, collaboration with peers, and far more family harmony. Tolerating passive-aggressive behavior makes it flourish.
  • Open to Awareness. Be aware that you or others walk on eggshells to avoid direct conversation, conflict, and decisions. You’ll find conflict wherever people co-exist. Learn to deal with it now or get swallowed up in it later. See the signs above. Inquire when you know there’s discomfort. Care. Soft start talks where you can mention what you desperately need to manage. Learn to be assertive, not aggressive or passive.
  • Act "As If." This CBT tactic asks you to act more empathic, agreeable, flexible, and fair. You give up grudges for open, honest dialogue with a heart willing to grow and a mind able to take in new information or shades of gray.
  • Negotiate Middle Ground. Once you're willing to care, to budge, you’re no longer painted as a black-and-white thinker. You’ll find yourself less boxed in, less shackled into proving points, and now able to benefit from what people have to offer. Don’t try to control others. Create win-win situations. Think equitable, not necessarily equal. Live in the moment, and the moment will be more satisfying.

Copyright © 2023 by Loriann Oberlin, MS.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Anatoliy Karlyuk/Shutterstock


1. Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career, and Happiness by Tim Murphy, Ph.D. and Loriann Oberlin, MS, LCPC (New York: Hachette/DaCapo, 2016). Barnes-Noble and Kindle.

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