6 Of The Most Passive-Aggressive Phrases You’re Probably Using (But Shouldn’t Be)

Passive-aggressive behavior can sometimes be hard to identify. Here are some common phrases to avoid.
Passive-aggressive behavior can sometimes be hard to identify. Here are some common phrases to avoid. Halfpoint Images via Getty Images

Passive-aggressive behavior occurs frequently in everyday interactions with our friends, romantic partners, family members and co-workers. But because it can be insidious, you may not always recognize when it’s happening to you — or when you’re guilty of doing it yourself.

What does being “passive-aggressive” mean, exactly? It’s when you express negative emotions, such as anger or hostility, in an indirect (or passive) manner, explained Los Angeles clinical psychologist Ryan Howes — “particularly in a way that is easily deniable or not directly linked to the aggressor.”

He offered an example: Say you were frustrated with a loved one. Instead of telling them how you feel, you just “forget” to pick them up from the train station that day.

“This is easily deniable as a simple brain fart, but deep down you know you didn’t pick them up because you wanted payback for whatever they did to anger you,” Howes explained. “It’s classified as a defense mechanism because you are defending yourself from the potential pain of expressing your pain or anger directly and reaping their response, which might hurt.”

When you’re being passive-aggressive, you’re attempting to convey your feelings about something without actually saying what you want to say, Toronto-based relationship expert and sexologist Jess O’Reilly told HuffPost.

“It can be confusing, annoying and harmful to relationships,” said O’Reilly, founder of Happier Couples Inc. “And you’re less likely to get what you want if you’re unclear in the first place.”

Though we all engage in passive-aggressive behavior now and then, this type of communication tends to be more habitual among people who are avoidant and conflict-averse, as well as those lacking self-esteem.

It can be confusing, annoying and harmful to relationships.Jess O’Reilly, relationship expert and sexologist

You might communicate this way because you find it too difficult or uncomfortable to directly express yourself, associate clinical social worker Miya Yung told HuffPost.

“Being passive-aggressive often entails a desire to avoid face-to-face conflict, not being truly honest about what [someone is] thinking, or making subtle comments that appear harmless yet have an underlying negative impact on the receiver,” said Yung, who works at The Connective, a Northern California therapy and wellness practice. 

Passive-aggressive behavior can show up in many forms, from giving the silent treatment to pouting to procrastinating on a task you agreed to do. But here, we’ll focus on the verbal manifestations. We asked relationship experts to identify some of the most common passive-aggressive phrases. Here’s what to watch out for — and what to say instead.

1. “Good for you.” 

While this statement can be used to express sincere happiness for another person’s success, it’s often used passive aggressively, said Howes.

“There can be envy or resentment lurking below the surface, and is, at times, a statement about the unfairness of a situation,” he said. 

Like: “We both worked hard on the same projects, but you got the raise. Good for you.”

“It’s possible to feel both happy for one person and upset about your own misfortune,” Howes said, “so try sincerely congratulating the other person, and then saying, ‘I’d love to be where you are sometime, too. Can you help me strategize ways to get there?’”  

2. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

This may initially sound like a genuine apology because the words “I’m sorry” are being used. But when you add in the words “you feel that way,” it becomes a passive-aggressive way of putting the blame on the other person’s feelings, rather than taking responsibility for the hurt you’ve caused.

“You are saying, ‘I stand by what I said and I’m sorry you’re having this reaction to it, but that’s your problem,’” New York City clinical psychologist Melissa Robinson-Brown, who goes by “Dr. Mel,” told HuffPost. “Instead, take accountability for the words you spoke. While intention may not have been to cause any harm, the impact of those words did cause harm. You might say, ‘I’m sorry I hurt you.’ Or, ‘I apologize that what I said caused you pain.’”

3. “It’s fine.”

Another common passive-aggressive move: Claiming “everything’s fine” when you’re actually upset about something.

“You may be hoping that someone takes action to address the fact that you’re not actually fine, but you refuse to ask for the support or attention,” O’Reilly said. “You may be testing them to see if they’ll follow through. You may be trying to shut down the conversation.”

The more effective way of expressing yourself is to — surprise, surprise — tell the other person how you’re actually feeling.

“Do you feel overwhelmed, under-appreciated, unsafe, sad, scared, hopeless, jealous, dismissed or something other feeling?” O’Reilly said. “How are they to know how you feel if you refuse to acknowledge or share your own feelings? If you’re unclear about your feelings and needs, you can’t expect others to decode with any degree of accuracy. The solution: Say what you mean.”

4. “Whatever.” 

According to Howes, this comment usually comes up after you’ve tried to explain your viewpoint a few times to no avail. Then you resign yourself to not being understood and say “whatever.”

“It could be a situation like, ‘I told you I don’t like reality shows, but you insist on watching them all the time. Whatever,’” he said.

“To address the root of the problem could take a little more work, which might look like [saying], ‘Hey, it seems like we’re not really hearing each other. Let’s talk about what you like about reality TV, and I’ll tell you what I don’t like, and maybe we can find some compromise.’ ‘Whatever’ is throwing in the towel too soon, and then resenting the other person for it.”

5. “If you say so.”

As Robinson-Brown explained, this statement is dismissive and implies that the person’s opinion or perspective cannot be trusted.

“You are also communicating that you don’t wish to continue the conversation and even if that person does continue, you don’t really have any interest or investment in what is being said,” she said.

“Instead, be open minded and consider that other opinions and thoughts are just as valuable as yours. Try, ‘Thank you for sharing your perspective with me. I understand why you would say that. Would you be open to my sharing my perspective as well?’ Or: ‘I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, could you please clarify what you mean?’”

6. “You’re just too sensitive.”

Telling someone they’re “too sensitive” discounts the other person’s hurt feelings and subtly shifts the blame on them for having an emotional reaction to something you did, Howes explained.

“It’s like saying, ‘Why are you so weak that you can’t handle the pain I just inflicted on you?’ There are several problems with a statement like this, but a healthier approach would be to acknowledge the pain and try to understand it. Something like: ‘I can see that I hurt you, and I’m very sorry for that. I’d like to understand how I hurt you so I don’t do that again. Can you tell me what upset you?’”

How To Start Communicating More Directly

“Being straightforward can be scary. But it’s more likely to lead to meaningful, if uncomfortable, conversations,
“Being straightforward can be scary. But it’s more likely to lead to meaningful, if uncomfortable, conversations," O'Reilly said. Javier Zayas Photography via Getty Images

The next time you find yourself uttering one of these passive-aggressive phrases, pause, take a breath and try a different approach, O’Reilly said. She suggests something like, “I’m struggling with X” or “I’m feeling Y” or “I’m scared that Z,” or even just, “I’m not sure what to say, but...”

“Being straightforward can be scary,” she said. “But it’s more likely to lead to meaningful, if uncomfortable, conversations.” 

At the end of the day, this is a matter of how authentically you’d like to show up in your life, said Howes.

“If you want to play nice and not ruffle feathers, being passive-aggressive is a way to express a little anger while hiding behind a facade of being the friendly person who provides a superficial friendship to everyone,” he said.

“But if you want to be authentic, get dirty once in a while, and have a deeper connection earned through some difficult conversations, challenge yourself to speak to what angers you, how you’ve felt slighted and work toward repair and authentic connection.”

It can be hard to approach situations head-on, especially when that’s not how you’re used to conducting yourself. But know that “most people will tolerate the discomfort of being called out and respect you for being direct and assertive,” said Howes.