How to Cope with Passive-Aggressive People (PAP). 10 Top Tips to Help.

To be totally honest, this is a challenge that I struggle with too. A recent visitation has given me significant insight into how I can manage and cope better in the future.  

I hope these inclusive tips by me, Sharon Eshmade, a counsellor, parenting coach, teacher, author, and mum-of-a-teen with behaviour and learning difficulties, help you confidently and assertively manage the PAPs in your life too.

Photo by Moose Photos on

Step 1: Understand communication styles

The best style of communication is in being assertive, where we have our needs met while being kind. Poor communication is often passive (other people’s needs are more important than mine) or aggressive (only my needs are important), with a toxic mix being a passive-aggressive style of communication.

Step 2: The mental health link

PAPs have often experienced oppressive childhoods where they were passive to survive. In desiring that their needs be met, they learned to slyly insert their desires in an often non-verbal but aggressive way that makes them feel in control and more powerful.

Most PAPs are stuck using a childish inadequate communication style. They do not have the emotional intelligence to recognise or take responsibility for making changes so that they communicate more effectively, which they can do as an adult.

Increasing our empathy for the PAPs in our lives does make it easier to understand them but this is not an excuse for their poor behaviour.

Step 3: Self-care is important

Despite their negative reactions, do what makes you feel good in your life because PAPs are rarely satisfied. Have the wedding of your dreams, relax when your house is a mess, raise your kids the way you choose and eat whatever you want.

PAPs often trigger our people-pleasing perfectionist tendencies. Visit my website or email me to read ‘How to Self-Regulate Your Emotions’ so that you don’t act out or suppress your feelings when you are triggered. This was a hugely positive step for me in taking control of my reactiveness in the relationship.

Step 4: Take away their power, be literal

When told, “You look so… um… healthy.” We infer that the PAP means that we are fat. They have power in plausible deniability when they say, “I just said he looks healthy.” By purposefully ignoring all non-verbal signals and slights, we can choose to hear only their literal words, smile, and say, “Thank you.”

When I hold my teen son kindly accountable, he used to say, with dripping sarcasm, “Oh, you are so kind and caring and loving. Aren’t we so lucky.. You are the best mother in the world!” Now that the barb doesn’t land, he has stopped using this strategy.

Use this method selectively to appreciate the tiny grain of goodness in a backhanded complement. When a PAP lies and says they are fine, treat them as if they are okay. Suddenly, you have plausible deniability, “He said he was fine.” Following this, request that the PAP explain their perspective, as you are not a mind-reader.

When they tell an inappropriate ‘joke’, don’t respond or choose to look confused and ask them to explain or respond with a deadpan expression and, “I don’t find that funny.” When they accuse you of being too sensitive, a sign of gaslighting, just agree with them.

In choosing to ignore the aggressive nature in their communication style, we leave them passive to hurting us. But, be warned, the PAP might double-down on their hurtful tactics. If they do become overtly aggressive, set a boundary, such as, “I feel hurt when you are rude. Please speak to me with respect.”

It takes persistence but it feels so good to rise above their intentional mean negativity with purposeful graciousness.

Step 5: Do NOT defend yourself!

“I didn’t know you were pregnant again. Congratulations!” can be responded to with a breath, a moment to collect oneself, and saying, “I’m not. I do love this dress though.”

I actually witnessed this interaction when I was a young adult but in reality the recipient responded with denial, shame and embarrassment, while the perpetrator smiled smugly. It has taken me a while to determine how I could respond appropriately without defending myself if this were to ever happen to me.

A cruel comment always demonstrates emotional immaturity and says so much more about their lack of humility.

Step 6: Focus on your values

PAPs often focus on shallow, traditional values, and their own perceived attractiveness, status, wealth, and power to diminish others. Counter this by prioritising your progressive values of appreciating inner beauty, purposefully helping others, and being the authority in your life.

“Is that all you make in a whole year?” can be neutralised with, “As my focus is on helping others, I get joy and purpose from being kind.” Also, stick up for others, especially the most vulnerable, who may need it!

Step 7: Be kind, assertive, and respectful

Perceive a PAP as you would a difficult customer. Respond to “Do you know how to switch on your oven?” with, “Yes, I do. How can I help? Do you need me to show you?”

PAPs may offer help, such as cooking dinner, and not follow through. If you can, have absolutely no expectations of them. When they feel that the scale is unbalanced they may offer to do the dishes or pack the dishwasher, accept graciously and walk out the kitchen.

Watch out, as they can quickly flip-flop from being a hero to a victim. Keep to facts, discard the rest. Remind yourself that they are using the communication and manipulation strategies of a child. Channel your inner Michelle Obama and go high when they go low.

Keep in mind that they are capable, responsible and the authority in their own life, they just don’t want to be accountable. They may act like a stroppy teen but we must treat them as we would any other adult.

Step 8: Clarify your attachments

If you can describe the PAP in your life as needy while feeling exhausted and responsible, then you may be in a co-dependent relationship. I found it excruciatingly difficult to admit that I was half of the problem and unintentionally often perpetuated the challenges in the relationship.

Our problem is we care about the PAP’s opinions of us, which diminishes our power because we have attached our value to their perception of us. As long as we need to be understood and valued by the PAP, the longer the imbalance in the relationship will persist.

To break this cycle, create a love list including those individuals who love you unconditionally. Most PAPs should never make our love list so why do we care so much? Do they genuinely care about us? Choose to add value to the relationships with individuals on your love list. Repeat often, “My value is not attached to the perception of others.”

When we break this cycle, we are liberated and will no longer be triggered and manipulated by their childish behaviour. We can perceive them as just a needy individual whose happiness is not our responsibility.

Step 9: Take nothing personally

PAPs have a strong inner drive to balance their personal scales. They are just reacting to their unconscious, unprocessed negative thoughts, and feelings. That’s it!

If they ignore or exclude you, see it for what it is, a manipulation strategy to get their needs met. Honour their need for space and be grateful for the break. Choose to reduce your expectations, equal their attentiveness and step back, if you can.

If you hear that the PAP is spreading gossip or lies about you, know that it is a hidden complement, as they are jealous or frustrated because they are incapable of controlling you. Remember, you are not in control of other people. Feel liberated, smile, let it go and press on.

They will never change! Fortunately, you can. If triggered, work on your mental health and increase your healthy boundaries so that you feel psychologically safe in the relationship.

Step 10: Ask for help

Visit me on social media or my website at or email me at Being assertive in setting healthy boundaries and standing up for yourself takes awareness, self-love, and practice.

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