Inner passivity is an unconscious realm of our psyche that’s very much “in our face” emotionally. I write a great deal about inner passivity, and I keep trying to bring this psychological aspect into better focus.
My readers keep asking me how, exactly, can they eliminate inner passivity from their emotional life. “Okay, I can see that it’s a problem for me,” they say. “Now how do I get rid of it?”
This message from a reader in Australia is typical of this feedback:
The symptoms you describe in your book, The Phantom of the Psyche, were almost a carbon copy of what I’ve suffered from my whole life. I loved the book, yet I’m still not sure what to do in daily life at a more practical level. The exercises in the book make sense but they seem a tad trivial when juxtaposed with the scope of the problem. Perhaps I’m asking too much of your book and that psychotherapy is really the only way to change things. Any thoughts on this would be great.
Good psychotherapy can certainly bring inner passivity and its symptoms more quickly into focus. Yet very few psychotherapists are going to address inner passivity directly. Here, in this longer than usual post, I offer some further direction for doing this on one’s own.
Inner passivity is responsible for much of our self-doubt, self-criticism, indecision, procrastination, defensiveness, confusion, loneliness, depression, emptiness, and addictions, as well as feelings of being unworthy and trapped. People suffering from these symptoms are usually unable to detect or expose the inner passivity at the source.
As I’ve written previously, the best solution for overcoming inner passivity involves recognizing its existence within us. We become watchful and vigilant about how it intrudes into our daily life as negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, thereby producing self-defeating behaviors. Inner passivity has scores of symptoms, and many are mentioned and described throughout this website. As we trace the symptoms backwards, deeper into our psyche, we become schooled in the ways in which inner passivity sneaks into our everyday experiences.
Let’s look at a brief example and then consider the remedy. A client, owner of a public-relations company, complained that in recent months he had lost all motivation to grow his company. A few years earlier, his wife of 15 years had asked him for a divorce. Following the divorce, he had remained resentful and even bitter toward her. He particularly resented the fact that she had persuaded him to move to another city shortly before asking for the divorce. The move turned out to be highly inconvenient for his business. Now, on a daily basis, he resurrected memories of how he had reluctantly acceded to her wishes to make the move, and he plunged into painful resentment of her and even more painful self-recrimination for being so unwise as to have agreed to the move.
I told him, “Every time you think of your ex-wife in this context, especially when doing so is distressful, you have to understand what you’re doing. Unconsciously, you’re playing with fire. You’re choosing to plunge into inner passivity. You’re remembering the way in which your ex-wife pestered you to make the move and how you reluctantly succumbed to her wishes. In this manner, you keep recycling and replaying, in your emotional life, the feeling that you were passive to her. Meanwhile, your bitterness toward her serves as a psychological defense. As a defense, your bitterness covers up your unconscious willingness to continue to experience yourself through this passivity.”
I continued: “When you think about her in a way that produces inner distress, you’re choosing in that moment to jump back into inner passivity. When you do this, you open the door to your inner critic, and it barges in with accusations of how foolish you were to allow her to get you into your current predicament.
“The solution,” I told him, “involves becoming aware of how you’re using your ex-wife for the purpose of continuing to experience the painful, unresolved inner passivity that resides in your psyche. It’s this inner passivity that’s blocking your motivation to grow your business. Seeing the inner passivity with this clarity is the key to breaking free from its influence. When you’re willing to see it and understand it, you’re making an intention to rid yourself of it. In seeing your inner passivity, you can avoid being entangled in it. If you don’t see it, you’ll stay stuck in it or, at best, be repeatedly drawn back into it.”
This insight helped him greatly, and he soon stopped recreating painful memories concerning his ex-wife.
The remedy for breaking out of the emotional weakness of inner passivity involves our growing awareness of it and how our defenses try to cover it up. Our willingness to see it usually means we’re expressing our determination to get rid of it.
This determination to become aware of the existence and influences of inner passivity in one’s life is in itself an act of considerable strength. To become watchful in this way affirms our resolve to grow and become emotionally stronger. In this process, we’re becoming a powerful advocate for our best interests.
We have to see inner passivity with an objective, clinical eye so we can disengage from the feeling, unconsciously registered, that its effect on us somehow represents normal human experience. For many of us, the greatest temptation, or the path of least resistance, is to experience ourselves through emotional weakness. We can identify so strongly with ourselves in this manner. At this point, we’re in the grips of inner passivity. As one client saw it more clearly in himself, he said: “It’s amazing how it creeps insidiously into so much of what I think and do! I never had a clue this was happening!”
Once we start catching glimpses of inner passivity’s influences, those glimpses expand into a full panorama of this aspect of human nature. Usually, inner passivity has us in its clutches only to the degree that it’s unconscious. In the light of our self-awareness, it is gradually displaced while being replaced by a pleasant new harmony with oneself.
In recognizing it, we’re taking responsibility for our emotional weakness rather than, through psychological defenses, denying it and blaming others for our own painful and self-defeating reactions to it. As self-knowledge is enhanced, our intelligence is empowered and wisdom is able to arise.
As part of this process, you might start having “passivity dreams” at night. You find yourself in situations in which your passivity is deeply felt and acted out. Having such dreams is good as long as you’re gaining self-understanding from them, particularly with respect to your unconscious readiness to continue to identify with that inner weakness.
Our psychological defenses are quick to cover up this passivity. We have to understand the many different kinds of defenses that mislead us. For instance, our unconscious ego much prefers to have us accused (by the inner critic) of being a party to inappropriate aggression rather than to have us be called to account for our affinity for inner passivity. One common defense is to become inappropriately or belligerently aggressive (this usually follows an instance in which we are somehow passive). Unconsciously, we then “plead guilty” to being inappropriately aggressive (often expressed through blaming and anger), and we now feel guilt for our reactive aggression. So we suffer, but now—from the vantage of our resistance, denial, and defenses—we have “successfully” covered up the existence and the influence of our inner passivity.
People can assimilate the knowledge of these inner dynamics through my books and the articles on this website. This writing is intended to be easily understood by lay readers. As a starting point, be aware that we erect defenses to cover up inner passivity. Our inner critic objects to our attachment to (and indulgence in) inner passivity, at which point we react with inner defensiveness. Our inner critic objects to our attachment to inner passivity because the inner critic is willing compulsively, at any opportunity, to discharge its aggression and to mock or scold us for any weakness.
Our challenge is to make these defensive operations more conscious. We’re trying to see the deeper reality in order to avoid self-deception. Success and progress in using the tools of depth psychology compare with the achievement of learning a new language. We can all feel overwhelmed when we first encounter that challenge, but if we persist our intelligence produces mental and emotional benefits over time.
Be patient, and try not to get angry at yourself if you feel progress is not happening or is happening too slowly. Inner passivity is persistent. It wants to “hang around,” as if it’s fighting for its life. Remember, it’s a “default position” or familiar identification in your psyche. Inner passivity “defines us” to ourselves, even when we’re unaware of being under its influence.
As I’ve explained in previous writings, inner passivity represents one side of the major inner conflict in our psyche. The other side is represented by inner aggression, which arises from the superego or inner critic. (For more on this subject, read, “Our Messy Mix of Aggression and Passivity” and “The Tyrant that Rules Our Inner Life.”)
The primitive instinct of inner aggression is to hold us accountable and to attack us with criticism, sarcasm, and mockery. On the other side of this inner conflict, the instinct of inner passivity (seated in the unconscious or subordinate ego) defends us and tries to deflect the accusations and inner abuse. Typically, inner passivity is ineffective in protecting us from our inner critic.
On this inner level, then, we’re regularly being passive to our inner critic. When we’re passive in this way, we often experience the symptom of chronic self-criticism. We want to be aware that such self-criticism, when harsh and demeaning, arises because of our unconscious willingness to experience ourselves as passive in relation to our aggressive inner critic. A common symptom is to feel disconnected from our self and to become indecisive and easily swayed.
It’s certainly a challenge to recognize (or to become conscious of) this emotional attachment to passivity. However, the awareness develops over time as we watch or observe our reactions in various situations. As we feel self-criticism and self-doubt coming upon us, we begin to see that we have been living through an old familiar sense of self that doesn’t know how to be or to exist free and independent of such negative self-assessment. We begin to see more clearly the harshness, unfairness, cruelty, and irrationality contained within the self-criticism. We wouldn’t likely tolerate a friend talking to us in such a harsh manner, and yet we allow an inner agency—the inner critic or superego—to assault us verbally on a regular basis. The existence of inner passivity explains why we tolerate such inner abuse.
The more we realize that we allow this inner abuse to occur, meaning that, through inner passivity, we enable our inner critic to harass us and hold us accountable, the clearer will be our self-awareness and the more we will be empowered to bring an end to this self-damaging inner dynamic.
As this inner conflict between inner aggression and inner passivity becomes increasingly conscious, our inner passivity tends to dissipate or dissolve. This happens because we’re acting with tremendous resolve and power simply in being willing, against all resistance, to bring these inner dynamics into our conscious awareness.
Our inner weakness is replaced with a growing sense of our authentic self, which incorporates positive qualities such as self-respect, growing integrity and wisdom, fearlessness vis-à-vis the inner critic, and a greater capacity for self-regulation.
This process of transformation takes time, patience, and a certain inner vigilance. Reading selections from this depth psychology on a regular basis helps us to assimilate this powerful knowledge.
Inner passivity is not only a weakness that’s felt in relation to the inner critic; it’s also a weakness that has a hand in emotional suffering in general. When we’re languishing in feelings of being deprived, refused, helpless, rejected, abandoned, or otherwise victimized, we’re often failing to muster the inner strength to step away from this anguish or suffering. We can’t find the motivation or inspiration (as displayed in procrastination and painful confusion) to move out of a negative state of mind into a neutral if not positive one. We don’t have the inner strength to avoid a wide range of negative emotions.
We also find ourselves incapable of regulating our impulses and desires. We can’t get motivated, nor are we inspired by a sense of purpose, vision, or destiny. We’re passive to our own misery and all its random, negative thoughts and feelings.
Because inner passivity disconnects us from our authentic self, we don’t even realize that we can become our own best friend. The quickest way to awaken to our true, authentic self—and to become our best friend—is to recognize inner passivity and rid ourselves of it.
The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself from Inner Passivity, is now available as an e-book at Amazon in a new 2015 edition.