A few years ago the actor and filmmaker Seth MacFarlane made a brave and honest observation about his inner life: “I wish I was better at taking in how great my life is, but that’s surprisingly elusive. I tend to be very hard on myself and insecure about failing no matter what happens.” Indeed, many successful people with confident personas are emotionally wobbly underneath.
Troublesome self-doubt of this kind is due in large part to inner passivity. This term refers to a hidden aspect of our psyche that can plague even the smartest people. Inner passivity blocks us from connecting emotionally with our authentic self and establishing inner harmony.
While inner passivity is a major source of our behavioral and emotional problems, it’s invisible to the naked eye or even to high-powered electron microscopes. If neuroscientists or physicists are unable to see it, how are everyday people supposed to get a bead on it?
We can often sense its presence in the chronic self-doubt and weakness of others, but we have a harder time seeing it in ourselves.
Inner passivity can be understood metaphorically as an undetected galaxy in the cosmos of the psyche. To grow psychologically, we need to discover this inner expanse so that we can claim it in the name of self-awareness and rationality. Inner passivity is located, according to classical psychoanalysis, in the unconscious part of the ego.
We get right to the heart of inner passivity when we begin to realize that, at an unconscious level, we are reconciled to being under the power of (or subservient to) our often harsh, aggressive inner critic. The inner conflict between this inner aggression and our inner passivity causes us to feel, in varying degrees, weak in terms of decisiveness, foresight, wisdom, self-regulation, and aggressive energy in our relationship to ourselves and in our dealings with others and the world.
As we study inner passivity, we begin to realize how much, at a personal level, we’re under the influence of it. In seeing it, we see into the heart of our emotional (and even mental) weakness.
Inner passivity is the source of both our inner defensiveness and the defensiveness we express to other people. Inner passivity contributes to self-doubt, indecision, procrastination, anxiety, stress, fear, helpless feelings, stubbornness, lack of self-regulation, and scores of other emotional and behavioral problems.
Our inner life is especially contaminated by inner passivity whenever we’re courting failure or repeatedly experiencing distressful thoughts and feelings along these lines: “It’s hopeless,” “What I think doesn’t matter,” There’s no point in trying,” “I can’t get a grasp on what to do,” “It’s not my fault,” “Nothing matters,” “I don’t care,” and “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Inner passivity is also at play in our psyche when we can’t feel our integrity, goodness, courage, and will to flourish. It creates a blind spot in our intelligence and makes it easier to live under the spell of belief systems, materialism, vanity, and desires.
An understanding of inner passivity opens up our intelligence to the bizarre fact that we are willing, contrary to all common sense, to cling to and indulge in our unresolved negative emotions. Inner passivity, in itself, is an inner default position that produces a stubborn unconscious willingness to replay and recycle feelings of being helpless, trapped, oppressed, powerless, and victimized.
Trying to grasp an understanding of inner passivity and other inner dynamics can feel overwhelming at first. Many months of inner observation, coupled with a growing understanding of this depth psychology, may be required to begin to make some sense of it. We’re required to think (literally!) outside the box; we’re being asked to see ourselves from beyond the restrictive mindset to which inner passivity binds us. The more we begin to recognize our inner passivity in our daily experiences and emotional reactions, the clearer it all becomes. Along the way, Eureka moments—the glimpsing of inner truth—mark the progress of our awakening self.
Awareness of inner passivity makes our suffering more comprehensible. We now have a better focus on our inner life and human nature. Instead of being blindly entangled in the symptoms of inner passivity, we now see what we’re dealing with, and we can plan a way out of this limited, often painful state of mind or consciousness.
Knowledge is power, and self-knowledge is especially empowering. With self-knowledge, we have a new perspective on our emotional pain and behavioral self-defeat. The “medicine” of self-knowledge enables us to see ourselves in a new light. Instead of being a patient dependent on medication and the expertise of doctors, we become our own healer.
Our intelligence is such that we can usually address and fix a problem once we understand the nature of the problem. In medicine, for instance, the ability of doctors and patients to identify a disease or condition makes it more likely the disease can be successfully treated. In psychology, successful treatment of depression, anxiety, or addictions often depends on what afflicted individuals are able or willing to learn about themselves and do for themselves. The better the quality of their psychological knowledge, the more they can resolve inner conflict and inner weakness.
Often people can be helped by psychiatric medications. For so many of us, though, mental and emotional healing is best achieved through the acquisition of the vital self-knowledge offered by this depth psychology.
We begin to understand that we make unconscious choices to continue to experience ourselves and various situations through inner passivity and its accompanying symptoms. Knowledge of inner passivity helps us to uncover and understand our resistance to inner progress (and social progress, too, because individual inner resistance is the microcosm of widespread collective resistance). With this insight as a mental tool, we now become more conscious of those moments when we’re entangled in inner passivity. Now we can begin to respond to challenging or just everyday situations and events in a healthier manner.
The benefits of acquiring self-knowledge unfold mysteriously. The process compares to the way that learning a new language happens over time as a person makes a continuing effort to assimilate the vocabulary and grammar. At first the new language is incomprehensible to us, but soon we gain proficiency with it. The “vocabulary” and “grammar” of depth psychology consists of our growing understanding of inner passivity—along with the existence in the human psyche of self-aggression, inner conflict, emotional attachments, and defenses. We embark on a process of learning how this knowledge applies to us personally. With this knowledge, we become programmers of our own mind.
The act of seeing inner passivity in ourselves—or at least being willing to explore the possibility of its existence—is in itself a process of empowerment. It means we’re not afraid of inner truth. We’re willing to see ourselves more objectively rather than blaming life or others for our troubles. To propose another metaphor, this openness to self-knowledge is like a sharp knife we can wield to cut through the strands and threads of our entanglement in suffering.
As mentioned, inner passivity is involved in ongoing conflict with our inner critic, the harsh inner aggression that holds us accountable and tends to disparage us. Our inner passivity does try through inner defensiveness to protect us from the onslaught of the inner critic, but it represents us ineffectively, like an incompetent lawyer. Our inner passivity is essentially an enabler of the inner critic in that it gives credence to the illegitimate authority of the inner critic.
The inner critic is, in most people, the hidden master of their mind. Inner passivity, as the enabler, allows this dysfunctional inner conflict to persist. On an inner level, many if not most people live with a significant lack of freedom because they’re passive to the bullying or tyranny of their inner critic. So our inner life is dominated, in large measure, by both the inner critic (self-aggression) and by inner passivity. Our authentic self emerges in the process of resolving the conflict between inner passivity and the aggressive inner critic.
For a variety of reasons, we’re reluctant to uncover our unconscious psychological dynamics, particularly the existence of inner passivity. We cling to an egocentric sense of self. People are fearful of any knowledge that might shatter what for many is a rigid, crystalized allegiance to their conscious ego which they consider to be the purveyor of what is true and real. Modern psychology hasn’t helped much. Rather than recognize and deal with our conflicted psyche and its messy irrationalism, it favors force-feeding our ego with the pretexts of rationalism.
It’s offensive to our conscious ego to consider that, behind the looking-glass, we might be pawns of an inner operating system that’s indifferent to our wellbeing and—even more insultingly—operates outside the conscious ego’s awareness. Hence, we produce a variety of defenses and cover-ups that protect our ego and self-image and keep us in the dark concerning these deeper dynamics.
When we start to learn about inner passivity and see through the defenses that cover it up, we’re starting to recognize it clinically. That means we’re seeing ourselves more objectively. This helps us to begin to detach or separate from it. We now begin to see how our growing awareness of it enables us, in recurring “Aha” moments, to observe it in action when we’re under the influence of it. Seeing it from this new perspective is very empowering. Now that inner passivity and inner conflict are coming into focus, our intelligence is empowered to free us from this limitation and disharmony.
I suggest to some clients that they refrain from trying too hard to understand inner passivity. Our mind can’t easily grapple with it. If we struggle too hard to make sense of it or to see it in ourselves, we will only frustrate ourselves—and end up feeling even more passive and helpless in being unable to bring it into focus. Our inner passivity becomes more visible to us over time as we show a relaxed yet steady interest in becoming cognizant of its role in our life.
To see inner passivity is to see the direction in which we want to evolve, which, of course, is away from it and toward our authentic self. We want to emerge from inner passivity to become stronger, wiser, more confident, and believe more fully in our goodness and value. We all desire on a conscious level to become less anxious and fearful, more trusting of ourselves and life. Our growing ability to keep an eye on inner passivity facilitates human progress.
UPDATE – A stark representation of the widespread effects of inner passivity is presented in the article, A Nation of the Walking Dead. Though the author vividly and accurately describes symptoms of inner passivity as they pertain to compulsive gambling, he doesn’t discuss the source within our psyche that produce the self-destructive behaviors and emotional anguish.
My book, The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself from Inner Passivity, is now available as an e-book at Amazon in a new 2015 edition. This book has hundreds of specific insights into inner passivity.