With his lectures, interviews, and YouTube exposure, Jordan Peterson is having a positive influence on many thousands of people. The Canadian psychologist has been described as “the most influential public intellectual” in the Western world. He has, however, become a controversial figure because of attacks on his writings and statements from some social scientists and supporters of political correctness.
Peterson is a liberal-minded professor who, with humor as well as considerable writing and speaking skills, blends psychology, philosophy, religion, history, politics, fairy tales, and mythology to persuade people to take responsibility for their lives, to believe in their value and goodness, and to trust in themselves.
In addition to teaching at the University of Toronto, Peterson has maintained a psychotherapy practice that offers what appears to be an eclectic approach to treatment. He’s a master of the pep talk and an advocate for what he calls “genuine conversation” with his clinical clients. “You have to scour your psyche,” he writes in his international bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Penguin Random House, 2018). “You have to clean that damned thing up.”
I contend, however, that Peterson would be wise to pull out more heavy-duty scouring pads because he’s not getting to the deeper layers of the psyche. He writes a great deal about the polarity of order and chaos, as these “elements” apply to inner life. Chaos is “unexplored territory” or “the domain of ignorance,” he writes, while order is the known “explored territory.” Yet there exists a more fundamental polarity that relates directly to his subject matter. This is the polarity in both human nature and the animal kingdom involving passivity and aggression.
12 Rules for Life is infused with descriptions of passive and aggressive behaviors related to lobsters, chickens, songbirds, the dominance hierarchy, tyrannical oppression, demonic forces, relationship power dynamics, sexual assaults, and the burdens of “Being.” Other topics in Peterson’s book include aggressive children, physical disciplining of children, passive parents who coddle children, fear of speaking truth, and the appropriateness of challenging authority. Yet Peterson doesn’t frame these passive and aggressive themes with sufficient coherence.
The passivity-aggression polarity is a primary component of inner conflict, which depth psychology has always claimed exists within us. The aggressive side of the conflict assails and condemns us, while the passive side tries, ineffectively and weakly, to defend our integrity and lessen the punishment. How does this conflict arise in the first place? Natural aggression is part of our instinctual or biological life. Underlying our aggression, Peterson writes, “are ancient biological circuits.” Our distant ancestors were aggressive hunters, and now we have to continue to be somewhat aggressive or at least assertive to hold our own in the world. In early childhood, however, some measure of this biological aggression is turned inward against our own self. This self-aggression develops when some of the child’s considerable biological aggression is blocked from flowing outward into the environment due to the child’s weak musculature, parental decrees, and social norms or requirements. Self-aggression, which can be moderated and even disarmed by our growing consciousness, possesses little in the way of human sensitivity or values. As primitive self-aggression, it functions as an inner critic (a superego, inner prosecutor, or hidden master of the personality), and it attacks our integrity and sense of self with scorn, mockery, and general harassment. Because of our emotional weakness (or lack of consciousness), we fail to protect ourselves from it.
Our inner critic barges into our emotional life and succeeds in punishing us with guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression. It lays a nasty trip on us with accusations of wrongdoing, even for minor or imaginary transgressions or simply for our human imperfections. Many people don’t even know when this is happening to them. All they feel is self-doubt, anxiety, and misery.
Peterson does mention “a critical internal voice and spirit” that “condemns our mediocre efforts.” But he quickly plays down its influence: “If the internal voice makes you doubt the value of your endeavours—or your life, or life itself—perhaps you should stop listening.” He fails to see, however, the very significant reason for why we cannot easily stop listening. Within our psyche is an unrecognized enabler of the critical voice. We can stop listening to that voice once we dislodge its enabler.
Many people know about the inner critic. But people are truly blind to its partner in crime, this enabler of self-criticism that I call inner passivity. This is our psyche’s deeper “domain of ignorance,” to use Peterson’s description of chaos. Because this part of us is unconscious (Peterson’s “unexplored territory”), human beings aren’t accessing the emotional strength and spirit (analogous to Peterson’s “Being”) that would enable us to deflect or neutralize the belittling, cruel irrationality that our inner critic imposes upon us. When we do manage to instill our intelligence with the best psychological knowledge, we begin to disentangle ourselves from inner passivity. At this point, our enhanced consciousness merges with our prized “Being,” the authentic self that Peterson wisely highlights as our true essence and foundation in the world.
Research scholar Russell H. Davis notes in his book, Freud’s Concept of Passivity (International Universities Press, 1993) that 239 occurrences of the three words passivity, passively, and passive are contained in Freud’s writings. Unfortunately, Freud never produced an overall theory of passivity that might have been incorporated into general psychology. He did, however, identify activity-passivity as one of the three primary polarities governing the psyche, along with the polarities of pleasure-displeasure and ego-outside world. According to Davis, our passivity is largely repressed and finds expression only indirectly through neurotic symptoms. Instead of recognizing this passivity (largely the residue in the adult psyche of the infant’s and child’s emotional experiences of helplessness), we possess a defensive instinct that prompts us to deny that we’re under the influence of inner passivity. Peterson himself makes reference to the defensive instinct when he mentions “willful blindness,” describing it as “the refusal to know something that could be known.”
Almost all experts in psychology have a blind spot concerning the existence and dynamics of inner passivity. Peterson tries to close in on it through its symptoms, but, despite a valiant effort, he’s not able to bring it into focus as a clinical entity. Using material from his book, I now attempt to give evidence for the existence of inner passivity as a clinical entity and to give some indication of the trouble it instigates in the psyche of a great many people. (Much more information is provided in my book, The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself from Inner Passivity.)
In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson has a 12-page section (pp. 267-278) titled, “What Do We See When We Don’t Know What We’re Looking At?” While this section attempts to describe the nature of chaos, Peterson has produced in these pages a remarkably apt portrayal of the torments that inner passivity inflicts upon us. Since he’s unable to identify this source, he has indeed chosen an apt heading for the section. The content in the section—packed with questions, maybes, what ifs, and “the fog of uncertainty” that does not lift—induces a morbid sense of insecurity and helplessness. This writing is the prose equivalent of The Second Coming by Yeats (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”), a poem which Peterson quotes in full toward the end of the section. His prescription, in part, is to speak “carefully and precisely.” If we do so, he writes, “we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place …”
Earlier in his book (p. 24), he also writes: “The forces of tyranny expand inexorably to fill the space made available for their existence. People who refuse to muster appropriately self-protective territorial responses are laid open to exploitation as much as those who genuinely can’t stand up for their own rights because of a more essential inability or a true imbalance in power.” [My italics]
With these words, Peterson is describing a situation in the outer world, but his words (apparently unbeknownst to him) also describe the nature of the passivity-aggression polarity. This statement above captures the essence of how our inner critic prevails tyrannically over weak inner passivity. The above italicized words, however, hardly begin to bring inner passivity into focus. When instead we reveal inner passivity as a clinical entity, we now understand it as a primitive intelligence operating according to its own rules as it bumbles timidly and ineffectively in the face of the inner critic. Inner passivity, the terra incognita of our psyche, does have a weak voice as well as an intelligence capable of producing our psychological defenses. It also produces the instinct or impulse that makes us inwardly and outwardly defensive. Inner passivity has many of the properties that classical psychoanalysis attributed to the unconscious ego. When we do bring it into focus, we’re able figuratively to turn on the lights in what was a darkened room to see and deal from a position of growing strength with our adversarial inner critic.
Elsewhere (p. 211), Peterson writes: “Consider a person who insists that everything is right in her life. She avoids conflict, and smiles, and does what she is asked to do. She finds a niche and hides in it. She does not question authority or put her own ideas forward, and does not complain when mistreated … But a secret unrest gnaws at her heart. She is still suffering, because life is suffering … there is nothing of value in her existence to counter-balance life’s troubles.”
Peterson leaves this anonymous lady, who is plagued by inner passivity, in the lurch. There’s no more mention of her. He has no remedy for her. He leaves her stuck in an emotional, existential predicament. The remedy, as he apparently believes, is “genuine conversation,” the dialogue he has with his clients. Obviously, he wants more than just having psychotherapist and client sympathetic to each other’s enduring misery. An alternative approach is to teach the principles of depth psychology, as the psychotherapist explores with clients the ways in which these principles might apply to them.
The best psychotherapy teaches clients about the psyche’s operating system and its conflicting dynamics, at the same time that it helps clients apply what they’re learning to their own individual mental, emotional, and behavioral experiences. Clients become aware of their strong inclination to identify emotionally with inner passivity. The therapy is not so much a treatment process as it is a learning process. (Here are some of its basic principles.) Clients are able with this method to decide for themselves what is true and what is not true about their inner life, based on progress in overcoming self-defeating symptoms. We need truth to connect to Being. The most reliable truth for us individually is what we come to realize about ourselves while exploring our psyche at its deepest reaches. This effort produces sublime truth, the knowledge that shows exactly what has been blocking us from realizing our profound goodness, worthiness, and potential.
Peterson provides several examples of how he listens carefully to his clients. He does truly care for them, and he has research showing the benefits of his approach. However, the observed benefits might be superficial. By borrowing on the emotional support or ego-strength of the therapist, clients are often able to drop one or more of their disagreeable symptoms. However, they can do this without resolving the underlying conflict, dysfunction, or neurosis. While one or more of their symptoms might become less problematic, new ones will inevitably arise when conflict at the source remains intact.
Peterson makes this statement (p. 216): “Depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, like cancer, all involve biological factors beyond the individual’s immediate control.” This statement can easily be taken to mean that depression is beyond the individual’s control. But we do have control with respect to depression when we access our emotional strength. (Peterson has had bouts of clinical depression, and I wish him well in overcoming that.)
His statement above and his repetitive insistence that “life is suffering” play up a sense of helplessness. People often chose unconsciously to experience themselves as helpless victims of some real or allegedly oppressive force in order to avoid the effort, often of heroic measure, needed to muster inner strength. When Peterson plays up the helplessness factor, his words could be used by some to validate their cynicism or nihilism. Yes, biological factors as well as diet can be significant influences in clinical depression. Also important though is the degree to which depression is the emotional price we pay when, due to inner passivity, we accept from our inner critic the punishment of emotional suffering for our real or alleged mistakes, shortcomings, failures, and even our supposed unworthiness. We give ourselves a better chance of overcoming depression by understanding inner passivity and inner conflict and applying the knowledge to daily life.
When we understand inner passivity, we stop being defensive and cease to make compromises with the inner critic or superego. I do not like that Peterson recommends we try to compromise with our “critical internal voice.” Compromise is exactly what inner passivity tries to do in its encounters with the inner critic, but such compromise is often a bad bargain that gives the inner critic much leeway to punish us. (See “The Inner Critic is a Primitive Brute Force.”) Inner passivity can also inflict misery upon us without necessarily having the inner critic involved.
When overcoming inner passivity, we can begin to feel and express power without having to become agitated or angry. Peterson rightfully says (p. 23) that healthy aggression is appropriate “to push back against oppression, speak truth, and motivate resolute movement forward in times of strife, uncertainty and danger.” However, he also writes (p. 23) that “those who are only or merely compassionate and self-sacrificing (and naïve and exploitable) cannot call forth the genuinely righteous and appropriately self-protective anger necessary to defend themselves.” But anger is not necessary to defend oneself. And we ought not to tell passive people to use anger as a remedy: They’ll just flip back and forth between anger and passivity.
It’s common for people to express reactive, over-the-top anger. When they’re too inwardly passive, this kind of anger might be the only form of power they have access to. Yet this over-the-top anger becomes self-defeating. While it might in the moment feel gratifying, it typically leaves an emotional hangover of guilt or shame. True power has access to healthy aggression, yet it doesn’t need to be fueled by anger. This is understood by people who are recognizing and addressing their inner passivity.
Inner passivity makes us sensitive to the notion of being oppressed. Inner passivity prompts us to give our power away to real or imagined oppressors and to create the emotional impression that we’re at the mercy of someone or something. A person can become emotionally biased in this way, causing him or her, for instance, to exacerbate the impression of political correctness as an oppressive force. When this happens, the person’s unconscious defense might be, among other possibilities: “I’m not overly sensitive to the feeling of being oppressed. Oppression really is happening. Those ideologues are true oppressors. It’s all real. I’m not passive, I’m aggressive, and I’m going to aggressively oppose them.”
Peterson deserves credit for challenging the excesses of political correctness and the claims of injustice collectors and victimhood plaintiffs. In our debates on such subjects, we’ll be wiser, more civil, and have more fun as we quell the chaos of our amazing psyche.