All of us have in our psyche an aspect or feature that goes by the name of inner passivity. This hindrance to our creativity, self-fulfillment, and humanity may be the most difficult thing for us to see and understand about ourselves.
Inner passivity produces a wide range of reactions to situations and events, including the tendency to go through the motions of daily life taking everything for granted and feeling that our options are limited. This negative influence on our state of mind is a huge problem for many of us. It can block us from creating a sense of direction for our life and prevent us from achieving fulfillment and happiness.
When inner passivity contaminates our psyche, we can, among other symptoms, feel overwhelmed by events and situations, experience acute self-doubt or become reactive in the face of authority, interpret neutral situations as confrontation or conflict, and find that our attempts at logical or rational thinking churn unproductively in loops and circles. We’re easily lost in the fog of inner passivity, to the point where we don’t even see the fog.
This condition had me in its clutches forty years ago when, as a journalist, I was unable to consolidate my intelligence and imagination to see how I could grow and flourish in my work. I couldn’t produce a vision of accomplishment and success. I felt like a bit-part actor in the drama of my own life, delivering lines someone else had written. Eventually, I walked away from a great career opportunity because, stuck in mediocrity, I was too frustrated by my inability to seize the moment. I knew I had it in me to do well, which made my predicament all the more painful. Years later, my potential did come to life thanks to my acquisition of psychological insight and the involvement in my life of many kind people.
Inner passivity is at play in our moods and personality traits. It lurks beneath procrastination, cynicism, apathy, indecision, indifference, hopelessness, and despair. It’s a feature of the psyche of codependents, chronic complainers, and pessimists. Paradoxically, it can also be hidden in optimists, as when they unconsciously employ their optimism to cover-up their emotional entanglement in its debilitating negativity.
This foggy state of being is an extended wasteland along the path of human evolvement (See, “The Common Ingredient in Human Misery”). I associate it with, among other things, youngsters addicted to video games, individuals caught in other addictive behaviors, people abdicating their citizenship responsibilities, and parents having difficulty practicing wise authority in their supervision and guidance of children. Inner passivity is also associated with our difficulty in feeling pleasure in learning and in our tendency to close our minds to avoid feeling overwhelmed by reality. We can be significantly impaired by inner passivity even when we’re smart and aggressive enough to be successful in some areas of our life.
Often our dreams reveal our entanglement in inner passivity. People frequently dream of being trapped, constricted, overwhelmed, bullied, or terrorized, or of being unable to perform a task or manage some situation. One client had two such dreams in the same night, one in which he was frustratingly unable to kill a spider that was running around on the floor, and the other in which he was unable to sing a song he had just composed.
A great deal of modern fiction expresses, through bumbling anti-heroes and weak protagonists, the problem of inner passivity. However, almost never does the writing expose the nature or origins of the condition. Horror stories and movies are pure expressions of this passivity because they present their characters in predicaments of helpless terror. We read these books and go to these movies because, through such fantasy, we can experience a degree of pleasure as we sublimate inner fear into spine-tingling thrills. Mystery or detective books and movies also titillate the reader or viewer with the passive sensations of being overwhelmed by life-or-death predicaments and by the allure of forbidden murder and evil. Our appetite for sensations involving bizarre, forbidden, and violent scenes and images reveals the extent of inner passivity in our psyche.
A recent article in The New Yorker magazine captures the passive nature of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who committed suicide in 1942. The author of the article, Leo Carey, doesn’t directly address Zweig’s passivity. Instead, Carey blames Zweig’s “frailties,” as he calls them, on the totalitarian culture of the day. Carey writes that these frailties, rather than Zweig’s noble aspirations, “emerge as the source of his best work.”
Indeed, a passage from one of Zweig’s short stories does portray, with literary skill, the painful inner passivity experienced by one of his characters:
I felt as if I were made of glass, with the world outside shining straight through me and never lingering within, and hard as I attempted on this and many similar occasions to feel something, however much I tried, through reasonable argument, to make myself feel emotion, no response came from my rigid state of mind. People parted from me, women came and went, and I felt much like a man sitting in a room with rain beating on the window panes; there was a kind of sheet of glass between me and my immediate surroundings, and my will was not strong enough to break it.
Zweig expressed, through his characters, his own emotional experience of inner passivity. Writers aren’t likely to be able to present a character who realistically overcomes this problem when they don’t make any such psychological headway themselves.
Schools of classical psychoanalysis have recognized the inner problem. Jacques Lacan’s writings raised ideas about the ego as a fortress against inner fragmentation. Melanie Klein also observed a “disintegrating tendency” in people that produced a chronic state of inner weakness she called the paranoid-schizoid position. The weak ego, as psychologist Stephen Frosh put it, “searches for something rigid to bolster it, to explain the disintegration surrounding it and to oppose that disintegration through absorption in a powerful totality.”
That “totality” is often an authoritarian mentality that denies the wisdom (or even existence) of the self. That mentality threatens democratic values, and we need strong individuals anchored in the self to resist it. Inner passivity can be overcome by making conscious its modes of operation in our psyche. The most helpful insight concerning inner passivity is the understanding of our powerful temptation—our unconscious willingness—to experience it repeatedly and to come under its influence in many possible ways in daily life.
Here’s a practice or technique that addresses our unconscious willingness to experience inner passivity. In this practice, we repeat to ourselves a true statement, a kind of mantra, which exposes at our deepest core the nature of our entanglement in inner passivity. We can think or say words to this effect, “I’m feeling helpless (or overwhelmed, confused, or defeated) at this moment. This is what I secretly expect and want, to feel this helplessness, as I recycle that unresolved passive feeling from my past. This is how I’m determined to know myself, through this feeling of being helpless and overwhelmed in the face of . . . (some person, situation, event, or craving).”
The statement seems to defy common sense. Who would want to feel helpless? Our unconscious mind, however, brims with irrationality. It has its own set of rules and procedures, one of which is to remain mired in unresolved negative emotions. Our unconscious mind also prompts us to deny or disprove our inner passivity by reacting to situations with reactive aggression. This phony aggression is usually negative and self-defeating.
Through the above technique, we’re recognizing our emotional attachment to inner passivity. We’re taking responsibility for our secret willingness to experience life in passive terms. We’re plunging consciously into the core of inner weakness, while awakening our intelligence to the essence of self-defeat.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.