Earlier this month I received an email from a young psychotherapist, in practice for just a few years, who was struggling to understand how, despite his best efforts, a client of his had committed suicide. He wrote, in part:
I recently experienced a therapist’s worst nightmare and lost a client to suicide. I’ve struggled to make sense of it as he exhibited almost none of the traditional warning signs. One thing I do remember about him is that he was very inwardly passive. Your writings have given me the clearest picture of his internal world, one of a harsh critic and a passive recipient. Nothing in my training even remotely addresses the passivity that I now think was a big part of his suffering. I look forward to reading more of your work and using it to help more people in the future.
Since this therapist is interested in applying this psychological knowledge in his practice, I can offer a few points to assist him and other therapists. My regular readers, meanwhile, can benefit from understanding more about inner passivity and the therapeutic relationship from the therapist’s point of view.
The individual in danger of committing suicide is likely to be inwardly weak and disconnected from self, unable to support himself or herself emotionally. (See an earlier post on the subject.) This weakness is a symptom of inner passivity, which I describe in my books and articles. Inner passivity operates as an enabler of our inner critic, and it’s a major factor in many kinds of dysfunction, including depression, anxiety, and addictions.
As my clients start seeing and understanding their inner passivity, they’re able to recognize it as a clinical condition and a universal peculiarity of human nature. With growing insight, they begin to see and feel the powerful influence of the passive side as they also shift away from their unconscious identification with it. As a benefit of this recognition, they start to detach emotionally from false impressions of themselves (such as impressions of being unworthy or a hopeless failure) that their symptoms have misled them into believing. In this process, their best self emerges from under the weight of painful and self-defeating symptoms.
Of course, psychotherapy that addresses inner passivity is not guaranteed to prevent suicide. Even the best psychotherapy won’t necessarily result in growth and healing with highly dysfunctional clients who usually need psychiatric interventions.
People seeking psychotherapy are typically healthy enough to benefit from it. Benefits of working deeply in the psyche are soon felt by clients as they acquire important self-knowledge, yet their unpleasant or painful symptoms usually persist, though to a gradually lessening degree. Effective therapy can take many months and sometimes years before clients heal their inner conflict and acquire inner peace. Nonetheless, these people are undergoing a major acceleration in self-development when compared to the many who, declining all psychological help, make little or no progress throughout their lifetime.
Many of the clients of a skilled therapist stay in the therapeutic relationship because they can feel and observe the progress they’re making and because they know the value of what’s being offered. Still, some people can’t or won’t do this deep therapy; they run away from this knowledge. The considerable resistance of these clients induces them to flee to another therapist or to quit therapy. Clients who are more dysfunctional or neurotic have more resistance and typically make slower progress. A therapist can be misled into the feeling of failing such a client, while all along the therapist’s effort might have helped the client to avoid increasing misery and self-sabotage.
A therapist gives every client the opportunity to overcome inner passivity and its accompanying inner conflict. The therapist does this by consistently and patiently presenting clients with evidence, as observed in the trials of their daily life and through dreams and memories, of their inner passivity and inner conflict. The therapist helps clients understand how their painful, self-defeating symptoms arise from inner passivity and inner conflict. In a manner that is largely mysterious, the assimilation of this deep knowledge, along with the effort that clients make in applying the knowledge to their daily life, become the antidote. Growing self-realization empowers clients’ intelligence, enabling them to navigate more astutely going forward as they connect with their best self and establish inner harmony.
Clients sometimes becomes defensive when their inner passivity is identified. Often, they feel as if they’re being judged or criticized when the therapist points out their inner passivity. As a form of resistance, they often tend at this point to deny that they’re passive, and they’ll verbalize as evidence the times when they have been assertive or aggressive (the examples they give are often of reactive and inappropriate aggression).
They react with this defensiveness because, inwardly, they experience defensiveness, usually unconsciously, when their inner critic scolds and mocks them for their inner passivity (and for their emotional attachment to it and identification with it). Therapists have to help clients understand the difference between the therapist identifying the influence of inner passivity in the client’s daily experiences and the inner critic berating an individual’s weakness in its role as inner tormenter and agent of inner conflict. Therapists sometimes have to reassure clients that their intention is not at all to be critical but only to probe for the influence of inner passivity so it can be made conscious and thereby overcome.
It’s the case that inner passivity is difficult to conceptualize. Therapists have to recognize it in themselves in order to convey the reality of it to others. Therapists can get a sense of it by detecting their own inner defensiveness, which is an inner reactivity based on their passive relationship with their inner critic or superego.
The therapist who teaches clients about inner passivity and shows evidence of it is also protecting himself from counter-transference, meaning in this case the therapist’s unconscious temptation (always present to some degree) to resonate with the clients’ sense of helplessness, failure, and unworthiness (again, all symptoms of inner passivity). Clients often try unconsciously to pull the therapist into the pain of their helplessness and failure and thereby have the therapist identify with them as victims. The therapist who does so validates their clients’ passivity rather than exposing it.
When therapists don’t see these deeper dynamics, they’re prone to professional burnout and weariness from the challenges of being a therapist. This reaction is especially likely when providing services to more passive or dysfunctional clients.
A client’s resistance is not a vexing annoyance for therapists once they have cleared out their own inner passivity. This inner freedom enables the therapist to be professionally detached, while operating with patience, compassion, and the courage needed to keep clients attuned to how their psyche’s inner dynamics generate suffering and self-defeat. It’s vitally important for the therapist to know how clients use unconscious defenses to cover up their collusion in the recycling and replaying of inner passivity and unresolved negative emotions. The therapist has to expose these defenses, often to the clients’ chagrin. As mentioned, clients typically have a love-hate relationship with inner truth. (Read, Get to Know Your Psychological Defenses.)
In my opinion, superficial approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy have risen to prominence in part because therapists trying to practice depth psychology were so frustrated by their clients’ unconscious resistance. The deeper we work in the psyche, the more resistance our clients are likely to produce within themselves. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is able to avoid triggering the resistance of clients because it doesn’t threaten to expose their deep attachments to unresolved negative emotions and their deep identification with inner passivity. Clients can be taught about resistance, and they can learn to observe it in order to prevent it from defeating their best intentions.
Unfortunately, the existence in our psyche of inner passivity is not being taught in our universities. To teach inner passivity or even acknowledge it, teachers have to be convinced of the truth of its existence. To know that truth, therapists have to access their own inner truth, and depth psychology can help us do this. Inner passivity usually only makes sense when we can see and understand its effects and dynamics within ourselves. Academic psychologists have been especially mentally oriented and, in championing superficial therapies such as behavioral and cognitive, they have inadvertently strengthened their ego rather than allowing themselves to be humbled by recognition of deeper knowledge and the extent of humanity’s blind spots.
This might all sound a bit complicated. But therapists can come into an easy understanding of these deeper dynamics, and acquire the ability to teach them, once they are working through, within themselves, their inner conflicts and their emotional attachments to the passive side. Therapists are, ideally, individuals who also have worked through their attachments to unresolved negative emotions such as refusal, helplessness, control, criticism, abandonment, and rejection. Typically, a therapist can only lead clients to the level of self-development that the therapist has personally attained.
I hope that the young therapist who inspired this post is at peace with himself concerning his client who committed suicide. I don’t believe he needs to think of this person as someone he “lost” to suicide. If at this point he’s burdened by a sense of failure, he might be allowing his inner critic, which can’t be trusted at all to be objective, to continue holding him accountable. It seems that he’s an earnest person devoted to becoming an excellent therapist. He can give value to the life of his former client in his caring, learning, and growing.