My readers know how ardently I put the focus on inner passivity. It is, I contend, the primary mischief-maker of the psyche, the largely unconscious part of us that keeps us from being at our best.
Inner passivity, a primary component of inner conflict, is the straw house into which our wolfish inner critic barges. This passive side, though bland and banal in some respects, is largely the starting point or instigator of inner conflict. Its straw-house nature is an open-door invitation to the inner critic’s aggressive instincts.
The straw house is our weakness, our deficiency of consciousness, our failure to prevent inner conflict. When we muster the determination to bring inner passivity into focus, we begin to act bravely. Our heroic gathering of the necessary self-knowledge is the giant leap forward that overcomes inner passivity’s sabotaging effects.
To help readers acquire this knowledge, I approach inner passivity from numerous angles. In my blog posts and books, I usually work backwards, identifying inner passivity’s many unpleasant symptoms and tracing them back to the source. This post offers another perspective, an understanding of the difference between inner passivity and learned helplessness.
Inner passivity is a more expansive understanding of human weakness than is denoted by learned helplessness, which is a term many psychologists use to understand inherent emotional weakness. This term is actually a misnomer. It was first introduced five decades ago by psychologists who believed that people who were unable to thrive and flourish had learned this ineptitude from parents and caretakers. The idea was that helplessness was learned through the child’s encounters with neglect, manipulation, over-protective parents, control, or abuse.
Following new research, psychologists corrected this idea several years ago. They now have acknowledged (as depth psychology knew all along) that the sense of helplessness is innate or biological.
They still claim, however, that this helplessness is “the brain’s default state,” whereas I say instead that this helplessness is a psychological problem amenable to psychological solutions, and that any brain involvement is not, for practical purposes, relevant. (The term learned helplessness has been retained by mainstream psychologists, which is bound to confuse people.)
Learned helplessness accurately proposes that affected people are influenced, in a self-defeating way, by an innate sense of helplessness. These individuals are deficient in their response to challenges, threats, or just everyday situations. They’re plagued with a chronic sense of being unable to muster from within themselves the required strength or resilience to overcome self-defeating habits or behaviors or even just to meet daily challenges without stress or anxiety. They feel unable to rise to the occasion to make good things happen. With challenging tasks or projects, they frequently give up. Feeling unable to influence events for the better, they act weakly, in accordance with their perception that strength eludes them.
As a description of an emotional condition, the term learned helplessness, as now understood, accurately assesses how things stand for many people. But as an answer to the problem of emotional or mental weakness, it seems static or unhelpful, leaving individuals with no meaningful insight to help them out of this stuck place.
Depth psychology has a more comprehensive perspective. The depth psychology I practice understands this weakness in terms of inner conflict and the existence in our psyche of inner passivity. This understanding exposes hidden dynamics in the psyche, which in turn enhances our intelligence and our ability to access and fix the problem. The knowledge that exposes inner conflict and inner passivity provides a comprehensive teaching and learning methodology. This knowledge can be learned from my books, beginning with Freedom from Self-Sabotage: How to Stop Being Our Own Worst Enemy. This self-knowledge itself becomes a source of strength. It improves one’s resilience, creativity, and foresight. The self-knowledge, combined with the will to flourish, enables us to liberate ourselves from both helpless passivity and, in less severe dysfunction, a state of limited potential.
The thoughts, feelings, and impressions that inner conflict generates within us frequently involve the wish to feel strong versus an underlying identification with weakness. The conflict can be conscious, semi-conscious, or unconscious, and it’s felt or expressed in terms such as: “I don’t know how I’ll ever find the strength to do that challenging work,” or “I want to act with strength but all I feel is weak,” or “I just don’t know what to do.” Other times, the weakness is entirely unconscious, and the individual simply endures the unpleasantness or misery of mediocrity or failure.
The solution lies in understanding inner conflict. This conflict frequently consists of a passive side (inner passivity) and an aggressive side (inner critic) that engage in mostly unconscious and contentious dialogue about the pros and cons of an endless variety of subject matters. The passive side of inner conflict is a mental and emotional operating system in our psyche (inner passivity) that produces self-doubt, along with conscious and unconscious defensiveness. (Our aggressive side is also its own distinct operating system.) This passive side is an important part of our psyche. When people identify with inner passivity, they unconsciously become—in their thoughts, feelings, and words—a representative or spokesperson for this passive aspect within themselves. They filter life through a passive bias. Again, for the great majority, their awareness seldom ever penetrates into the significance, extent, or dynamics of this limitation.
At this point, depth psychology helps us get to the root cause of this inner weakness. It’s all about seeing the inner dynamics that produce self-doubt, a sense of failure, and lack of self-respect. We apply the knowledge of these inner dynamics to our daily experiences. We see the problem clinically instead of being entangled emotionally in some vague, painful predicament. As we apply the knowledge to our personal circumstances, it becomes self-knowledge, revitalized intelligence, and growing consciousness.
Presented in a nutshell, the key method of treatment involves (1) learning the basic features of inner passivity and inner conflict as they apply to oneself, and (2) developing a daily mindfulness whereby we become increasingly attentive to how we’re making choices and generating thoughts and feelings that are biased by inner passivity, inner conflict, and psychological defenses.
Upon studying the basic principles, people can now see or catch themselves, in given situations, in the act of adopting a passive stance or feeling or in employing a misleading defense. A person now acquires enough insight to begin taking responsibility for unwittingly succumbing to passive impulses or inappropriate aggression that produce stress and self-defeat.
The regular practice of this attentiveness or inner watchfulness is itself an expression of significant strength, an indication of one’s determination to become stronger and function at a high level of achievement. Watch out, however, for inner resistance that can surreptitiously undermine our intentions or willingness to process psychological mindfulness on a daily basis.
New insight, accessed and processed in a consistent manner, begins to override the passive default position in our psyche. It’s as if we’re creating a new improved inner software. Over time, the passivity is dislodged, and inner conflict is undone, as people feel themselves shift to a more neutral or assertive approach to life experiences. They have more discernment, equanimity, and power.
Becoming more assertive is just one benefit. What also brings as much pleasure is becoming less reactive, thereby avoiding the unnecessary emotional anguish of inner conflict. Now we’re certainly more capable of standing up firmly, without hostility or self-righteousness, for what we know to be right and true.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society, and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.