My late wife, Sandra Michaelson, had great insights into the passive side of human nature. She wrote extensively about passivity in her first book, The Emotional Catering Service, a book about codependents and enablers that was published in 1993.
The passivity in our psyche is possibly the greatest menace to our personal and collective progress. Yet we have a hard time recognizing this passivity in ourselves. It’s elusive, like a phantom in our psyche. Our challenge is to bring it into focus. We need to see how it blocks us from connecting with our authenticity, intelligence, and power.
The Emotional Catering Service exposes many of the ways in which people are handicapped by their passivity. Both women and men, of course, can be enablers and codependents. Yet Sandra’s book, I believe, can especially help many women to become more self-assured and confident. More than ever, our world needs an upsurge of feminine perspectives and values to counter masculine tendencies that, at their worst, are insensitive, self-centered, and destructive.
I’ve just completed a light editing revision of Sandra’s book, which is now available as an e-book or paperback at Amazon.com. Here is an excerpt:
From Chapter Six—“To Control or Be Controlled”: Caterers express both controlling behavior and passive, dependent behavior. Usually they alternate between the two extremes. They may be controlling at work and passive with their spouses or controlling at home and passive at work. They can be passive at some stage in their lives and controlling at other periods. They tend to be passive when it would be in their best interest to assert themselves, and controlling when it is not appropriate or productive.
This passivity arises out of an emotional attachment to feeling controlled, which was established in childhood. Passive behaviors are replays of the parent-child relationship. In other words, one’s passivity, dependency, and lingering infantile fears are displaced onto present-day relationships. The following passive behaviors indicate an underlying attachment to being controlled and dominated:
An inability to say no or stand up for yourself. Many caterers find it impossible to say no to others. They are unable to draw boundaries or assert their wants and needs. They go along with the opinions of another person even when they disagree. They become so accustomed to accommodating others that they are not even aware of their own passivity.
Sometimes the passivity is especially pronounced. For thirty years, Judy allowed her husband to choose the food she would eat in restaurants, decide when she could visit her friends, and so on. Whatever she wanted, she felt the need to seek his permission. Disagreement or refusal were unknown responses for her. Occasionally, she sneaked out to shop, all the while feeling guilty, as if some invisible force was urging her to rush home.
“It was easy to let him take responsibility for everything,” Judy explained. “I didn’t have to make any decisions. It’s hard for me now to take responsibility for myself. I want others to tell me what to do. I need someone in my life to control me.”
Her husband required her to be with him at all times, just as her mother had when she was a child. Judy was reliving her passive relationship with her dominating mother, perpetuating feelings of being owned and controlled. Her mother had never tolerated a defiant reaction. For years, until friends convinced her something was wrong, Judy believed her husband’s control was normal. In time, she began to speak up and assert herself.
In another case, Holly finally got up the nerve to say no to her mother’s demands. “Saying no to her was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Holly remarked. “I felt as if I were abandoning her and that I was responsible for keeping her alive. I expected her to die if I didn’t take care of her.”
Holly felt she had no choice in childhood but to take care of her mother. Her mother had begged her to stay home rather than go out with friends. In Holly’s mind, she heard her mother pleading, “Please, don’t leave me. I need you. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Holly was locked in a symbiotic embrace with her mother. If she took care of mother, then Holly would be loved and approved of. But if she exercised her independent wishes and desires, she would be considered bad and rejected. At times, her mother did abandon her emotionally in childhood, not speaking to her for days after Holly had been out with friends.
Holly felt she had no choice but to endure her mother’s neediness and put her own needs last. She concluded that she was not meant to be happy. Being herself meant that she had no value to anyone.
As an adult, Holly acted out the role of rescuer. She entangled herself in the lives of others. She only felt validated when someone needed her. When they appeared not to need her, she believed they would leave her. Yet she felt suffocated and dominated by their needs and wanted out of these relationships to preserve her own integrity.
Feelings of love were elusive. If she were to love someone, she feared he would abandon her. To avoid the hurt of rejection and abandonment, Holly left her partners before they left her. Attempts at emotional independence brought out guilt for “abandoning” her mother. She carried the responsibility for her mother’s wellbeing and happiness over into her adult life, thereby quelling independent autonomous feelings or expressions. In “buying into” her mother’s claim that she was responsible for her mother’s happiness, Holly continued her unconscious program of being oppressed and dominated by the needs of others.
Her guilt covered up the real problem—her attachment to being held captive in her mother’s powerful emotional embrace. Guilt for “abandoning” her mother also masked her lingering attachment to the feeling of having been abandoned by her mother in childhood. Holly was struggling with two major attachments, the attachment to feeling engulfed, suffocated, and dominated by the needs of others and the attachment to feeling abandoned and unloved.
Here is another example of passivity that results in self-neglect. Lou Ann blamed her husband for not allowing her to go back to school to advance her career. She had been holding onto this grudge for years but took no action to manifest her aspirations.
When she finally confronted her husband with his apparent denial of her wishes, he was taken aback. He said he had never refused her opportunities to better herself. In fact, he insisted she had never even raised the issue with him. If she had, he said, he would have had no objection to her wish to go back to school. Lou Ann said she never asked because she knew he would refuse. Since he had refused her and controlled her in other ways, she expected him to do so again in this situation.
Lou Ann used her husband as a cover for her own passive tendencies. Her husband’s alleged dominance also covered up her fears of failure and perpetuated feelings of being controlled and restricted. As Lou Ann expressed it, “I gave up my life for someone else to control. I wanted to believe that he denied me the expression of myself and forbade me to speak up. I see now that I chose to believe that I had no choice but to suppress myself.”
She had felt “bound up” and “pinned down” by the demands of others, as she had in childhood with her mother. Her mother had convinced her it was foolish for a woman to go to college. Lou Ann unconsciously transferred this attitude onto her husband, perpetuating feelings of being deprived and controlled.
Caterers do not assert themselves or share the truth of how they feel because they allow themselves to be controlled and tyrannized by another person’s emotional responses. Going along with the agenda of others acts as an insurance policy against being rejected, unloved, or seen as wrong. Caterers rationalize their passivity by claiming, “I’m only trying to keep the peace” or, “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” Unfortunately, the compulsive quest for the favor of others results in the surrender of one’s autonomy.
Not knowing what you want. Another way to invite domination is to be in the dark about what you want or need. This opens the door for others to come in and influence your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Not knowing what you want also serves as a way to avoid the possibility of failure. Failure, it is felt, can happen when you try to attain something. If you do not know what you want or have aspirations, you can feel at least you have not failed. Unfortunately, you cannot succeed either.
Fear of making the wrong decision. This fear expresses another way to avoid taking charge of your life. To avoid the responsibility of making your own decisions, you may run around frantically seeking advice from friends, doctors, teachers, or psychics. If you get others to tell you what to do (passivity), then you can blame them when their advice does not work.
This absolves you of feeling accountable for your actions. Another way to remain passive is to flood yourself with too many choices, all equally viable, and then be unable to make up your mind. Consequently, you go nowhere.
Do nothing or fail. A common passive behavior is to do nothing. You can maintain your level of passivity by not initiating projects on your own, by enduring situations, ignoring problems, not following through, isolating yourself, getting sick, losing yourself in television or a book, or numbing the issues with alcohol, drugs, or food.
Doing nothing, or failing to take action to realize your goals, invites other people or fate to take control. This is exactly what the passive person unconsciously seeks—to be dominated, controlled, and told what to do.
Automatic compliance to the demands of others. Terry was a successful owner of his own business. At work, he had no problem asserting his wants and directing others. Yet at home he had serious difficulty standing up to his wife. Terry saw her as nagging, demanding, bossy, and needy. Whatever she asked of him, he felt he had no choice but to comply. Terry used the excuse, “She’ll erupt in a rage,” to justify his passive compliance and feelings of being oppressed. He stewed inside with anger and had frequent fantasies of leaving her.
But that would not solve his passive tendency to submit to his wife or to someone else with whom he crossed paths. If he did not resolve this problem, he was more than likely to repeat this pattern in his next relationship.
Terry was reliving, through his wife, his relationship with his father. His father had been strict, controlling, and demanding of swift obedience, while Terry had meekly complied. This pattern of compliance and accommodation followed Terry in his personal relationships. Until he started therapy, he had been unaware of his passivity. He simply believed compliance was normal.
As Terry gained “insight” into his compliance, he began to speak up and assert his own wishes and needs to his wife. Their relationship improved as his wife softened and became less demanding, while his feelings of frustration and anger diminished.
If you suspect you are like Terry, ask yourself, “Why do I feel I must comply with other people’s terms? Why do I find it so easy to sacrifice my own wishes and desires to please them? Who does this person remind me of from my past? In what other areas of my life do I respond in a compliant, accommodating fashion?” Remember, no one can control you or make you do anything unless you allow them to have that power over you.
Giving power to authority figures. Caterers display a fear of authority figures. Lorrie, for one, felt almost as if she were living in a police state. She perceived her boss as a reincarnated Nazi who scrutinized her work, intent on finding mistakes. Periodically, he called her into his office to criticize her efforts and warn her about the consequences of not doing better. This was how she had felt as a child with her father. She felt she had no emotional “immune system.”
For many, job situations provide a replay of the powerlessness experienced in childhood. This is because the boss, with all his or her power, triggers unconscious memories of parents who also had power and control. Like a child who felt she had no choice but to submit, an adult continues feeling powerless and at the mercy of others who are felt to have all the power.
Many of us fear asserting our beliefs or exercising our personal power because we associate power with hurting others. We do not have a positive perception of power. Either we feel the victim of tyrants or, if we use our power, we feel like (and maybe act like) tyrants.
Being powerful is equated with being mean, insensitive, and indifferent about others. This is how we perceived our powerful parents.
As long as you are dependent on “authorities” for answers about your own life, you will not be able to become your own authority. Consequently, you perpetually set yourself up to be controlled and dominated by others.
Caterers fear to trust in themselves. They feel helpless without something concrete to rely on. To trust oneself brings up fears of making mistakes and being seen by others as inadequate and foolish. For many, having someone control and direct their lives gives them the feeling of being supported. They feel reassured that they will not be abandoned or neglected.
The caterer doth protest too much. Passive individuals have a tendency to store up grievances and erupt in explosive outbursts. Such outbursts are protests against unconscious attachments to feeling controlled or victimized. They are defensive reactions rather than genuine attempts at conflict resolution. This is the defense: “How can anyone suggest that I want to be passively dominated and pushed around by others? Can’t you see how much I hate it? I’m angry and I’m not going to let anyone shove me around anymore.”
Any such defense or protest indicates you really are attached to the feeling of being pushed around by the expectations and demands of others. You would not spend so much energy proclaiming your autonomy if you had not already relinquished it. Autonomous or independent people do not go around protesting against being controlled because they do not feel they are being controlled, even in situations where others might be trying to control them.
Aggressive protests against feeling controlled are usually out of proportion to the alleged transgression. For example, a wife looks forward to her husband coming home for dinner. He is twenty minutes late. When he comes in, she innocently says, “Hi honey, did you have to work overtime tonight?” He replies in a rage, “Why do you always have to question me like this when I come home? You’re always accusing me of doing something wrong. I can’t take this anymore. You’re just like your mother.” He storms into his study, slams the door, and shuts her out for the rest of the evening.
This man’s defensive reaction reveals his propensity to feel accused and criticized. Even if his wife were a shrew, his reaction is still counter-productive and defensive, rather than aimed at clarifying his position and his feelings. He is unconsciously attached to the notion of being held captive and dominated by a commanding shrew who holds him accountable. Otherwise, he would respond to his wife’s question or comment without such an angry, defensive display.
Defensive, angry outbursts are indications of underlying guilt, fear, and insecurity. Anger is usually a reaction to the existence of an underlying feeling such as hurt, rejection, betrayal, neglect, criticism, or control. Once you understand your addiction to these underlying emotions and where they come from in your past, you automatically learn not to react so personally. Anger diminishes on its own once you “see” more objectively and feel more secure in yourself.
Passive ineffective communication. Communicating in a passive manner also indicates an underlying attachment to feeling dominated, intimidated, and controlled. Most caterers have a hard time asking for help, or asking questions to clarify another’s intent. They do not pursue information they need to know, fearing that they will look stupid. They fear and avoid confrontations, discussions, or arguments because they might lose or look bad. They are uncomfortable sharing vulnerable feelings, fearing these will be used against them or that they will be perceived as weak. They share a belief that speaking one’s feelings will hurt others or invite disaster. Consequently, this passivity sets them up to be dominated and controlled.
The Emotional Catering Service is on sale, as an e-book, at the discounted price of $3.97 at Amazon.com. Along with psychological knowledge, the book contains numerous techniques and exercises to help readers shift from a passive place to a stronger, authentic sense of self.