You can’t touch it, see it, or smell it. But it’s there all the time, the hidden instigator of numerous human ailments and miseries, including obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Experts attribute obsessive-compulsive disorder to various sources such as genetic factors and dysfunctional brain processes, as well as allergies and other sensory problems that produce anxiety and stress. Yet a common cause of OCD—inner passivity in the human psyche—is hardly ever mentioned. The fingerprint of inner passivity can be found on all the common expressions of OCD.
Readers of the posts at this website are familiar with my descriptions of inner passivity. This inner condition was first identified in classical psychoanalysis as an extension of the subordinate or unconscious ego. I have shown how inner passivity is an emotional weakness that is linked to many painful and self-defeating experiences and behaviors such as anxiety, depression, procrastination, shame, guilt, panic attacks, and addictions. In this post, I provide explanations that show how inner passivity is the common link among the primary types and symptoms of OCD.
Inner passivity is a hidden glitch in human nature, and it can plague us even when in daily life we’re capable of being assertive and effective. As one of its most striking features, inner passivity, when experienced acutely, causes us to become emotionally entangled in a sense of helplessness and to feel overwhelmed by the everyday challenges of life. (Read, Lost in the Fog of Inner Passivity.)
One of the most common forms of OCD is called “checking.” People become anxious that they’ve failed to lock a door, switch off lights, or turn off the stove or toaster. Some OCD sufferers have persistent fears of hitting pedestrians while driving. After hitting a bump on the road, they might stop the car, and check under the car or along the road to see if they hit someone. In such cases, people are feeling profound self-doubt (a primary symptom of inner passivity). They can’t trust themselves to know what’s real and true. A nagging inner voice of self-doubt keeps saying, ”What if . . . what if . . .” OCD sufferers are failing to access their sense of inner authority, that confident part of us, our authentic self, that can take charge and can tolerate uncertainty (one of life’s inevitable challenges) without feeling overwhelmed by it.
The nagging voice of self-doubt is also the voice of inner passivity. Unresolved inner passivity, like our inner critic, is determined to make itself felt and heard, if only unconsciously. The weaker we are emotionally, the more we can let inner voices that are expressions of inner chaos and conflict, determine the manner in which we perceive reality. (Read, The Futile Dialogue in Our Head.) As well, OCD sufferers are frequently haunted by persistent, intense thoughts, feelings, impulses, and images, and find themselves unable to moderate such inner experiences. They feel overwhelmed by these intense thoughts and impulses, which is another painful way in which their inner passivity is experienced.
People with OCD sometimes live in acute fear of the self-condemnation they’ll experience should they do something wrong or “bad.” Their fear is that, in leaving the stove on, the house could burn down. If they leave the door unlocked, an intruder could enter their home and cause damage or harm others. Their fear is largely irrational because, for one thing, they take such exhaustive precautions. Yet through their emotional imagination they experience a sense of the inner condemnation they would absorb from their inner critic if they were to be even marginally at fault for a consequence of such magnitude. Unconsciously, they’re unresolved with inner condemnation. Throughout each day they absorb harsh criticism from their inner critic (superego) for minor transgressions or alleged shortcomings. Their inner passivity allows the inner critic to punish them in this way. Inner passivity blocks them from assuming inner authority (being more decisive and confident), and consequently their inner critic fills the vacuum.
The odds are remote that an OCD sufferer’s alleged negligence would cause a house fire, so their fears are irrational. Nonetheless, through their emotional imagination they can feel a sense of self-condemnation even though the catastrophe of a house fire, conjured up in their imagination, has only a flimsy semblance of reality. This prospect of self-condemnation, along with the inability to protect oneself against it, produces acute anxiety which is a primary ingredient in obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Why do OCD sufferers produce these unreal worst-case scenarios? We’re all compelled to experience whatever is unresolved in our psyche, even as we also experience forms of suffering such as anxiety and fear in the process. Through inner passivity we absorb self-aggression and self-condemnation. Any one of us would feel some degree of self-condemnation for hitting a pedestrian while driving our car. OCD sufferers, in comparison, acutely feel self-condemnation (at either a conscious or unconscious level) just thinking about (or imagining the possibility of) hitting and killing someone. Their obsession and fearfulness about doing so is a defense that covers up their emotional attachment to the inner aggression of self-condemnation. The unconscious defense reads: “I’m not looking for or anticipating self-aggression. I don’t want to feel condemned for hitting a pedestrian. Look at how fearful I am that it could happen.”
OCD sufferers are also unconsciously entangled in feelings of being at the mercy of life. One misstep, they’re prepared to feel, and life will crush them. Through inner passivity, they’re emotionally attached to this negative impression. As a consequence, they’re often attracted to the sense or illusion of having power. They frequently believe that their ideas, thoughts, feelings, impulses, or images have power to influence events, and that their aggressive or horrific impulses can do harm to others. They fear, for instance, that they will impulsively hurt others, especially children, just because they can do so. Even though they typically don’t act on these thoughts, the thoughts become obsessive and are appraised as dangerous. These individuals now feel helpless and powerless as they try to suppress the thoughts. They swing back and forth between feeling power and feeling passive, mimicking the conflict in their psyche between inner passivity and the aggression of the inner critic (superego). Because these individuals are so entangled in inner passivity and lack real power, they tend to produce these counterfeit impressions of power and aggression.
A reader wrote in an email, “I’m at a particular point where I am beginning to wonder if my OCD is some sort of really intense inner critic and if engaging with it mentally will be beneficial or not.” I replied, “It’s not that you would want to engage mentally with the inner critic or with inner passivity. You would likely quickly feel helpless trying to do this. It’s more about being watchful, through the growing awareness or consciousness provided by depth psychology, for any interference within you by the inner critic or inner passivity. As you learn more about these two aspects of your psyche, you just watch for the presence of them, just taking note of them. This awareness enhances your intelligence, and you can soon stop reacting to OCD prompts and impulses because you understand more clearly than ever the inner irrationality that is producing those impulses. Your growing rationality finally defeats the irrationality of OCD.”
People with OCD can also act aggressively against their own body, cutting their skin or picking at it and pulling out their hair. In these cases, they become instruments of their condemning inner critic, attacking themselves physically in the manner in which their inner critic attacks them emotionally. In other words, their aggression against their body is a reactive aggression that mimics passively their inner critic’s primitive impulse toward emotional self-aggression.
Sufferers who wash their hands compulsively and avoid hand contact with objects obsess about contamination. Unconsciously, they’re entertaining feelings of being overwhelmed by germs and rendered helpless against some imagined contagion. Others experience intrusive sexual images and fear of becoming a pedophile or rapist. Their inner passivity is tempting them to embrace out-of-control feelings and a lack of self-regulation. Hoarders are also experiencing inner passivity, in their situation through indecisiveness about discarding objects. They also experience acute inner emptiness (a symptom of inner passivity), and they use clutter to give them a sense of value or completeness.
Inner passivity is a hitch or glitch in our consciousness, and also a wayside ditch that can stall our evolution. Along with the inner critic, it is, as mentioned, quite invisible. It can be identified, however, through many of our painful and self-defeating symptoms. As we bring it into focus, we become emotionally stronger and more capable of self-regulation.