Habitual oversleeping is another of the many behavioral afflictions that depth psychology addresses. This behavioral problem is the byproduct of underlying psychological issues that can be hazardous to one’s career, relationships, and emotional health.
Online searches for answers and solutions to habitual oversleeping provide mostly superficial advice or tips, not consequential knowledge. Offering tips such as get a pet, brighten up the room, or turn on some music are like telling an engineering student that elementary arithmetic is all she’ll ever need.
So, let’s tax our brains and expose the psychological mischief that habitual oversleeping entails. This knowledge is humbling, and it stretches the mind a bit. But I promise it won’t otherwise hurt.
A woman plagued by chronic oversleeping wrote to me to say that, as she lies in bed in the morning, she often can’t get back to sleep. “Rather, I lie there trying to go back to sleep. Whether I do sleep or don’t, it adds up to a lot of failure first thing, coloring the rest of my day.”
The key word in this woman’s comment, which she herself italicized, is trying. The harder someone tries unsuccessfully to achieve something, the greater the likelihood that he or she will begin to feel weak and helpless. A sense of helplessness is further deepened when, through one’s resistance to allowing energy and physical strength to stir in the body, the stimulus to rise from bed is impaired.
People can, while sluggishly lying in bed, also conjure up thoughts or visualizations of the challenges and difficulties the coming day might offer. This produces feelings of being overwhelmed by these impending obligations and challenges. Additionally, people who frequently oversleep can experience a deep emptiness, a draining of all motivation and a conviction that the coming day has nothing to offer.
Why are people so susceptible to feeling weak or helpless in this way?
Chronic oversleeping is not due directly to laziness. Nor is it a character weakness. Instead, it’s a psychological problem. A reader suggested calling it oversleeping passivity syndrome (OPS). People plagued by this syndrome need to overcome the effect of inner passivity and inner conflict. The challenge here is to understand what these psychological terms mean.
Inner passivity is an unconscious operating system in our psyche, a center of instinctive reactions, that oversees our psychological defenses. It’s the domicile of our self-doubt, and it operates like an undercover troll, without regard to our best interests. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be largely influenced—and sabotaged—by this unrecognized part of us.
In large measure, we react and behave in the world according to how much we identify with inner passivity. As we acquire more awareness of inner passivity as a clinical configuration within us, we begin to recognize how tempted or inclined we are to gravitate, on a regular basis, to this familiar, passive, defensive sense of self.
If we don’t understand inner passivity, we won’t understand inner conflict. Inner passivity is in regular conflict with our inner critic, taking on a defensive stance with this critical part. Inner conflict frequently features inner passivity operating defensively as it tries, often ineffectively, to deflect the harshness of our inner critic. The primary function of inner passivity, as a primitive intelligence, is to produce our unconscious psychological defenses, many of which are shrewd and inventive. Yet these defenses are, of course, mostly self-defeating in terms of how they produce irrationality, impair higher intelligence, and prolong suffering.
The habit of oversleeping fuels inner conflict. People who oversleep often come under attack from their inner critic, which accuses them of laziness, unworthiness, and a willingness to indulge in inner passivity. Now the habit of oversleeping becomes more distressful. Not only is oversleeping a problem in itself, but the sluggish sleeper is now inwardly condemned for the passivity that’s involved in the unhealthy behavior. At this point, oversleeping becomes not just a behavioral problem but a painful inner conflict involving guilt, shame, and depression.
The woman who wrote to me about her oversleeping referenced this aspect of the problem. She wrote: “I’m well aware that when I oversleep … I wake up feeling horrid. The worst effect is my mood, which is irritable, but I also feel both shaky and lethargic … I’ve discovered that multiple days of sleeping in leads to depression!”
Such depression is the cumulative effect of passively absorbing self-abuse—as criticism, mockery, scorn, and ridicule—from the inner critic. Because the habit of oversleeping involves so much inner passivity, a kind of emotional vacuum is created within us that enables the inner critic to come marching in, assailing us with abusive allegations of our supposed weakness and unworthiness. Because we tend to identify unconsciously with inner passivity, we are, as a result, unable to protect ourselves adequately from the inner critic’s abuse. In terms of consciousness, nobody’s home to protect us.
Inner passivity produces defensive thoughts and rationalizations. As it applies to chronic oversleeping, the following defensive thoughts are common: “You deserve to sleep;” or “If you feel tired, just go back to sleep;” or “It feels so cozy, why shouldn’t I enjoy this sense of oblivion.” At this point, the inner critic is likely to interject, employing belittling accusations that often register only unconsciously, along the lines of: “Look at you, wasting your life away, being a useless, no-good failure!”
Through inner passivity, we absorb this assault on our character. Doing so produces—in addition to guilt, shame, and depression—a “poor-little-me” or an “I-don’t-matter” sense of self. Our inner critic, when given license by inner passivity to assault us, can induce in us an impoverished, fearful, and damaged sense of self. Because of how compulsively we experience inner passivity, a looping effect can occur in which habitual oversleeping feeds the inner critic and enables it to become increasingly persistent or abusive.
As mentioned, we frequently identify with ourselves through inner passivity and with its inherent self-doubt. In facing life, all of us are constantly entangled in a weakness-strength polarity. One minute we’re feeling strong and capable, the next we’re feeling weak and doubtful. Because of inner passivity, our encounters with weakness and self-doubt become more frequent, more onerous, and more likely to produce failure or self-defeat.
When people with an oversleeping habit are lying in bed trying to fall back to sleep, they’re entangled emotionally in inner passivity. They know they should get up, yet they’re overcome by a powerful compliance with the feeling of surrender. They can feel this weakness acutely, like a mouse wrapped in a hawk’s talons or a person held hostage. A willingness to experience ongoing helplessness or powerlessness can become not only the path of least resistance but also a compulsion to indulge in that weakness.
When this occurs, passive helplessness has become an emotional attachment, meaning an unresolved weakness in the psyche that a person is unconsciously compelled to replay and recycle. The compulsion derives, too, from the lingering emotional associations left over from childhood when youngsters experience so much helplessness and submission.
An emotional attachment operates on this principle: Whatever is unresolved in our psyche is going to be repeatedly experienced, behaviorally and emotionally, as dysfunction (or neurosis) in daily situations and occurrences.
Chronic oversleeping can also serve as psychological resistance, meaning that we unwittingly use the behavior as a way to resist growing stronger, as a way to remain loyal to our familiar, passive self. Habitual oversleeping can now become the unconsciously chosen “preferred” or “favorite” way through which to replay and recycle inner passivity and inner conflict. Oversleeping has now become a painful “game” people play with themselves.
People often deal with oversleeping by getting a dog. They might now feel sufficiently motivated to arise from bed to walk the dog. While this can put a stop to oversleeping, it likely only does an end-run around inner passivity and inner conflict. If these psychological issues are not dealt with, they will produce other self-defeating symptoms, among them indecision, procrastination, ambivalence, poor decision-making, insomnia, cynicism, and negative thinking.
People often feel they have to struggle or fight within ourselves to overcome inner passivity. Not so. We just have to be relatively persistent in being aware of it. Each time we can feel ourselves in the throes of inner passivity, and become aware and watchful of our emotional attachment to the feeling, we’re acting with some measure of inner strength.
We’re simply attentive to the influence of inner passivity, while trusting that this inner watchfulness will have the effect, over time, of lessening its influence upon us. What does this watchfulness entail? A person with the habit of oversleeping can become insightful and stronger by thinking to himself something to this effect while lying awake in bed: “Look at how, right now, I’m under the influence of inner passivity. Some part of me, for some baffling reason, is choosing to indulge in this passive feeling. I can feel how forcefully this attachment or identification imposes itself upon me. Yet I really do want to become free of this oppressive effect. I don’t want to be defeated by inner passivity. As I realize what I’m dealing with, I sense how my consciousness can become more powerful than my identification with inner passivity.”
The act of becoming aware in this way, especially in the moments when inner passivity is acting up, means we sincerely want to grow stronger. If we weren’t determined to grow stronger, we wouldn’t bother with this effort to be more insightful. Instead, we would just passively remain ignorant, accepting of superficial tips, not even wanting to know what we’re really dealing with.
Being able to get up in a timely way every morning doesn’t mean we are free of inner passivity. We can still be afflicted with passive morning thoughts. We might lie in bed for several minutes stewing in self-defeating thoughts, then continue with this line of thinking after we’ve arisen. Or we might bounce out of bed only to have inner passivity impede us in other ways throughout the day. (Here’s an earlier post on passive morning thoughts.)
Another group of people, those who stay up very late at night and resist going to bed at a sensible hour, are also likely to be allowing inner passivity to undermine self-regulation and dictate their behavior. Such behavior is eliminated over time (along with the many other self-defeating symptoms of inner passivity) with the same self-knowledge that applies to chronic oversleeping.
We begin to identify with our best self as we recognize inner passivity and resolve inner conflict. Our best self pops us out of bed in the morning, ready to encounter the day.