Some of us feel hopelessly bogged down, swallowed up daily in a mire of inertia and misery. We agonize in a sense of inadequacy and smallness, just tolerating whatever happens to us. This grim emotional infirmity is described by a reader who sent me this email:
I found your website a few years ago and I sometimes read the articles there. I’m experiencing many of the sufferings you talk about, especially deep feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. Even if I read and understand, nothing changes. I keep on feeling depressed, drinking, and suffering. My mind is scattered all over the place. It is hard for me to pay attention to anything more than a few minutes because chronic boredom gets in and I always find myself distracted, watching videos, movies, eating, drinking, and playing video games. I’m a master of unconsciously distracting myself.
I feel my whole life is an unconscious hell. I honestly lost hope that my reality will ever be changed because I’m living this way for more than a decade now. I call it slow self-destruction. Deep inside I scream for help and freedom but I’m such an enemy to myself. My question is, can an outside person really help me? Or does it all depend on myself and my nonexistent willingness?
This person noted in his email, “Even if I read and understand, nothing changes.” But does he really understand? We can think we understand when we don’t. With complex issues, the process of understanding deepens from superficial to profound. I’ll try in this post to provide a deeper understanding of “nonexistent willingness,” the self-descriptive phrase my reader employs at the end of his email.
Certainly, some people are markedly hampered by emotional issues—and not necessarily because they have a mental-health disorder. Rather, they’re bogged down, in varying degrees, by inner passivity and inner conflict. Deeper understanding can help them find purpose and motivation.
So, how to proceed? First, as a basic necessity for inner growth, you have to choose some course of study, contemplation, or action—and then give it your best shot. The worst thing is to drift along, mindlessly and passively, putting yourself at the mercy of a sorry fate.
Some people identify strongly with a weak sense of self. Consciously, they want to be strong, but unconsciously they’re making a choice to remain emotionally attached to this passive sense of self. The challenge is to feel the passivity and then to begin to recognize and understand one’s emotional attachment to the feeling. People have to feel their unconscious identification with passivity in order to fully understand what they’re dealing with.
We are trying here to see inner passivity in the clinical sense, as an aspect of human nature, not something deserving of guilt or shame. This weakness is not our fault. It’s a weak link in human nature. It helps when we recognize the inner conflict here between wanting to feel strong versus being identified, emotionally and unconsciously, with weakness and helplessness. We’re trying here to feel and understand the unconscious allure of knowing ourself through the old, familiar sense of weakness. How can we bring the weakness and our unconscious affinity for it into better focus?
Consider self-pity, an obvious expression of weakness. Become aware of any self-pity you might be feeling. Self-pity is often associated with feeling oneself to be a victim of others or life in general. Feeling self-pity means that, unconsciously, you’re passively indulging in a sense of victimization and weakness. If you’re feeling the pull of this “self-defeatism” and you honestly acknowledge it, you might sense a bittersweet loyalty to your old suffering self. This is not a loyalty to take to the grave.
Recognize self-pity as the abandonment of self. You’re abandoning all honor and self-respect. You’re unconsciously “milking” a sense of weakness, finding bittersweet consolation in it. This understanding is a lot different from blaming others or bad luck for one’s miserable feelings and lack of motivation. Ideally now, you take responsibility for this weakness, at the same time that you feel the courage to expose it. Feeling the stark reality of your identification with weakness is an act of courage. It means you are at your best, at your strongest, in that moment.
It’s important that we recognize and appreciate our inner resistance to liberating our better self. Even if what you mostly know is a suffering self, you can be highly resistant to letting go of this old, familiar identification. Consciously, you do want a new, improved sense of self but, unconsciously, the old sense of self fights for its survival. Inner growth can feel as if you’re letting a mysterious stranger into your house, someone who plans to take over the place. One part of you wants to accept him, another part to boot him out.
As a psychological phenomenon, resistance must be respected, yet it’s still like refusing to reach out for a life preserver when you’re drowning.
Despite resistance, most everyone has some ability to shift from weakness to strength. If we want to feel emotionally stronger, we can very likely make it happen. If the effort feels impossible, we’re likely not bringing two conflicting parts of our psyche—inner passivity and the inner critic—sufficiently into focus. We’re not being attentive enough to, or mindful enough of, these two troublesome elements of our inner life. The knowledge of what they are and how they operate is available here at this website and in my books. The degree of our willingness to learn psychological self-knowledge, along with our steady attentiveness to this knowledge, are measures of how serious we are about achieving inner growth and escaping from needless suffering.
In hopelessness and self-pity, many sufferers fail to access the sense of their ultimate significance and value. If you can’t feel your value, you can’t feel the value of others and the value of life. In this limited consciousness, all that’s left is the desperate search for validation. This tends to produce an “I’m-great, I’m-not-great” inner skirmish that can mutate as self-centeredness and hair-trigger reactivity. The answer here is to understand more deeply how our inner critic attacks us through our passive side to tear down our belief and trust in self.
Make notes as you read, read them over every day. Keep a journal. You have to apply yourself in some process of self-development. Otherwise, you’re just fooling yourself in believing you’re really serious about growing.
If you’re looking to depth psychology for understanding, you want to be able to recognize your emotional and behavioral symptoms and understand the underlying dynamics that produce your symptoms. (Again, the basic knowledge is available in any one of my books.) Being jealous, envious, depressed, cynical, and indecisive are symptoms. Being self-critical is also a symptom. Chronic self-criticism arises from inner conflict in the psyche. Here the abusive inner critic overwhelms the passive, defensive side. The self-criticism we daily experience as negative thoughts is a derivative of how we allow our inner critic to mock and berate us on an inner level.
We’re being strong, developing our inner fortitude, as we consistently enable our intelligence to expose these underlying dynamics. Before long, we can feel that we’re making some headway in directing any self-criticism (which is usually unfair and irrational in the first place) to just pass through us—in one ear and out the other—rather than to linger in our psyche as inner conflict and stir up trouble.
It’s important to present yourself with clear choices. For instance, Do I eat this unhealthy food or not? Do I get this work done or not? Do I exercise or not? Many people passively act on impulses without first checking in with themselves to either authorize or to bar the impulse. When it comes to taking action or not, make it a conscious choice. Yes or no—chose one of the other. Take personal responsibility for making a choice, even if it’s an unwise choice! If you make an unwise choice driven by a desire or craving, at least you’ve avoided passively allowing self-defeating behavior to just happen mindlessly.
In the following hours or days, you’re once again going to present yourself with a choice, yes or no, with respect to the options that daily life presents. Once again you give yourself the chance to make a better choice. If once again you make the unwise choice, so be it. Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow you might make the better choice. In this daily practice, you continually give your better self the chance to represent you. If you persist in this practice and make a sincere effort to choose wisely, you’re endeavoring to replace passivity with strength, and you’ll likely soon be making healthier choices.
Sometimes we’re choosing unconsciously to suffer. This unconscious perversity, a kind of psychic masochism, is probably the most challenging consideration for us to reflect on. The notion can feel like an accusatory assessment of our plight. Just mentioning it can seem like blaming the victim. But if we want to get stronger, we have to zero in on our weakness. What is the deadly flaw in human nature? Why is humanity on the cusp of self-destruction? I assure you that we’re highly resistant to seeing ourselves in all our naked obstinacy. We’re too vain, and our ego is too fragile, to be eager to identify the fatal weakness—inner passivity, tainted by unconscious masochism—at the core of human nature.
Our awareness of this weakness, as vital self-knowledge that’s emotionally assimilated, can become the psychological remedy. In practicing what I’m teaching here, the email writer above would, when in the throes of his “slow self-destruction” and “nonexistent willingness,” recognize the passive feeling in which he’s wallowing as his own willingness, even determination, to experience displeasure and weakness. Will he surrender to the weakness or come to his rescue? It’s his life and his choice.
A clinical awareness of inner passivity and inner conflict can provide him with the strength to revitalize himself. The knowledge will reveal the dynamics of his inner conflict. At the same time, he can begin to feel that his better self is more powerful than his compulsion to wallow in the bittersweet embrace of self-abandonment and emotional degeneration.
As a technique, he might acknowledge his psychological predicament with irony yet insight along these lines: “Wow, I must really like this feeling of being helpless and powerless. This is where I go, this is where I hang out, deep in this feeling. I know it’s perverse and irrational, but unconsciously I must really like it because I certainly keep coming back to it.” This is his acknowledgement of the deep, self-defeating irrationality at the heart of his psyche, the conscious wish to feel pleasure versus the unconscious willingness, driven by unrecognized inner conflict, to bask in weakness and suffering.
He asked me in his email, “Can an outside person really help me? Or does it all depend on myself and my nonexistent willingness?” Yes, an outside person can help him, especially a good psychotherapist. Ultimately though, his psychological progress does depend on him and his capacity to override his passive side, as he acquires the inner truth about his emotional plight and applies this self-knowledge in his life.