People tend unconsciously to falsify reality. We’re usually not aware of how and why our sense of reality is distorted, which is an impediment to our intelligence.
What’s causing this distortion of reality? At play in our psyche, with distinct and separate “operating systems,” are the inner critic, ego, id, psychological defenses, inner passivity, and resistance. Not only do these systems tend to operate outside our awareness, they’re also at odds with one another as they churn up inner conflict, negative emotions, and self-defeating behaviors. I have illustrated and described them here as aspects or “characters” of our psyche.
As we grow psychologically, a dominant and healthy inner operating system arises from our solid connection to (and embrace of) our authentic self.
For this article, I focus on the operating system known as inner passivity. It’s the least well-known and perhaps the most problematic of these inner systems. This passivity, which affects almost everyone, is a mental-emotional state of mind through which we stumble into suffering and self-defeat. Humankind has not yet begun to appreciate this aspect of our human nature.
We are in the throes of this passivity when we interpret situations and challenges through feelings of being overwhelmed, helpless, indecisive, trapped, constrained, restricted, controlled, held accountable, required to submit, and otherwise victimized.
Inner passivity also causes us to succumb weakly to cravings; to be cynical or bitter concerning defeats and failures; to fail to represent ourselves effectively in social situations or in fulfilling our aspirations; to be riddled with self-doubt; to chronically feel unsupported and unappreciated; to feel at the mercy of fate; and to allow our inner critic to disparage and belittle us. The list goes on.
People are obviously not as passive as sheep. Even the most passive among us have, of course, much more consciousness and brain power. But just as sheep are unaware of their passive nature, we humans are likewise unaware of how passively we experience ourselves and much of what transpires around us.
People are usually not even aware of the existence in their psyche of inner passivity, though it profoundly contaminates our thinking and limits our ability to act in our best interests. Once we grasp a mental understanding of it, we still have to become aware on an experiential level of the degree to which we are under its influence.
One client said in a note to me: “I continue to find it difficult to feel and identify when I’m experiencing inner passivity. I know, on an intellectual level, that I experience it. The patterns of my adult life clearly attest to its existence: ongoing feelings of indecision about what to do or where to go; constant procrastination with important projects; a chronic pattern of starting projects (and wishing to use my full potential) and yet never following through.”
Yes, even as we start to consider and study inner passivity, our intelligence still struggles to bring its existence into focus as an entity with its own operating system. We have trouble, for one thing, separating our sense of self from the symptoms (as listed at the beginning of this article) that this passivity generates. The symptoms give our inner critic fuel to disparage and condemn us, and we become passive to our inner critic, blindly entangled in the conflict between our aggressive critic and our defensive passivity.
Our defenses (another inner operating system) adamantly cover up this passivity. The common unconscious defense is to claim: “I’m not passive—if anything, I’m aggressive.” This reactive aggression, however, is often inappropriate and self-defeating. An individual might also defend by saying: “I’m not passive: Look at how angry I get when someone tries to control me.” This angry reaction is often negative and self-defeating.
We’re fooled by these defenses, and inner passivity is shrouded over. As we proceed under its influence, we’re likely to feel we’re just being who we are, as if everything is either normal or what we’re fated to experience, in the way it’s normal for sheep to be passive.
As it is for sheep, our passivity is largely biologically rooted. Yet we have knowledge and consciousness on our side, if we can overcome our resistance to accessing it. Human passivity might have been acceptable before we became capable technologically of destroying the world, but now this flaw in human nature has become very problematic. As a blind spot in dealing with reality, it makes us dangerously dysfunctional, likely to be overwhelmed by the cultural, political, and social upheavals being produced by accelerating technology and climate change.
Often inner passivity is influencing us in ways that are quite subtle, so seeing it requires insight. That insight is more than just a mental connection—it’s also an intuitive realization, a synergy of memories and experiences, a jolt of consciousness. At some point, to see this passivity is to marvel at the fact that we were previously so oblivious of it.
Some examples follow that can guide readers in tracking their own passivity. One reader, noting her growing awareness of her passive side, asked me, “Do you think it’s possible to completely heal and break free from inner passivity? I’m dealing with this in therapy right now, and it seems almost as if I have to eliminate inner demons associated with codependency to awaken my authentic self. I know inner passivity is easy to fall back on, but I’m wondering if it’s possible to 100 percent break free and not turn back?”
I wrote a note back to her, saying: “You asked if it’s possible to 100 percent break free of inner passivity and not turn back? You want to consider why you’re asking this question in the first place. The question itself arises from a passive place inside you.
“It is likely,” I wrote, “that you’re asking this question because to ponder it enables you to indulge in, or flirt with, the helpless feeling that you might never be able to free yourself from inner passivity. Otherwise, why ask the question? Who knows whether you’ll achieve 100 percent elimination of it. That’s not important. What’s important is that you get started doing your best to recognize and address it.”
I added: “Understanding that your question arises out of inner passivity is an important insight for you: You can now see one of the ways in which you experience yourself and life through inner passivity. You see how you frame things in a passive way, a way that leads you to doubt yourself and distrust the future. Seeing and exposing inner passivity in all its subtle variations is an act of power and determination that leads you toward inner freedom. Keep reading about it. Be vigilant every day to observe how it creeps into your thoughts and feelings.”
Another visitor to my website commented: “Since I can remember I was creatively active in writing, painting or sculpting. I have a wide range of interests I researched and spent time reading up on. A few years ago, I started to feel like none of my artistic endeavors have any use or meaning anymore. I do have the energy and inspiration, but as soon as I start to act upon it, I am overcome by a sense of meaninglessness. It feels useless and without any contribution to society, it feels selfish.”
He added: “I am aware this is some form of excuse, but I can’t shake the feeling and enter the creative flow as I used to. Even if I am brimming with creative inspiration or curiosity to research my interests, I am holding myself back and literally just hope the day finishes up quickly so I don’t have any time to engage with these activities. I hope there are some things that I can become aware of, in order to find a way out of this conflict.”
In reply, I told him: “It is common, as an aspect of human nature, for people to experience themselves in a passive way. Even when we’re skilled and talented, or have great potential, we can find ourselves, as you described it, unable to connect with a capacity to turn this potential into action and achievement.
“What you want to do at such moments is take the focus off the actual objective (in your case, artistic fulfillment and achievement) and instead focus your attention and growing understanding on the underlying passive feeling. You would likely have this same passive feeling if you were striving for some other goal, other than being an artist.”
I added: “This feeling of helplessness and weakness operates like an emotional addiction. It’s called inner passivity, and it contaminates, in varying degrees, the human psyche. It’s a default position within you, a leftover emotional association from the long years you spent during childhood in relative states of helplessness and dependency. You have to outgrow, through psychological knowledge, what is basically an impairment caused by human biology. A sheep can’t overcome the passivity of its biology, but we humans, to a considerable extent, can do so.
“To see the passivity within you, and to feel it and understand it when you’re in the throes of feeling stuck or unmotivated, is an act of power. It means that you’re expressing determination in that moment to overcome it. Otherwise, you would be in denial—you would not want to see, with such clinical awareness, the nature of this passivity. When you strive for self-understanding and make every effort to see the passivity as a clinical problem that you can remedy, you’re declining to go on suffering needlessly. You’re saying NO to the temptation to be pulled into this weakness, self-doubt, and disconnect from self.”
In another situation, a client was telling me his thoughts about rekindling his relationship with an ex-girlfriend. But he hedged as he spoke, going back and forth for several minutes about whether he would or he wouldn’t start seeing her again.
“Do you see what’s likely happening right now,” I said. “You’re probably looking for me to push you in one direction or another. As we know from your past, you’ve been passive to people who try to exert influence over you. You’re flirting emotionally right now with the passive feeling of having me influence you one way or the other.
“Then you can feel passive to my influence. Were I to take the bait and tell you what I thought you should do, you might passively accede to what I say or you might passively-aggressively resist what I recommended. Either way, your unconscious game is to feel passive to my influence. Realizing this helps you to understand how inner passivity, as an unconscious operating system within you, permeates your way of thinking and feeling.
“If I were to give you advice, pushing you in one direction or the other, it would not address your underlying passivity. I don’t give advice. Instead I help you acquire self-knowledge and insight, so you can make your own wise decisions about how best to live your life. That capacity arises within as you overcome the influence of inner passivity.”
Some people feel that the effort involved in self-development is overwhelmingly monumental. They feel they just don’t have what it takes to succeed. This negative feeling is, of course, just another way to experience inner passivity. Do you see how that passive feeling sneaks in wherever it can? With clinical knowledge of inner passivity, we become a detective in our own psyche, an observer of what had previously been shrouded in unconscious darkness. Our consciousness is enhanced. Now we proceed with a sense of purpose and direction, accompanied by feelings that we’re doing our best—all much more pleasant than being passive.
Peter Michaelson is the author of The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself from Inner Passivity.