Our Messy Mix of Aggression and Passivity

We produce both reactive aggression and unhealthy passivity in our psyche.

We produce both reactive aggression and unhealthy passivity in our psyche.

Here we stand, aggressively destroying our planet while passively letting it happen. We simply don’t have a lot of insight into two primitive aspects of our mental and emotional functioning—aggression and passivity.

Certainly we need some amount of aggression—make that healthy aggression—in order to thrive and to secure our place in the world. An aggressive approach to work and sports, for instance, typically produces more pleasure and success than a passive approach.

Yet people are likely to produce reactive or unhealthy aggression such as anger, resentment, and cynicism as much as the healthy variety. Along with overflows of reactive aggression, we also exhibit overdoses of passivity. How else can we explain our tolerance of a growing surveillance state, our acceptance of an oppressive banking system, our weakness for mass marketing and propaganda, and our sedation by pharmaceuticals and an entertainment complex?

Our entanglement in reactive aggression—whether physical, verbal, or in our thoughts—arises out of our unconscious temptation to entertain emotionally the feeling of being powerless. We’re tempted to act belligerently (or cheer on those who do) because we’re determined to cover up a weakness that we’re reluctant to face, namely our emotional entanglement in fear, insecurity, passivity, and self-doubt.

For instance, the desire to possess assault weapons and large ammunition clips, as opposed to a hunting rifle, is all about seizing an opportunity, out of inner passivity, to experience spell-binding sensations of power.

The essential point is this: much of our aggression is phony and self-defeating because it’s mustered up as a psychological defense to cover up our readiness to experience situations as if we’re being controlled, dominated, or otherwise victimized. Through unconscious psychological defenses we make claims to this effect: “I don’t want to feel controlled and passive. On the contrary, I hate it. Look at how much I enjoy feeling powerful.” Or, “Look at how aggressive I get when someone tries to control me.”

Typically, we later feel guilty for inappropriate or over-the-top aggression, just as we also do for more subdued passive-aggressive reactions such as forgetting or ignoring the requests of others or being vague and non-committal. (Many people unconsciously make passive-aggressive behaviors a way of life.)

Just as appearing aggressive has a powerful appeal for weak individuals, so does being passive. Even people who appear strong and competent can be quite passive in some aspects of their life. This negative emotion can be sexualized, meaning that sexual pleasure is available to many men and women when they play out (as in bondage enactments or fantasies) experiences of being helplessly laid bare on the receiving end of abusive behavior. This “sexualization” or “libidinization” of passivity is the tip of the iceberg that points to hidden depths in our psyche. At our psychological core, we still identify with (and, in a nonsexual way, are attached to) the experience of helplessness and dependency that permeated our childhood years. This can make us receptive or passive to aggressive overtures. Other times when coming from our passivity, we get triggered by such overtures and try to fend them off. Our entanglement in passivity causes us, when we try to be strong, to be capable only of self-defeating forms of assertiveness such as anger, hatred, rage, cynicism, and being easily offended.

Often passive people produce aggressive fantasies of retaliation or vengeance that frequently are acted out as meek or unconscious passive-aggressive protests. Occasionally, however, the acting-out takes the form of extreme reactions such as killing sprees in schools, malls, or theaters. These killers are extremely passive individuals drawn to a sense of power that feels god-like and total. Other passive youth get their sense of power in an acceptable (though potentially self-defeating) manner through their fascination with (or addiction to) violent video games.

Schoolyard bullies practice misplaced aggression, while their victims suffer the passive side of the equation. Bullies are driven to be aggressive out of weakness, not true strength. Their compulsion to bully is derived from their unconscious identification with the helplessness and weakness of their victims. The power they feel in their bullying covers up their identification with the weakness of the victim. Rapists and pedophiles, on the other hand, take the process a step further and sexualize their identification with their victims’ helplessness. Bullies also project their repressed inner weakness on to their victims, and see and dislike in their victims the self-doubt and passivity they deny and cover up in themselves. (Read, “Underlying Dynamics that Breed Bullies.”)

Bullying behavior extends beyond the schoolyard, as when members of a privileged “upper” class bully the weak and the poor. A rich man’s conviction of his superiority and entitlement become, in various forms, an aggressive putdown of the poor. Bullying also occurs when nations become militaristic and then abuse and dominate other nations.

In couples’ relationships, one personality type aggressively confronts a mate who is fearful of confrontation. The aggressor is tempted to become more abusive when the other partner remains passive. Domestic violence can be fueled as much by one partner’s passivity as by the other’s brutal aggression. Legally, the aggressor is at fault, but, psychologically, both parties contribute to the suffering and chaos, one through reactive aggression, the other through compulsive passivity. (Sometimes in relationships, one partner can feel power only by laying a guilt-trip on the other.) Reactive inappropriate aggression can be stopped in its tracks when, with inner power, a person refuses to be mistreated or disrespected.

Political posturing also features the dynamics that rebound between aggression and passivity. The one who wins the power struggle will not have to feel defeated and thus, in emotional terms, weakened and humiliated. In reality, there doesn’t have to be a losing side.  Win-win outcomes are available. Yet just as some people sacrifice a marriage out of stubborn refusal to examine and resolve their own issues, some politicians sacrifice the country to avoid their personal sense of defeat. They feel defeated only because, through inner weakness, they can’t help but plunge into a negative reaction.

The secessionists who emerged following the 2012 U.S. elections displayed a similar bias. Their cause is a rebel shriek of phony aggression. Demanding separation in the name of freedom gives them an illusion of power and enables them to save face. Their defense reads: “I’m not wallowing in defeat; I want the victory of a new life and a new freedom.” These passions are not so much about race, economics, or even politics. Their passions are, instead, lodged in the stubborn negativity—the need to cover up one’s unconscious identification with weakness or passivity—that plagues the human psyche.

Hatred is another symptom of this aggression-passivity dynamic. Hatred is an illusion of power, a form of aggression that also arises out of inner weakness. (So is reactive anger and cynicism, though less so.) Weak people will muster up hatred because they’re desperate to feel power. Yet hatred, though a mere illusion or a corrupted expression of power, is the only nonviolent aggressiveness, other than anger or cynicism, available to them. At a social level, people can feel hatred when political and cultural change appears to negate their validations and identifications. They blame others for their own painful plunge into their unresolved issues concerning self-doubt, powerlessness, and defeat. In another example, suicide, an act of hopelessness and passivity, is often induced through aggressive self-hatred.

Young soldiers in training go to boot camp where they’re required to be submissive, to follow orders totally and explicitly. When thrust into combat, they can quickly identify with the ruthless aggression that, through enforced passivity, they absorbed during their training. The process, while it makes good soldiers, displays the close connection between violent aggression and unconscious passivity.

Criminals and terrorists display violent or cunning aggression, yet their behavior is steeped in inner passivity. (Read, “The Overlooked Factor in Criminal Behavior” and “Terrorism and the Death Drive.”) Cults are established when aggressive, charismatic leaders draw passive followers to themselves. Rabid sports fans display similar dynamics: The athletic aggressiveness they witness provides them, through identification with their teams and players, the opportunity to claim their affinity for power and strength over the ho-hum passivity with which they experience much of their lives.

Many politicians and corporate success-hunters lust after status and power because they feel so empty and weak without it. Psychopaths, who are inwardly disconnected from self, are drawn to political power. Meanwhile, the Right Wing tends to represent, on an inner level, the aggressive element, while the Left Wing is associated emotionally with the passive instinct. When these two polarities come together with sincere intention, the unity creates a powerful force for good. (Read “The Psychological Roots of National Disunity.”)

Individually, within our own psyche, we also operate according to inner dynamics associated with aggression and passivity. The primary conflict in our psyche, in my view, is between our inner critic (superego) which daily dukes it out with our subordinate ego or inner passivity. (Read, “The Futile Dialogue in Our Head.”)

We want to try to catch ourselves in the act of being inappropriately aggressive or unwisely passive. When people understand the dynamics of the moment, they feel good about their attentiveness, knowledge, and ability to make better choices and decisions.