The Common Ingredient in Human Misery

Inner passivity determines, in varying degrees, our happiness and vitality.

What do binging, hypochondria, and hoarding have in common? On the surface they appear to be unrelated. Yet all three of these behaviors have the same source in our psyche.

That source—inner passivity—is an unconscious sense of identity situated in our psyche that determines, in varying degrees, our happiness and vitality. I make the case in many of the posts at this website that inner passivity contributes to a wide range of dysfunction, including depression, addictions, compulsions, phobias, cynicism, obesity, procrastination, anxiety disorders, criminal behaviors, and so on. Now I’m adding the three above-mentioned symptoms to the list.

Before I get into that discussion, some background is helpful. As I’ve been saying, the clash in our psyche between inner aggression and inner passivity is a main cause of our unhappiness and suffering. This claim is based on clinical findings from classical psychoanalysis that have been ignored by modern practitioners.

Fortunately, one side of this clash between inner aggression and inner passivity does get some recognition from mainstream psychology. Many psychologists appreciate the significance of inner aggression or self aggression. This primitive, negative drive is seated in our inner critic (also known as the superego). A Google search turns up thousands of references to the inner critic.

The other side of the conflict—inner passivity—is much less recognized. A Google search of this term turns up, on the first 20 pages, mostly references to my posts and books, particularly to my book, The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself from Inner Passivity. Of course, passivity itself is widely recognized as a human trait. But inner passivity is something more. It’s an unconscious identification with a state of nonbeing that can inhabit the psyche of even successful, aggressive individuals.

People find the idea of inner passivity to be both elusive and frightening. It’s elusive because it takes some penetrating objectivity to see it in ourselves. And it’s frightening because acknowledging it threatens our identity by exposing the superficial nature of egotism, our species primary mental-emotional operating system. This discovery about human nature also greatly offends our self-image. The insight requires us to consider that we might be so lacking in evolutionary development as to seek out experiences of negative emotions such as feeling overwhelmed, helpless, powerless, and victimized. Yet that’s the behind-the-scenes emotional experience that produces bingers, hypochondriacs, and hoarders, along with many other behavioral and emotional problems.

Inner passivity is an enabler of our inner aggression. It represents us defensively and weakly against our insensitive, often harsh, inner critic. We don’t clearly enough see the conflict between these primitive aspects of our psyche, in part because the psychological establishment is letting us down with its dispersal of second-rate knowledge.

Usually one side or other of the inner conflict makes its presence known to us in the form of thoughts, feelings, or inner voices that we misunderstand to be our own thoughts or voices. We assume that these thoughts and feelings represent our inner guidance system, though they’re nothing more than speculations and pronouncements from both sides of the inner conflict. Sometimes our inner life consists mostly of a dialogue between these two parts, with no third voice or sense of authority—our authentic self—that represents our best interests.

Some individuals have greater “deposits” of inner passivity than do others. This imbalance is a factor of human nature, likely involving genetics, the protracted dependence of childhood, and children’s assimilation of their parents’ passivity.

That said, let’s now examine the three above-mentioned symptoms, starting with binging, to see their relationship to inner passivity. An estimated eight million men and women struggle with binge eating. Studies show that binging among men and women is often linked to depression and to a feeling of being out of control (both symptoms of inner passivity). One sufferer said his binge eating was, in part, his attempt to fill the “emptiness, loneliness, and emotional void” that he frequently felt in his life. These painful feelings—along with confused and distorted thinking, and a disconnect from one’s personal value, resourcefulness, and self-regulation—are all symptoms of inner passivity.

Binge eaters often are able to regulate their food intake during the day, only to lose control at night. This behavior corresponds with our tendency to experience inner passivity more intensely during the night’s quiet times when we’re alone with our thoughts and feelings.

After a bout of binging, individuals are likely to feel ashamed of themselves and disgusted at their behavior. Such feelings are being produced by the inner critic which is expressing disapproval and condemnation for the binging. Through inner passivity, people unconsciously absorb this negative energy from the inner critic. Because of inner passivity, we aren’t protecting ourselves from this negativity. Consequently, we absorb negative accusations to a degree that produces shame and disgust. This absorption of insinuations of wrongdoing also produces guilt.

The next symptom—hypochondria—is the emotional conviction that physical symptoms, even minor ones, are indicative of serious illness. Typically, no medical evidence can be found to justify such concern or fear. Though the fears are irrational, they feel very real. That’s because, through inner passivity, these sufferers create emotional experiences of feeling overwhelmed, overpowered, helpless, and confused. To cover up their indulgence in these negative feelings, they produce the sense or conviction that the feelings are justified by the likely prospect of serious illness.

Hypochondria is the sense that one’s life is being taken over by powerful, malignant diseases that render one helpless. It’s the feeling of being possessed by an alien force. The suffering of hypochondriacs makes sense (even given its irrational basis) when we understand their predicament as symptoms of inner passivity.

Keep in mind that we’re compelled to experience whatever issues or conflicts remain unresolved in our psyche. Inner passivity is unresolved in the sense that it’s one-half of the conflict with inner aggression. When we recognize and overcome inner passivity, our inner aggression is blocked and rendered harmless by our emerging sense of self.

The last of the three symptoms of inner passivity has its own TV reality show, “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” The dysfunctional behavior draws viewers mesmerized by the mountains of useless junk stuffed into homes. Neuroscience has been investigating the brains of people with hoarding disorder, and it has found abnormal activity in the brain regions known to be involved with decision-making.

Indeed, hoarders are decidedly indecisive. Normal decision-making requires us to make daily choices that facilitate our life. We access a sense of authority within us, a part of us that we trust to know what’s best for us at any given moment. We can be quite lost to ourselves and prone to very painful emotional predicaments and self-defeating behaviors without this inner guidance system.

Obviously, hoarders are lacking in inner authority. They can’t make a simple decision to discard certain items. Technically, they do make a choice—to keep all their possession. But this is a passive or default choice. Their behavior is clearly a symptom of inner passivity.

Many hoarders also feel overwhelmed by the clutter. Yet they unconsciously create an environment that enables them to maintain and deepen the feeling of being overwhelmed. This behavior reflects the nature of inner passivity—we unconsciously go looking for the feeling of it, and we create situations in which we feel it more intensely.

When sufferers from inner passivity understand and assimilate this depth psychology, they find themselves able to climb out of a wide variety of life’s pitfalls.