Indecision and passivity : an enlightening perspective

It is fascinating what you come across on the internet in response to a google search.  Finding myself back deep within an inner conflict over decision making I found a very enlightening article in response to the google prompt : emotional basis of indecision.  It made clear to me some very central dynamics of the psyche.  How and why do we disavow our passive, weak or overwhelmed side and why sometimes do we fall into it so deeply that we disallow any action of assertion, strength and power at all?  According to the article I am quoting from below these questions cut to heart of issues surrounding mental illness.

Saying an unconditional yes to life means we open to the possibility of hurt, strife, uncertainty and pain.  We can learn to know ourselves and others well but we can also hide from ourselves and others at times.  Much as we learn not to be so vulnerable to passivity and emotional abuse we also need to be aware that there are those out there who are wounded and may seek to control or hurt us less out of a desire to harm and more out of a desire to push forward their own agenda and desires.  At the same time we all have so called ‘shadow’ energies in our psyche, consisting of a repository of traits that we don’t identify with or express well, that often bug us in others but may also speak to things we are hiding from and deeply desire anyway.

The following excerpts take as a reference the killing spree of James E. Holmes, a neuroscience graduate student who killed 12 people in a 2012 mass murder spree in a Colorado movie theatre explaining from the author’s perspective the motives deeply inside Holmes which in causing conflict led to an act of such aggressive destruction.

Why would acts of aggression appeal to a passive person? The deeper Holmes descended into a painful sense of powerlessness and helplessness, the greater the likelihood that he would come under the influence of harsh self-aggression from the other side of the inner conflict. Much of our inner conflict is a battleground between a passive side of the psyche (inner passivity) and an aggressive side (the inner critic or superego).

According to this theory, Holmes’s killing spree was, in conjunction with likely neurological anomalies, a manifestation of the degree to which he was the target of a particularly harsh inner critic or superego that viciously condemned him as a worthless person, using his passivity as evidence for this accusation. This aggressive side of human nature was needed by early humans for the survival of our species. It can now manifest in the adult psyche as self-aggression, as Sigmund Freud famously pointed out.

This aggressive superego or inner critic springs into action whenever openings or opportunities present themselves. Holmes’s unconscious embrace of a profound sense of weakness and helplessness provided that opening. The extent of his inner passivity meant that he could not protect himself from self-aggression. Because of his extensive passivity (along with genetic and other biological or neurological anomalies), he eventually gave up on himself, capitulated his humanity, and became a surrogate, instrument, or manifestation of the cruel, aggressive side.

This inner dynamic is made more comprehensible when the underlying psychological defense is exposed. In his unconscious, Holmes defended against realization of his inner passivity and its masochistic nature. His inner defence, an outright denial of inner truth, likely proceeded along these lines: “I’m not passively and masochistically embracing the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. Look at how aggressive I feel. I’m even considering getting an assault weapon and shooting and killing people. That feels good. That kind of aggression feels good.” To make the defence work, and thereby carry on the inner charade that he was really aggressive and not passive, he had to become increasingly serious about carrying out this evil intent.

As the evidence suggests, he did not become so psychotic that he no longer knew the difference between right and wrong. His notebook was filled with deliberations suggesting that he knew the wrongfulness of his plot. After the shooting, he expressed the “wish” that he hadn’t murdered any children. Leading up to the event, some semblance of rationality had remained in his psyche. This fact gives credence to the idea that we must look to inner conflict and inner passivity, which operate according to their own primitive dialectic, as factors that drive people into mental illness and into acts of self-destruction and evil.

Psychology has long addressed the topic of helplessness, but primarily from the point of view of an individual’s actual helplessness rather than from the person’s emotionally embellished experience of it. Writing this year in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Axel Hoffer and Dan Buie, training and supervising analysts with the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, say that “helplessness is the most intolerable” of all the feelings that humans suffer. The authors say that analysts have glossed over the experience of helplessness, naming it but declining to consider it in depth. They suggest that analysts themselves are reluctant to address their own counter-transference, meaning the sense of the helplessness (painfully feeling “helpless to help”) that arises in them when treating passive patients.

The authors, unfortunately, do not recognize the degree to which their patients have formed a deep identification with their inner passivity, even to the point that helplessness has become a masochistic attachment. As a form of therapy, the authors encourage analysts to become more empathetic with their patients, including a willingness to share with their patients their own feelings of helplessness. Empathy certainly does have some benefit for the patient, but it’s not as beneficial as teaching the patient about inner conflict and the powerful pull of inner passivity.

The patient’s inner predicament must be analyzed. Patients need to be taught the principles of inner conflict. They need to see their own psyche more objectively, more clinically, in order to break free of these emotional attachments to the negative side. They need an analyst who can show them, through their reactions to everyday experiences and through correct interpretation of their psychological defences, precisely how they continually revert to their passive side and how they cover up the fact of doing so. Analysts, in other words, need to raise the quality of the insight they provide. Empathy alone might validate the impression that a chronic sense of helplessness is somehow a normal response to modern life.

Source :

In his book on Complex PTSD Pete Walker devotes quite a lot of attention to how aggressive instincts can be disabled by parents and its clear that these aggressive instincts don’t go away but fester inside the person and seek some kind of outlet.  Walker himself points out the place the inner critic plays within the psyche of the person traumatised in this way and dovetails with the ideas expressed by Peter Michaelson in this article.  He teaches us ways in which we can reclaim our own power and rely less on the victim or victimised perspective that we may have absorbed as children.  Most certainly those of us who were conditioned to believe that any act of assertion or aggression was sinful, wrong or bad need to find ways to reclaim an inner sense of power.  We need to learn to take action and learn and suffer the consequences of our assertive or aggressive impulses in order to learn more.  Disavowing or disallowing our aggressive or passive or indecisive side will not help us in this task of reclaiming our inner power.

2 thoughts on “Indecision and passivity : an enlightening perspective

  1. My father was a fan of Albert Ellis and began applying this approach with me when I was 6 or 7: “Your brother is not making you angry; you are making you angry.” Someday I will read Ellis to see if this is really what he said (I don’t know why I haven’t yet), but I took from this that I could never be angry or defend myself. These days I indulge in wishes that my ex would die, and I do not feel guilty—even when I imagine being the cause of his death—mostly because I know I will not ever do it. The dialectic is the greatest tool because in it, we never lose sight of the complexity of our reality or our own infinite contradictions.

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