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Inner Passivity: How We Trick Ourselves into Helplessness

inner passivity helplessnessOne simple shift in perspective can make your world a better place.

The shift is from inner passivity to inner activity.

In this post, we’ll learn:

• What is inner passivity?
• What is inner activity?
• The consequences of inner passivity
• How to shift from passive to active

What is inner passivity?

Inner passivity, a term used by psychotherapist Peter Michaelson in his book, Phantom of the Psyche, is the tendency to experience life as if it were happening to us. Importantly, inner passivity is a mental and emotional perspective.

What is inner activity?

Inner activity is my own made up term to provide a contrast. Experiencing yourself as active rather than passive, you’re aware that you produce your own experience.

Active vs. Passive Statements

Notice that the passive statements position the speaker as a victim of circumstance – the one being “done to,” while the active statements position the speaker as the doer.

Passive: You make me angry.
Active: I am angry at you.

Passive: My inner critic is harassing me.
Active: I am criticizing myself.

Passive: That beautiful sunset inspires me.
Active: I’m looking at that beautify sunset and feeling inspired.

Inner passivity is more than sentence structure, however. It’s the attitude from which passive language patterns flow. We can often tell when someone is experiencing life as a passive victim of circumstance by their language, which is rich with wording that suggests helplessness.

The Consequences of Inner Passivity

Dr. Krisanna Sharon at Chicago’s Center for Personal Development discusses how passive externalization, a term coined by psychoanalytic pioneer Karen Horney, is often associated with high anxiety. Horney described passive externalization as the tendency to experience one’s emotions as if they were coming from the outside, originating perhaps with other people (you make me angry).

Dr. Sharon demonstrates the concept of passive externalization well in her post, Anxiety: Our Relationship to the World.

It makes sense. If you tend to see the world as acting upon you rather than the other way around, you’re set up to feel out of control. What’s the world going to do to me next?

How to Shift from Passive to Active

Making the shift from a passive view to an active one is simple in concept, but often difficult in practice. Passive views are pervasive. Take a few days to notice how you and others speak. Passivity is rampant! Rooting it out is a project.

Here are three things you can do to begin:

1. Notice your own language – on the outside and inside. Is it passive or active? Are you feeling like you are being acted upon by life? Keep a journal of your thoughts and conversations to increase self-awareness.

2. When you catch yourself making passive statements or feeling the effects of inner passivity (helplessness, feeling out of control) shift your inner thoughts and language to an active voice. Make it about what you are doing, feeling and observing, not what is happening to you.

3. As you become more familiar and aware of inner passivity, teach the concept to someone else. Engaging in discussion helps to integrate the learning. Inner passivity is an invisible attitude. We take it for granted and act as if the perceptions and feelings that flow from it are “the way things are.”

Noticing passive tendencies may radically alter your experience of the world. Rather, when you notice yourself being passive, you will radically alter your experience.

Inner Passivity: How We Trick Ourselves into Helplessness

Mike Bundrant

Mike Bundrant is the author of Your Achilles Eel: Discover and Overcome the Hidden Cause of Negative Emotions, Bad Decisions and Self-Sabotage and co-founder at The iNLP Center which offers online certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and life coaching.

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APA Reference
Bundrant, M. (2017). Inner Passivity: How We Trick Ourselves into Helplessness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2018, from


Last updated: 16 Dec 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 Dec 2017
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