People often mistake passivity or being ‘laid back’ for being nice, relaxed and well adjusted. In my line of work in clinical psychology though, being passive is one of the hardest profiles to ever change and improve.
It usually results from being bullied in childhood and then forming some type of an alliance of passivity and compliance with the perpetrator (rather than going into open opposition or warfare against the perpetrator which would result in a more overtly aggressive profile which, BTW, is a much, much easier profile to change).
The passive profile is particularly hard to change because passive people disengage and retreat into themselves when any pressure is applied for change. They will often say ‘yes’ ‘yes – I’ll do that’, but then they dig-in and stubbornly resist making even the slightest change. Week after week, month after month and year after year they fail to come forward to connect and be influenced by others, thereby continually failing to progress.
When we retreat and disengage we fail to pay attention, we retract and enter our own little parallel world where we are not subject to the normal engagement and learning rules whereby we can be influenced by others. By saying ‘yes’ we simply pretend to agree and therefore temporarily side-step any conflict and it is conflict that is terrifying to passive people.
Yet by withdrawing into ourselves we break with any meaningful connection with others. We drift off into infinity – lost in the silence of space; all alone and out-of-reach of any human assistance. This retreat is a desperate and isolating strategy. We cannot hear screams in the vacuum of space.
Over time, we can practice this withdrawal strategy more and more, and at the slightest sign of conflict we retreat into our isolation. We cannot learn and improve if we fail to pay attention. We cannot pay attention if we withdraw our motivation to come forward and authentically engage with others in open discussion. Passive people simply appear to engage to get others off their back and to avoid any possibility of conflict.
Unless we decide to come forward and take the risk of conflict, rejection and hostility from others, we will go through life stuck, repeating the same senseless patterns of behaviour and creating the same predictable lose-lose outcomes.
This withdrawal habit may have started a long time ago, but it doesn’t have to keep going. We can always make the decision to stop any behaviour we choose. After all, who cares if someone hates or rejects us – we can all live with that – we don’t have to keep on retreating at the smallest sign of upset. In order to learn just how tough we really are, we have to move forward into the firing line, learning to think on our feet and flexibly solve problems and even when we do get hit from time to time, it teaches us that it doesn’t hurt that much anyway.