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The Half-Lived Life: Why Overcoming Passivity is so Important

by John Lee(more info)

listed in personal growth, originally published in issue 180 - March 2011

This article tackles the ever-increasing problems passivity presents to individuals, groups, and families and does so without shaming those whose lives may be less than what they'd hoped. As you recognize your passivity and begin to understand and address it, you are building the foundation necessary to become creators of your world instead of feeling like the world controls you. These first steps allow you to become compassionately assertive and in so doing regain valuable insights into how to become the person you thought you would be, longed to be and ultimately can be, resulting in a fully-lived life.

The Half-Filled Life

Passivity has been one of the least studied, discussed, and explained aspects of human behaviour. The fields of psychology, personal growth, and recovery have completely ignored it. Understanding passivity is an essential and important key to creating healthy relationships, increasing self-esteem and healing the bodies, minds, and spirits of individuals who are hurting or hurting others.

Passivity Defined

Passivity is a compulsion or learned tendency to live at half-speed which ultimately leaves people feeling their glass is half-empty and thus half-heartedly committing to projects, plans and goals. Passive people are half in and half out of relationships. The passive person who suffers the effects of a the glass half empty life is more attached to not having what they think they want or desire, even though they protest loudly this is not so.

Passivity is an offence of omission - not doing or saying what you need to, not responding, not accepting challenges and refusing to take risks - rather than commission and that is one reason why it has been overlooked by clinicians and writers.

A client of mine, James, is 40 and a very successful real estate agent who earns a high six figure income. During a session he said, "I work all the time on my marriage. I'm in therapy, I read books and I regularly attend self-help workshops. No one can say I'm passive." When asked about his marriage he quickly replied, "I want more physical contact, more touching, and yes, more sex, but I don't get hardly any at all."

James wants his wife, Brenda, to be more affectionate and yet he indulges in a whole host of behaviours that guarantees he won't get this and actually gets him just the opposite of what he thinks and says he really wants.

I asked him to give me an example of his efforts to get affection from his wife, so I could see and show him his passivity and addiction to not having what he says he wants.

James said, "I go into the living room all the time and Brenda is on the couch watching television for hours on end. I say something like, 'Can't you turn that thing off for a little while? There's nothing intelligent or worth watching on TV. I don't know why you watch these silly shows.' But she never agrees and I end up storming out of the room frustrated as usual."

I jokingly said, "How's that working for you?" Then I offered a suggestion. "Try sitting on the living room couch next to her; gently lifting her legs and placing them on your lap while you massage her feet, instead of shaming, criticizing, demeaning, and judging her. Then simply ask her what's on that you two can watch together."

He looked at me like I was speaking in a foreign tongue; in a way it was an unfamiliar language because it was the language of compassion and assertiveness. James looked a little dumbfounded before saying, "No, I have never even thought of it. It sounds so simple. I can see me doing that but I never would have thought to do so. I wonder why?" he said very seriously.

It was because of his passivity and his fears of rejection, abandonment and intimacy.

By the way, he tried my suggestion the very next week. "We got up off the couch ten minutes after doing what you suggested. She looked at me and said 'Who are you?' Before I could answer she laughed and said, 'Never mind, I like this,' and we got up and got in bed and made love for the first time in a year."

This same man devoted an exorbitant amount of time to reading about relationships and marital counselling. He said he worked all the time on his marriage. But in reality, he thought his wife had the problem and not him.

As one highly successful surgeon said to me after a day-long workshop, "I always felt I was half the husband, half the father, half the friend I knew I could be, even though I'm very successful in my field. It was like I was living half the life I could be living. Now I feel I have the tools to be the person I have always wanted and knew deep down inside that I could be."

Passivity is difficult to identify because one of the greatest tricks a passive person plays on themselves goes something like this, "Look how hard I work. I work eighty hours a week and am the CEO of a large company. How can anyone label me as passive?" or "Look how much I work on myself. I go to five twelve step meetings a week, and see my therapist regularly, how can I be passive?" "Can't you see I'm suffering? Isn't that proof that I'm not attached to passivity?" 

One of the main symptoms of passivity is being out of balance in our personal and professional lives. The passive person's creed is, "I'm bored," or "I'm feeling overwhelmed" and they think the world acts on them and moves them rather than being actors and movers.

It is important to note that passivity causes you to react rather than act, control rather than respond, manipulate rather than make, or self-destruct instead of create. The passivity I am discussing is not to be confused with passive/aggressive behaviours, timidity, shyness, apathy, or laziness. It is also not to be misconstrued as 'surrendering' or 'letting go', 'turning it over', or 'passive resistance'. All of these are very active processes that actually energize the ones doing so. The passivity that is being discussed here is more closely akin to 'giving up', 'feeling defeated', 'settling for', or feeling 'unsatisfied'.

By working with your tendencies to be passive, you are taking the first critical steps to take your life to the next level, a level which is more rewarding and satisfying. Unfortunately many people have developed a greater connection to loss and feeling less than; they settle for unfulfilling relationships or careers that never quite achieve their creative potentials. Surviving rather than thriving has become the state that many of us are not only used to but are compelled to pursue. It is the non-engaging that lets life pass you by because you did not have the information and tools to take action to change things for the better. You do now.  Passivity is a learned behaviour; a reaction to life that can be unlearned. 

Passivity compels people to wait in a state of suspended animation until something or someone outside themselves 'rescues' them from their current circumstances which would then allow them to have a Full Glass Life. This knight in shining armour (whether a person, the world, society or a supernatural being) is supposed to bring the passive person something they feel they have lost or had taken from them. That something could be hope, energy, love, trust, faith, the perfect job, an unconditional lover, winning the lottery or the good parent they never had, once had or wished they had. It is a psychological, physical, emotional and spiritual condition that plagues even the most educated and self-directed people; therefore the whole person must be addressed and once it is, you can move from passivity to pursuing your passions in life and relationships.

Part II - Some Solutions to Passivity

I, Not You

When we become truly ready to address our passivity, one of the first active steps we take is to see the absolute necessity in dropping one of the most button-pushing, regressive words in the English language: 'you'. The differences between "I need" and "You need to_____" "I hurt" and "You hurt me," "I feel," and "You made me feel" "I love you" and "do you love me?" are enormous and only perpetuate passivity. Besides there is something about this three letter word that puts almost everyone in a defensive posture, and causes them to duck and run for cover. It instigates "I'm out of here" or distancer behaviour.

"If only you would..." "Why don't you..." "You should..." "You ought to..." Even the word "You" by itself triggers many.

Intimacy ends with "You" and begins with "I." The word "I" is active, compassionate, responsible, remorseful, mature, and non-threatening. It enhances communication and reduces needless confrontations and conflicts. "I" becomes the actor, instigator and mover. "You" act upon me; you must be the initiator and move me from one place to another. It is the "I" who must fill their own glass.

The Compassionately Assertive Person

The fully lived life is achieved not by aggressive acts but by becoming a compassionately assertive person who can genuinely give apologies and make amends which leaves not only the injured party feeling better, but it transforms the one saying it as well. The authentic apology makes no excuses, assigns no blame, and carries no guilt or shame. Followed by an amends-changing behaviour and stopping the offence - it repairs and mends the tear in the relationship fence. Everyone wins.

The compassionately assertive person will actively give and receive love in a mature adult way, something the passive person cannot do. As a compassionate man or woman you will send those you love the kind of love they need. Instead of passively following the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you'd have them do onto you, you follow the Platinum Rule of compassion: Do unto others the way they need to be done to. Those you love have probably been yearning to be loved in that way their whole lives.

The passive person puts so many limits on their love by expressing this emotion in only one or two ways. The active loving person works diligently and with commitment to learn and then express the following four kinds of love:
  1. Eros-Erotic love;
  2. Agape-Spiritual love;
  3. Philios-Friendship love;
  4. Caritas-Love of Community.
Finally, the compassionately assertive person does not need to run from clashes and disagreements, which are a part of every relationship, because they have the resources to handle them appropriately. They are emotionally equipped to finish the four assertive statements regarding requests of others and themselves:
  1. This is what I want _____________;
  2. This is what I need _____________;
  3. This is what I will not do to get my wants and needs met ___________;
  4. This is what I will do to get my wants and needs met ______________.

Remembering Who You Wanted to Be

Once the passive person starts digging their way out of the passive pit they start reconnecting to their true selves. I often refer to this reconnection as 'remembering who you wanted to be'. Most people remember a moment in their childhood or much later in life, when they realized what their passion, purpose or calling was. They knew right then what they should do with their lives and careers, but because they were operating from a passive point of view, they didn't seek that dream because of fear, hopelessness or because they just didn't have the energy. Being passive takes a lot of energy. Let's say you've always wanted to be a portrait painter, but you are afraid that if you pursue your dream you'll become the proverbial starving artist - destitute and homeless. In reality what happens is that even if the passive person lives in a mansion, they become emotionally (if not financially) destitute because they didn't pursue their passion.

Identifying the Obstacles

Another step in this life-changing process will be identifying how we have committed what I call 'Infidelity of the Heart' and in turn adopting a glass half empty view of ourselves in the world. We examine how we've robbed and cheated ourselves out of our heart's deepest desires; compromising our soul, body and brain and sabotaging our success in love, relationships, creative endeavours and vocational callings.

By identifying your greatest distractions and detractors, you can find the perpetrators of your passivity. Distractions include addictions, work, and even your own children; anything you have used as an excuse to not life to its fullest. Detractors can take the form of your high school guidance counsellor that said you didn't have what it takes to make it in college or the parent who belittled your creative impulses.

While recommitting to the pursuit of happiness, wholeness, and fulfilment we then explore what in some Buddhist traditions refer to as human beings Five Great Fears:
  1. The fear of loss of livelihood;
  2. Loss of life;
  3. Loss of reputation;
  4. Fear of losing our minds;
  5. Speaking our truths out to people/public.
By working through each of these fears you can enter into a much-needed, way overdue dialogue between Faith and Fear. When you give a voice to each you can more wholly become the person you were meant to be.

Having done or continuing to do all of the above, we learn from our mistakes and begin to live life as an imperfect adventure as expressed by the following passages from some of the world's greatest poets:

"Make sweet honey out of my old failures...." - Spanish poet, Antonio Machado


  1. mairhe said..

    As a 55-year-old woman, it is only now that I come to terms what harm passivity has done to me. That I learned it in my family. I want to thank the author for grappling with the subject. I only find articles on passive-aggressiveness, but it does not explain passivity and the diseases it comes to cause if not addressed earlier in life. Thank you for helping me to learn how to address it and make the changes to live the second half of my life more fully.

  2. caitlin said..

    Hey I'm 15 and I just wanted to thank your for writing this. At my age a lot of people ask you things like what do you want to be when you grow up? What are your hobbies? what is your favorite.....and i realize i don't know what i want. I don't know what I like, and I don't know who i want to be. or maybe I do and I'm just afraid I can't obtain these things and if i do will i still want them. I tend to pass it off as I'm being considerate. I don't like to participate in anything. Even when i realize i want something i say i don't. I make excuses because everything just seems so difficult and painful. I live through my friends I love their stories but i hate when they change the subject to me. I say i don't want a boy friend. I don't want a hobby don't want to be noticed. I don't want a life. I say I'm lazy It's to difficult but what will happen to me when I'm old with nothing accomplished and no life left in me to waste. no more time to sit by and watch? Thank you for helping me try. sorry about my bad grammar by the way. :)

  3. Lesley said..

    Thank you for this article. I am a 53 year old woman. I didn't realise I was so passive for many years but got it thrown at me as an insult in a marriage. I didn't have the strength to argue back and simply cried.Untreated clinical depression and exhaustion robbed me of my zest for life and I turned into a dependent and people pleasing person as I wanted to spare others pain and be looked after. I didn't learn to ask for what I needed and be assertive. It has affected so much of my life - I have lived a life with the glass half full for 26 years... and full of episodes of depression and lots of physical pain, pretending I am alright because I am scared of being abandoned.

    I also think I have copied my mother who although a teacher and quite lively seemed to spend her evening watching TV and not partaking of life. She died aged 50 and it left me with a deep seated belief that I would have to not do too much and spare myself. It would be interesting to look at passivity and pain - tension myositis syndrome in particular. I am trying not to grieve for the years of loss. That is hard. To learn assertiveness at my age is like turning a tanker round. Step by step.

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About John Lee

Best-selling author, John Lee, has written twenty books, including his latest release 24 Things to Increase the Emotional Intelligence of Your Man.

Lee's highly innovative work in the fields of emotional intelligence, anger management and emotional regression has made him an in demand consultant, teacher, trainer, coach and speaker. He has been featured on many radio and television shows including Oprah and Dr Oz.

John served as a Professor at the University of Texas and Alabama before becoming a writer, best-selling author, life coach and personal consultant. He lives with his wife in Alabama and offers private sessions and 1-3 day intensives for individuals, families and couples. John Lee also does counselling over the phone and may be contacted via 

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