Personal Boundaries and Passivity

One common variant of failing to honor our own boundaries is passivity.

There are times in everyone’s life when passiveness—being patient, waiting and seeing, taking a step back, or letting someone else take the lead—can be wise. For some of us, though, passiveness becomes a way of life. We let others set our goals, guide us, and tell us what to do. We rarely or never state what we want or need. We don’t take responsibility for ourselves or our feelings.

Passivity is like being a leaf in the river; it just flows with the current. That current may take the leaf down the rapids, or slam it up against a log, or wash it up on a random beach. Whatever happens, though, we get to tell ourselves that we weren’t to blame, that what happened was done to us. That’s the emotional payoff of passivity.

Conflict avoidance is perhaps the most common form of passivity. For many of us, conflict is frightening. As children, conflict may have usually resulted in feeling rejected, hurt, and alone—so we learned to avoid it as much as we could, often by keeping quiet.

Yet conflict is an unavoidable part of life. When we try to avoid conflict, we create a new conflict within ourselves. As a result, tension forms around that conflict. This tension is not between us and another person; it’s inside us. Then we become upset or angry about what may or may not happen. Because we keep this conflict inside ourselves, there’s no risk of rejection. That’s the payoff for us. Yet if we regularly repeat this behavior—and, if we’re conflict avoidant, we probably will—then, over time, our anger collects, and our resentments build. This often leads to depression.

Furthermore, when we repeatedly avoid conflict, we tend to let others take advantage of us. This only adds to our anger and resentment. Eventually, something inside us rebels. It can no longer tolerate not being counted, not being listened to. We may suddenly blow our top and lash out. Either we lash out at others or we get angry with ourselves for not speaking up. Then we punish ourselves, become depressed, or both.

In short, when we choose conflict avoidance, we might manage to avoid immediate discomfort. However, we usually create long-term misery.

When adults are chronically conflict avoidant, that form of passivity often began as a sensible adaptation to a childhood in which most conflicts led to them being harmed or rejected. They learned they were better off giving in than standing up for themselves.

Paradoxically, some chronically avoidant adults were feisty children who did regularly stand up for themselves. However, their parents repeatedly punished or rejected them for their feistiness—and they eventually surrendered.

Other chronically avoidant adults were born with more passive natures. Many of these people struggled with asserting themselves from a very young age. Now they rarely stand up for what they want or need, and they tend to cave in easily, get discouraged easily, and have little resilience. They have learned to take whatever life offers, the good and the bad, and don’t usually ask for—or work for—anything different.

When faced with conflict as adults, chronically passive people tend to get better and better at becoming silent and not making waves. Whether this passivity is partly natural or 100 percent learned, two common fears are behind it: a fear of becoming vulnerable, and a fear of being rejected if they speak their truth, or take a stand that might displease someone.

Often there is another subtle motive behind passivity: if we believe that other people are ultimately responsible for our happiness, then there is no need to advocate for ourselves. We get to be irresponsible about creating our own happiness—and we get to blame others when we’re feeling down or when things don’t go our way.

Yet chronic passivity is never an adequate response to life. There are times when each of us needs to get a canoe and a paddle, put them into the river, and start paddling and steering in the direction we want our life to go.