Join 3,559 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


How can I stop being passive?
November 10, 2006 10:29 PM   Subscribe

How can I stop being passive?

I've gotten feedback from people that I am very passive.

This honestly doesn't bother me; I basically like how I am. For whatever reason, things that bother other people don't seem to bother me. In fact, I don't even notice how it comes across to others that I'm passive. I've always been rather introverted and I avoid confrontation unless it's *really* necessary (I can confront someone if I'm really feeling wronged, but it takes a lot for me to feel the need).

There are few ways that I think my supposed passivity becomes a problem. First is that it may be what is holding me back in my career. People probably won't promote someone who they think is too passive. Second, it seems to bother other people because they read it as symptomatic of low self esteem. And finally, some people take advantage of people who they perceive as passive.

I say “supposed passivity” because in a way, I actually feel that may behavior shows inner confidence, and this inner confidence means that I don't feel the need to exert my will/stand up for myself as outwardly as others do. Unfortunately, I don't think many people get that about me. Americans are so "confidence happy" that I feel that I'll never get anywhere unless I become more confident. For example, I have had many people tell me that I am quite attractive, yet I don't seem to have much luck dating; only very few people who seem to "get me."

To boil it down: I don't know if being perceived as passive really is a problem or if I should just accept this as part of myself since I feel comfortable this way. I guess the real problem for me is that other people see it as a problem. The second part of the question is that if I do decide to work on it, how do I do it? I can try to examine my own behavior more closely, but this just makes me feel terribly self conscious—not a feeling that is likely to make me act more assertive or outwardly confident.
posted by mintchip to Human Relations (19 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
i think you'll find that one of the downsides of being passive is you'll end up with lots of very aggressive romantic partners (i know i do), because only the ones aggressive enough to make the first move end up dating you
posted by matkline at 11:06 PM on November 10, 2006


Um, it shouldn't matter but it does -- are you male or female?
posted by Methylviolet at 11:10 PM on November 10, 2006


Three thoughts on why it might be bad to be passive. (Of course I have no idea if any of these really apply to your situation! When I say "you" in examples, I just mean hypothetically.)

1. In a couple of your previous questions, you talk about feeling a lot of anxiety over small things, and about getting your feelings hurt easily. Do you feel like those things are connected to the behavior other people are seeing as "too passive"?

Maybe you say to friends "I wish Brenda wasn't so mean to me today. I've been upset about it all day." and your friends say "Well, go talk to her about it", and you refuse? If other people's behavior upsets you, and it's reasonable for it to upset you, then it's often best to just speak to them directly and non-confrontationally about it. ("Brenda, when you said that my report was bad, that was upsetting. I've already shown you two drafts of it, and this is the first criticism I've heard. It would be more productive if you could tell me specifically what you would like changed. And in the future, tell me about problems when we're still in the early drafts.") This clears the air, allows you to get on with your day without being sad about the unresolved meanness, and frees your colleagues from having to be go-betweens or listen to you complain without acting.

2. Are you ever "passive-aggressive"? That is, saying things like "oh, don't worry about me guys, I'll just stay here in the office while you all go out and have lunch... [heavy sigh]" when what you mean is "hey guys, mind if I join you for lunch?"

That example is an exaggeration, but maybe you're familiar with the kind of pattern I mean. It's a pattern where Sally expects ahead of time that she's unwanted, a bit of a burden, but still hopes that the rest of the gang will be willing to put up with her presence... that maybe, someone will take pity on her and invite her along. Getting into this kind of pattern is easy and very bad! It can feel like just being humble, not assuming that people want you along. But be wary of this! Passive aggressiveness requires other people to constantly be "looking out for" you, taking care of you because you're not doing the adult thing and standing up for/taking care of yourself. This is tiring, and most adults don't want to have this responsibility, so the passive aggressive pattern will cut into your social life.

3. Something else to think about is that passive people, for example people who never express preferences about what restaurant to go to, make more work for the group.

Suppose you and two other people are going for lunch. Jim wants Chinese, Pat wants Italian, and they turn to you. "Oh, I don't care," you say, feeling like this will make things easier. But in fact it makes it harder. Now Jim and Pat have to decide for the group; they're taking on some of the social work that could be shared. This isn't a problem when it happens occasionally; there will be days when any of us don't really care. But it's a problem if it always happens, because someone isn't doing their share of the social work.

This is true in work settings too. Do you -- unintentionally -- end up relying on colleagues to make decisions at work that you should make or contribute towards? Do you -- unintentionally -- rely on them to do office interactions that you should take care fo for yourself (like the example in my point 1)? If so, this is not just a cost-free personality quirk of yours; it affects others.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:26 PM on November 10, 2006 [7 favorites]


I'm exactly the same way, and have wondered about some of the same things myself. While I think LobsterMitten's 3 points are extremely valid (no. 3 in particular makes me reflect on my own situation), I think this

I say “supposed passivity” because in a way, I actually feel that may behavior shows inner confidence, and this inner confidence means that I don't feel the need to exert my will/stand up for myself as outwardly as others do.

really answers your own question.

Unfortunately, I don't think many people get that about me.

Never underestimate the power of being underestimated. I've found that it's easier to impress people when they don't really expect me to do/say/think what, in my mind, comes quite naturally.

In terms of letting others know that you're not a "pushover," I find that everybody draws a line somewhere, and, pushed enough, we all explode from time to time. Related to above, when this explosion comes from an otherwise "passive," "quiet"-type, people tend to regard it with more respect (or even slight fear). In any case, people get the mesage (i.e., NOT "pushover").
posted by war wrath of wraith at 12:05 AM on November 11, 2006


To some extent, though "exerting your will" is how you let other people get to know you. Not power games, just things like "I really like Chinese food" or "We should go to this great exhibit I've been wanting to see" or "I think we should do this project this way." If you don't put yourself on the line a little bit, if you always hold back what you think or how you feel (even if you're not consciously holding back, but instead just thinking that your opinion doesn't matter or isn't important), you are to some extent refusing to share yourself with others in ways that can be healthy and necessary for relationships.

While not passive, exactly, I am working on some of this same stuff myself. I think as an introvert I'm beginning to realize that sometimes I just need to take a deep breath and start dumping all the internal thoughts onto people, just as a courtesy, really. How are they supposed to know what I want or who I am if I never share any of that with them?
posted by occhiblu at 12:12 AM on November 11, 2006 [5 favorites]


I am a lot like you but, now that I'm older, I've come to accept myself. My passivity usually has more to do with being able to see both sides of almost every argument - not to the point of inaction when making a personal decision but, in public discussions about 'what should our group course of action be?', I keep my mouth shut unless I think the group is overlooking a dangerous fact or two. I absolutely hate chiming in and repeating what others have already said. I don't speak unless my personal opinion is being completely overlooked. I try to stay neutral so I'm not viewed as part of this or that faction.

Even when criticized, I often think 'there's a kernel of truth in their criticism.' I don't see myself as perfect, so it's hard to object too strongly.

I've seen many situations where people like you, in a really competitive environment, are suddenly viewed as the least controversial choice to head something up or manage a project. It could be that you are perceived as level-headed and thoughtful and not just wimpy.
posted by loosemouth at 4:29 AM on November 11, 2006


I think that the way you "give in" will affect this perception a lot. If you give in with a lowered head, reduced eye contact, or a mumbled, "That's fine," it seems passive. But if you give a wide smile and say, "It sounds good to me!" or "Hm, I see your point...we can do it your way," then you'll get a reputation for being easygoing and levelheaded.

Also, be sure to stick up for the things that matter to you. Even if you don't get your way you'll still be letting people know that you'll fight for what matters. That's how I lost the reputation for being passive, although I still have a reputation for being introverted.

As far as the dating goes, do you date other introverts? My husband gets me in a way that no extrovert ever has.
posted by christinetheslp at 6:49 AM on November 11, 2006


I think that the way you "give in" will affect this perception a lot. If you give in with a lowered head, reduced eye contact, or a mumbled, "That's fine," it seems passive.

Hmm, this may be where I need to do some work! I've had people tell me that I don't have good eye contact. I am okay during the course of conversation, I think, but I get nervous and distracted when I bump into someone or when first greeting them or saying goodbye. I do think I tend to avert eye contact, and I also tend to smile with just the corners of my mouth.

Ugh, humans are so complex and there are so many cues you can give off without knowing it!
posted by mintchip at 7:13 AM on November 11, 2006


I can try to examine my own behavior more closely, but this just makes me feel terribly self conscious—not a feeling that is likely to make me act more assertive or outwardly confident.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but I think examining your behavior is your first step. Trying to act assertive without the confidence to do so will only make you more self-conscious. Work on observing yourself for a little while...if you don't like what you see, either change it or accept it as part of who you are. Confidence will follow naturally once you are more aware and accepting of who you are...and then it will be easier to be assertive and stand up for yourself.
posted by phatkitten at 7:24 AM on November 11, 2006


I agree with the recommendation to examine your behavior. Know yourself.

When I read your initial post, what I thought was that it wasn't clear what you wanted. You said you were happy the way you are. You also indicated that you were troubled by what other people thought. You said that you had "inner confidence". But you wondered if you should try to change yourself because of what other people think.

This part: I can try to examine my own behavior more closely, but this just makes me feel terribly self conscious... ...makes me wonder if you might not be quite as comfortable with yourself as you say. This is not mean to be a criticism, but simply to urge you to clarify your self-knowledge and your desires.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:04 AM on November 11, 2006


Active doesn't have to mean aggressive. Are you engaged with what's going on around you? Do you have ideas, and share them with the group? Do you spot problems before they happen? Do you make well-timed and original jokes? Are you a fun person to be around? You'll need to answer "yes" to most of these questions if you want to get second dates or get noticed at work.

If you want to be more active, I would suggest the same kind of treatment as for mild depression: exercise, sleep, light, and eating well. Good luck.
posted by teleskiving at 8:24 AM on November 11, 2006


There's nothing wrong with being quietly confident. However, it seems like your thoughts are telling you that your behavior is not "optimal" (perhaps your friends suggest this as well).

Why not examine yourself deeply to see what the passivity is all about, and how it does or does not affect you? You could even go so far as to seek out a talented psychoanalyst and share your experiences and feelings. My uneducated guess is that you'd learn a lot and benefit. If you find that your behavior is optimal, then you'll be even more certain that you're living your life to its fullest.

Passivity isn't just about confrontation (as others have observed). You don't have to step on people to get to the top, but you'd probably help yourself by taking a bit more assertive role. Likewise, you won't suffer the consequences of drifting about wherever the wind blows you, or the mental/physical symptoms related to keeping things inside.

Good on you for thinking of this and starting to look at yourself, keep after it.
posted by powpow at 9:38 AM on November 11, 2006


mintchip writes...
I've always been rather introverted and I avoid confrontation unless it's *really* necessary

There are sliding scales of confrontation. To borrow from LobsterMitten's excellent response, some are as lightweight as casting the deciding vote in where to go to lunch. If you are avoiding casting that vote -- or just as bad, choosing between "italian" and "chinese" when you what you really want is indian, then I would say that is unhealthily aversive.


it seems to bother other people because they read it as symptomatic of low self esteem.

And I would agree. There's a slight chance that you are the first human ever born who had no wants, needs, or desires of their own. Assuming you're not that person, then you have every bit as much a right to have your agenda as other people do. If you don't have the respect for yourself to negotiate with people (i.e. confront them) for what you want, I would call that text-book low self esteem.

How can I stop being passive?
First, get a solid grip on what you want in this life. What you really want, not just what you think is possible given your never-be-at-odds-with-anyone constraint.

Second, decide that you have as much a right to what you want as everyone else.

Third, tell people you want indian for lunch[*]. You won't always get your way, but you'll certainly no longer appear to be a passive pushover with no opinions of your own.


[*] I am a trained professonal. Do not try these metaphors at home.
posted by tkolar at 9:43 AM on November 11, 2006 [2 favorites]


Are you ever "passive-aggressive"?

I am very much like mintchip. And while I'm not going to claim that I'm never passive-aggressive, I don't think I'm especially prone to p-a behavior. But another peril of passivity is that people often read p-a behavior into a passive person's motives. This happens to me all the time, and it used to totally baffle me, but I think I understand it now.

Someone: Hey asshole, why did you sit in the handicap seat?

Me: Sorry. I'm not really handicapped, but I twisted my ankle this morning. I sort of needed a seat close to the door.

Someone: Fine. But you don't have to be so fucking condescending!

Huh? I wasn't feeling condescending and I don't think I had a condescending tone in my voice. (Of course, I could just be horribly mistaken about myself.) But the thing is, I think it's so natural to get upset when someone calls you an asshole, that it seems weird to people when you don't counter with a snark or demand an apology. So it seems much more likely to people that a level-headed response is passive-aggressive than it's simply level-headedness.

I don't know why it doesn't bother me when someone calls me an asshole. It DOES bother me if it's a close friend, but not if it's a stranger. I think it's another symptom of introversion. Since I only bond with really close friends, strangers can't have that much of an effect on me. Which, I know, is bad in a way.

And maybe that's the ultimate problem that you and I have, mintchip. Maybe we give the impression that we're above other people or uninterested in engaging with the world (confrontation is a kind of engagement). I know in the deepest part of my heart that I'm no better than anyone else, but I've been told often that -- just be keeping my own council -- I come across as snobbish. So I realize it's a problem.

I really do think that the solution -- should you choose to try to change yourself -- is the same solution to any problem that involves changing your nature (exercising if you're a couch potato, dancing if you're clumsy, etc.) You just have to jump in and do it, even if it seems totally un-you. If you keep doing it, it may eventually seem more natural.
posted by grumblebee at 11:41 AM on November 11, 2006 [2 favorites]


Chin up, stand up straight, smile more. Open body posture. Walk more briskly. Look people in the eye, even when you're considering something they just said. (iow don't look away when you're thinking about something.) Try to pull your shoulders back a bit. Firm handshake. Don't talk about your personal problems with other people.
Also: Make them meet you on your time. If they have something to say to you, well - tell them to organize their thoughts in writing and "that's what my office is there for." (I try to use this more. If people think you're passive, they'll toss their thoughts to you on the fly. Make them win your approval.)
I know this stuff is pretty general, but is seems to work.
Basic professionalism stuff.

If none of that works, you can always kill a full-grown male hippo with your bare hands and wear its tusks around your neck as trophies. People will probably stop assuming you're a passive person after that.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:31 PM on November 11, 2006


Read Caring for your Introvert and understand that it's okay to be this way sometimes. As always, taking things to extremes can be bad, but you may give it some thought and realize that there's nothing wrong with you.
posted by chrisamiller at 3:15 PM on November 11, 2006


grumblebee: "Are you ever "passive-aggressive"?


Huh? I wasn't feeling condescending and I don't think I had a condescending tone in my voice. (Of course, I could just be horribly mistaken about myself.) But the thing is, I think it's so natural to get upset when someone calls you an asshole, that it seems weird to people when you don't counter with a snark or demand an apology. So it seems much more likely to people that a level-headed response is passive-aggressive than it's simply level-headedness.
"

I've noticed exactly that same thing, grumblebee, and I explained it the same way. I was also wondering if the OP was just thinking if he's passive because some type-A person told him he was. I get that sometimes too, and would rather believe that I've simply grown up with a different set of motivations than the majority of people.

I think it's natural for people to assume that everyone is motivated by pretty much the same things, and this is especially true for the more passionate types. In the end, it can be as hard for them to deal with your "levelheadedness" as it can for you to deal with their aggressiveness, but you can guarantee they're going to be more vocal about it. Also, I don't think this should affect your job in a bad way at all. Level-headed people make good managers and negotiators.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:02 PM on November 11, 2006


Lobstermitten did a good job above of laying this out, I think, but I'll add my 2¢ anyway...

It's important to remember that being active is not just a question of being controlling or aggressive; it can simply be being a contributing member of a group. I used to be more passive, and thought of my actions in terms of whether they would have negative impacts, but not in terms of whether they'd have positive impacts. I basically thought "neutral" behavior ('I dunno, what do you want to do') was actually neutral, when in reality it is basically a drain, because you are still actually there and need to be included, but are unwilling to put in your own energy and make things interesting.

You have to take some responsibility for things - coming up with topics of conversation, suggesting possible things to do, being involved. I have a couple friends who are still often quite passive, and it is irritating to hang out with them for too long, because they can never really be counted on to get the ball rolling, so to speak. My most interesting friends are the ones who have ideas and suggestions and find ways to make life exciting. That's the distinction I came to make - I could be a boring extra in the world, or I could add something to the show. SUre, it's more risky, and not everyone wants to hear what you have to add, but you only live once, and it's worth putting yourself out there a bit. So it is really not a question of "confidence" so much as "willingness to make an effort."

I think there is a certain kind of behavior some people pick up (probably especially women, and perhaps especially good looking women) of just kind of waiting for someone else to start telling the story. These people can be perfectly confident - even overly confident - but have an expectation that somehow someone else is going to notice how great they are and then everything will fall into place. It could happen - but it often won't.

To me, the hard part of life is taking action - it's easy to be confident in your capacities if you aren't taking the risk of really laying them on the table. It's harder to really work out where you're trying to go, and giving it everything you've got. I don't think it's a question of self-esteem, exactly - it's more to do with energy, courage, creativity, perseverence, etc.

Also, action does not need to be physically active - it is passive to go along on a big adventure you had no interest in or part in setting up, and it can be active to turn down such an enterprise - what ultimately makes your personality not passive (by my definition) is making choices, taking responsibility, and contributing to the scene around you.
posted by mdn at 5:29 PM on November 11, 2006 [9 favorites]


I think grumblebee and Mr. Gunn both make a really great point. More extroverted types might perceive you as passive, aloof, disengaged, etc. but I think that is really their hang up and not yours. You shouldn't have to change who you are just to please a bunch of loudmouths.

That being said, it's definitely not a bad idea to work on opening up a little bit. It's something I'm working on too. The easiest, and probably the most effective, things to work on are essentially cosmetic. Good posture, firm handshake, eye contact, etc.

occhiblu: I think as an introvert I'm beginning to realize that sometimes I just need to take a deep breath and start dumping all the internal thoughts onto people, just as a courtesy, really. How are they supposed to know what I want or who I am if I never share any of that with them?

I really agree with this sentiment as well although it's definitely tougher than just remembering not to slouch. I used to worry about talking too much, which really was ridiculous since I was barely speaking at all by other people's standards. I've tried to loosen my tongue a little bit and say the things I might normally just think to myself, even when I feel they're too trivial to mention. YMMV but it is working out fairly well for me.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 7:52 PM on November 11, 2006


« Older My googlefu has failed me: I c...   |  Hello lovies. Depression suff... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.