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The Overlooked Factor in Criminal Behavior

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One way to suffer greatly is to break the law and go to jail. More than two million people are incarcerated in the United States, so there's a lot of suffering going on behind bars and in the hearts of caring families. Our society is addressing the problem rather ineptly because we don't understand the single most important cause of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality.

Numerous competing theories--including biological, sociological, psychological, and political--are proposed for the cause of criminal behavior. Little consensus is established among the experts. Supporters of each theory barricade themselves and their doctrines against all comers.

These different schools agree on one point, though. They all identify as a decisive factor the criminal's devotion to aggressive behavior and the discharge of aggressive acts. However, none of these schools have identified this aggression with sufficient clarity. Criminal aggression springs out of a condition in the human psyche that in psychoanalysis has been called "inner passivity." Criminals are extremely passive and weak in the sense that, much of the time, they are not accessing the powers of self-regulation and integrity. They are failing to act wisely or appropriately on their own behalf.

Knowledge of inner passivity is important because it can help many criminals become rehabilitated. To some degree, all of us have this psychological condition in our psyche.   While inner passivity rises to the level of a psychological disorder in criminals, it can cause much suffering and self-defeat among the rest of us.

Our success and well-being require healthy aggression as we make our way in the world. However, the criminal's profound inner passivity blocks access to the ability to function at this level. Their inner passivity causes them to feel overwhelmed by the requirements of living appropriately and wisely. Healthy aggression in the pursuit of socially approved success is not an option for criminals because their overflowing reservoir of inner passivity overrides the capacity for self-protection and self-advancement.

However, criminals must compensate in some manner for their passivity to save face and avoid the appearance of being weak. They seize on negative aggression as a compensating sense of power. However, this aggression is only an illusion of true power. Their negative aggression becomes their instinctive path of least resistance. T he aggressiveness of criminals is entirely reactive and phony. It is a self-defeating force rebounding off their profound inner passivity. Such neurotic aggression is easily provoked, and behind it is the unconscious expectation of defeat.

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In other words, their aggression is a defense that covers up their emotional entanglement in profound passivity. This entanglement can be described as an emotional attachment to the feeling of passivity, or even a kind of emotional addiction to that feeling. These individuals typically hate authority. Just the sight of a police officer can trigger or set off their unresolved attachment to feeling passive. Instinctively, they deny this attachment. Thus, their hatred is an unconscious defense that makes this case: "I am not hopelessly entangled in feeling passive. Can't you see how much I hate it when someone (authority) tries to restrict me, control me, or tell me what to do!" Yet they can be extremely passive to those in a criminal hierarchy, in part because these criminal higher-ups are not opposed to them but are "aligned" with the use of phony aggression to cover up underlying passivity.

All of us at times react to our inner conflicts with displays of phony or reactive aggression, sometimes in the form of angry outbursts or retaliation, other times as more subtle and subdued passive-aggressive rebellion. One difference between a normal person and a criminal is the degree of self-damage that occurs in the acting-out.

Criminals unconsciously bargain for punishment. Evidence can be seen in their unnecessary provocations and in the "silly mistakes" they frequently make that lead to their apprehension and incarceration. The criminal recreates this inner dynamic: He feels helplessly trapped and limited by his inner passivity, and he ends up in a prison cell trapped and pinned down by the authorities. Just as on an inner level he is profoundly passive, he "acts out" by becoming a passive cog in a harsh penal system.

Not only is the criminal's unconscious ego (the seat of inner passivity) especially weak, his inner critic or superego is particularly corrupt and demanding. On an inner level, the passivity of criminals makes them targets of self-condemnation and self-hatred directed from their superego through their unconscious ego. Inwardly, they absorb from their superego high levels of self-disparagement, self-abuse, and self-hatred, which then cause them to relate to the world with the same negative insensitivity with which they are treated by their superego.

These facts can be taught to criminals in the penal system. Many of them could absorb this psychological knowledge. They can strengthen themselves emotionally and have a chance to live a normal life by understanding that their compulsion to be aggressive has been covering up underlying passivity.

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Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)

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We might save ourselves a lot of money and grief b... by Peter Michaelson on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012 at 10:37:02 AM
Psychiatric science might be more productive induc... by Michael Rose on Wednesday, Jan 11, 2012 at 1:52:54 PM
"Criminals are extremely passive and weak in the s... by Burl Hall on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012 at 3:36:17 PM
I'm not so sure, Mr. Michaelson.   ... by steveswimmer on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012 at 3:55:47 PM
 "inner passivity"  , or learned helples... by zzz05 on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012 at 4:27:24 PM
I'd replace "passivity" with "Low BS tolerance" an... by Bob Stuart on Wednesday, Jan 11, 2012 at 9:30:59 AM
General theories, applied generally, produce ... by Ned Lud on Wednesday, Jan 11, 2012 at 9:39:37 AM
'Not only is the criminal's unconscious ego (the... by Mark Sashine on Wednesday, Jan 11, 2012 at 10:20:00 AM
Peter Michaelson writes touchingly of why some&nbs... by Robert McNiff on Thursday, Jan 12, 2012 at 4:37:29 PM