Why are these the choices: passive, assertive, or aggressive? How many people, who don’t identify as female, realize the daily twists, turns, and frustration of dancing between them? And why is passiveness generally associated with being female? If we try to become assertive, we easily go “too far” for others. It’s a frustrating game with seemingly no right answers. And, honestly, what is being passive? Passive could seem easy going or perhaps it’s being nice to others, going with the flow, or easy to get along with. It could also mean passive aggressive or not saying what I really want (or mean) or not wanting to rock the boat or letting people walk over me. A state of passiveness is full of anxiety, anger, indecision, and feeling trapped within myself. This is just from a white woman’s lens. Layers of racism and LGBTQ phobia intersect making the passive state potentially one of silencing and trauma.
Maybe a few warrior poses will kick it out of me. While energizing, the warrior pose has never infected me with courage. Nor have I been able to maintain that energy once in a meeting or, god forbid, an interview. Passivity is steeped in gender and LGBTQ inequality and racism. In professional environments, silence can be viewed as agreement, which in most cases it is quite the opposite. More like fear to speak up for a myriad of reasons (such as: didn’t actually get an opportunity to speak; fear of retaliation; fear of looking dumb; etc). In personal relationships, passiveness could be perceived as being nice and getting along with others when in actuality it could be coming from fear of violence or so much personal anger the only place to exist is in passiveness.
It looks like there is a common thread of fear no matter who may be actively passive. There’s also another thread being exposed that’s only showing the cultural and societal definition of being passive. So far it looks as though culture has given passiveness a bad wrap. Probably more associated with the feminine than masculine and more accepted with women than men. Though, to be honest, there are probably not too many people that would like to be called passive. So I began wondering about other ways in which passivity may show up.
For starters, passiveness may include listening to another person while taking in their facial expression and body language. In a passive state I can, and do, listen to my own body – its sensations, emotions, and thoughts. I’m able to check in with my entire body. See where I’m at, how I’m doing, and if there’s anything that’s bubbling for my attention. Sometimes when I’m being passive, I’m taking in the world around me. It doesn’t actually seem like a negative to be in this state. I’m hearing cars go by, the refrigerator, my extra loud heater, birds calling, a plane going by, and the sound of pets rearranging themselves. I’m seeing my living room, feeling the pen in my hand, noticing the lamp and the morning light beginning to break through the windows.
Sometimes passivity is a forced silence and other times a simple state of appearing less active. For we are rarely actually doing nothing. Even while watching a show or movie, our bodies may be sedentary, but our minds are not. My mind is filing and organizing everything I watch. It’s informing and telling me things whether neutral, harmful, or helpful. Even a bath isn’t a state of nothingness. When I lay in the tub, I reconvene with my body and sensations. And many times, my mind is like a freight train full of thoughts to weed through or just ignore. Anxious thoughts wondering if I should of said something when I didn’t (or even worse, angry that I didn’t say something), if I should have not said something when I did (anxious and worrying thoughts if I should go back to the person), should I of said it differently (also anxious and worrying if I should return to that person), or did I show too much emotion (and if I did, do I feel embarrassed, shame, humiliation?). The passive dance is fraught with this four-step swing on a daily basis. For women of color or trans women this dance careens wildly with racism and transphobia. So take my anxiety and constant questioning and magnify times a hundred at minimum.
This is not an either/or scenario and it feels like being passive is either being fully present in a moment (much less the case) or hiding from and obsessing over it (much more the case). In the latter, I could be passive out of fear of what someone might do or say or even think about me. I could be avoiding a difficult conversation, or even worse, attempting to avoid further trauma. Maybe I’m too anxious to say what needs to be said, worried it will upset someone and create conflict. Maybe I can’t stop wondering about the moment to the point where I become confused on which direction I should even go. I’m worried someone will think I’m not smart enough and then won’t be taken seriously at work.
As women, specifically white women, being quiet and agreeable and calm is ingrained well before adulthood. I’m not exactly sure in my upbringing I can think of specific examples where my parents taught me this. But I do recall it from teachers, TV shows, movies, and all the people I came into contact with. It’s so ingrained that I can’t even find the thread. It’s so internalized that it took me years to realize that it wasn’t actually who I was but who I had learned to be (and very quickly at that). Passiveness is a constant place of anxiety and questioning. And it’s a place where anger begins and builds because I spend so much freaking time thinking about it.
Now, merge all this with the abrupt change into adulthood working predominantly with men and being expected to relinquish this learning. Because now being passive might mean I don’t care, or worse, I don’t know. With a lack of initiative showing, or what appears to be so, and I begin to get passed up at work.
Passive holds cultural significance, trauma, confusion, anxiety, and ultimately, anger. As a woman, if I’m not passive will I be labeled authoritative or moody (i.e. untrustworthy)? Damned if I act, damned by my own emotions and mind if I don’t. As women we are internalized (by culture and others) to care for others, so not caring what other people think can be a hard ask.
So let’s reset. When we are taking time to listen to our bodies and the world around us or simply listening to someone next to us, these are beautiful passive and connective moments. Unfortunately, more often than not, we experience passive as a safety precaution either when in a harmful scenario or in less traumatic states such as protecting what people think about me. Regardless, I can’t seem to find where the state of being passive is being forced on me whether unintentionally or not. I don’t know how many times a day I get paranoid that I’m talking too much in a conversation unless I’m with other female friends. And this isn’t a worry after thirty minutes of talking. I begin feeling this worry just a few minutes into talking. I try to sum up what I have to say as quickly as possible less I am seen that I’m droning on.
You could say that after reading all this, it still looks like I have a choice. And, you’d be technically right. I do, maybe, potentially, at times have a choice. But don’t be fooled. First, this “choice” is wrapped in cultural and societal brainwashing as soon as I’m born and filled with conscious and unconscious expectations that then (second reason) immediately shift as an adult but not really. It shifts on the surface and yet I’m not really expected to be loud. It’s a mind game not a riddle where we hope the emotional fallout doesn’t wash us away. It’s frustrating having to do this dance every day, and as I’ve said earlier, this dance and frustration is only going to be worse, with more emotional fallout, for a woman of color or trans woman. It’s a landmine fraught with unintended emotional consequences that can, and does, affect our physical health.
So, what’s the answer? My first draft of this writing had a positive ending talking about how maybe there are choices that as a woman I can make. But I think it’s only a perception of choice, a mind game, a magic trick. Yes, I do have a choice on whether I’m passive or not as long as I’m okay with, and create a support system for, what will almost inevitably happen afterwards.