Passive Behaviours, Autonomy and … Isolation

Category: Blog

We all have the capacity to engage in passivity, and do so to a greater or lesser degree. Examples of this are when you may have put something off, or haven’t done it all, or when you re-direct your energy rather than do something that seems too big, or too hard or you feel it is impossible to accomplish. That is what ‘passivity’ in the TA sense means.

The passive behaviours

With lockdown and isolation, we have had messages from authority figures, and we will each have had our own reaction to the message. So what might have been the impact on our behaviour? Passivity is a behavioural response when we face a problem that we believe cannot be solved, and we have a helpless / hopeless reaction to that situation. We then engage in certain behaviours to discharge the emotional tension. There are four passive behaviours that are apparent when someone is feeling unable to deal with the situation at hand:

  1. Doing nothing – a non-response, we channel our energy into inhibiting responses rather than taking action. We might say “I am confused by all this advice”; or “I can’t think straight”; or “I don’t know what to do”. Anyone that tries to help might get dragged in and end up doing nothing too.
  2. Over-adaptation – not identifying our own goals for getting through the situation. We might check what our friends are doing and do the same or let someone else in the family decide and go along with the decision.
  3. Agitation - doing things that are pointless, feeling uncomfortable and/or confused. We engage in repetitive, non-goal directed activity and the avoidance behaviours use up energy. We do actions and make movements, but none of that is directed to solving the problem.
  4. Incapacitation or violence – this is a discharge of energy built up due to being passive. We might begin to feel ill with minor ailments or become violent and harm self or others. When we engage in this behaviour, we take no responsibility for our action, “He made me so mad, I couldn’t help myself” or buy into the idea that we just cannot stand it any longer. Violence takes many forms, physical violence, verbal violence, and emotional violence. Table banging, door slamming and shouting are everyday examples.

When we are stuck in a passive behaviour, we engage in amplification or displacement. With amplification we:

  • Turn up the volume on the internal dialogue
  • Become overwhelmed
  • Discount our ability to engage in any problem solving

And with displacement we:

  • Ignore the problem that is troubling us
  • Turn our attention to smaller problems
  • Allow issues that we can normally resolve get blown out of proportion

How does knowing this help?

Start by identifying the passive behaviour in yourself and use the antidote:

  1. Doing nothing – do nothing in awareness (Adult decision), i.e. know what you’re (not) doing
  2. Over-adaptation – say what you want or think
  3. Agitation – decide where you want to put your energy
  4. Incapacitation or violence – (feeling unwell or lashing out) – do something soothing

Once we make choices in awareness, we are more able to think logically. Identifying one thing that is under our control that will ease the situation and will be helpful. When we move from passivity to action, we shift the block. We do not have to do this on our own, we can ask for help and we can help others.

Thinking about self, ask

  • “What am I discounting?”
  • “What passive behaviour do I often revert to?”
  • “What can I do?”
  • “What conversation do I want to have and with whom?”

Thinking about others

  • What might they need?
  • How can I check it out?
  • What can I offer? (Often simple things.)

Autonomy is the goal of TA.

Berne did not actually define autonomy per se but rather said that the attainment of autonomy is manifested by the release of three capacities:

  1. Awareness
  2. Spontaneity
  3. Intimacy

It is the ability to act in response to here and now reality and our own needs, wishes and view of reality and not to be controlled by outdated beliefs, the demands of an internal Parent ego-state or gremlin.

Autonomous behaviour is characterised by an awareness of self, others and the world, spontaneous behaviour, open expression of authentic feelings and a willingness to enter intimacy forming real relationships with others. The achievement of autonomy indicates freedom from our unconscious predetermined life plan.

Everyone has the capacity to obtain a measure of autonomy, but in spite of the fact that it is a human birth right, few actually achieve it.

Autonomy has three capacities:

Awareness is knowing what is happening now. It results from peeling away layers of contamination in our belief system and the ability to stop replaying old messages stored in our unconscious mind. We begin to hear, see, smell, touch, taste and evaluate independently. Old opinions that distort perceptions are shed and we perceive the world through personal encounter rather than the way we were taught to see it.

An aware person:

  • listens to the messages of the body and notices when she is tense and withdrawn or relaxed and open
  • knows the inner world of feelings and fantasies and is not afraid or ashamed to have them
  • hears other people, listening and giving active feedback when they talk
  • makes genuine contact with the other person by listening and talking


Spontaneity is the freedom to choose from the full range of behaviour and feelings, rather than the restricted range learned in childhood.

A spontaneous person:

  • is spontaneous and flexible
  • sees many options available and uses behaviour that seems to be appropriate to the situation and goals
  • is liberated, making, and accepting responsibility for personal choices
  • has rid themselves of the compulsion to live a predetermined lifestyle
  • faces new situations and explores new ways of thinking, feeling, and responding
  • constantly increases and re-evaluates a repertoire of possible behaviour
  • recaptures the ability to decide independently


In the process of developing the capacity for intimacy the person becomes more open, learns to 'let go' becomes more revealing by dropping some of the social façade.

Intimacy is:

  • expressing the childlike feelings of warmth, tenderness, and closeness to others
  • the avoidance of playing psychological games
  • taking the risk of being vulnerable
  • communicating our genuine needs and wants and encouraging others to do this as well
  • seeing things as they are
  • living in the here and now

The autonomous person

The autonomous person is concerned with being. They allow their capacities to unfold and encourage others to do the same. We prefer to call this personal potency, knowing how to take our space in the world with respect for others, and how to encourage others to do the same.

How might the experience of the global pandemic have affected our capacity for intimacy? Here are some thoughts, and three questions:

  1. Government impose Parental control – hierarchical symbiosis
  2. Messages from Parent and Adult to the Child ego state
  3. Reaction to the messages – resonance with childhood messages? Reigniting the gremlin?
  4. Expectation of being controlled for our own good
  5. Symbiosis and passivity
  6. The role of the media in distributing the messages – scare – frighten the children into obedience?
  7. Expectations of leaders as we ease out of lockdown – might people expect more direction and control and less involvement/empowerment

And the questions are:

  1. What might organisational leaders need to do differently to ease people back into the workplace and create the new normal?
  2. As coaches and consultants what is our role in supporting autonomy (personal potency)?
  3. What work might we need to do on ourselves to prepare for our work with others?


Written by Sandra Wilson and Colin Brett, who ask you nicely not to plagiarise their work.
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