The Psychology of Complacency

A lot of depression arises from a chronic feeling that one is a victim. A victim of what? The emotions never really specify. The fact that you feel like a victim of some unnamed, unidentified “cause” creates a sense that life is futile, and that the pursuit of happiness, goals and values is pointless. Over time, it leads to a sense of depression.

From my experience, the person who feels victimized is most often his or her own worst enemy. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly once said through his animated creation, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It’s difficult to face. After all, when you’re depressed, the last thing you want to hear is that it’s all your fault. But it’s also liberating. If you’re the one creating the problem, you’re the one who can fix it.

What causes the sense of victimization resulting in depression? A lot of times, it’s a sense of complacency. Complacency is “a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements.” It’s a false belief that you’re doing the right things to advance or improve/maintain your life, when you’re really not. It’s a hostility or antipathy to criticism, self-awareness or soul-searching. Companies and businesses go through this. They become successful and they stagnate, or lose out against new competition when it develops. Individuals are the same way. They attain success or momentum in some area, and then they get stuck. They falsely believe they’re more “set” than they really are.

I’m not only talking about material or economic progress here, although that’s part of it. I’m also talking about “spiritual” or psychological, mental, emotional growth, as well. I find this a lot. Complacent people might thrive economically, and still be unhappy. They say things like, “I have a great income, I’m doing everything I want, I have great people in my life…but I’m still depressed. How can this be?” Usually the problem here is complacency. The person has attended to material progress, and even personal relationship progress, quite well. But he or she has not checked in with him- or herself on a regular enough basis to identify, “How happy am I with this? Am I missing out on anything? Do I need or want any course corrections here?” The failure to do this leads to a sense of victimization. “Something’s not going right.” Resentment and anger build, eventually collapsing into depression when answers never emerge.

In psychology, there’s a concept known as locus of control. Some people have a more internal locus of control, while others have a more external locus of control. People with an external locus of control tend to feel like outside sources are running the show. “Society,” God, family, biological destiny, the environment, just to name a few examples. People like this get bent out of shape and ultimately depressed. Why? Because they’re focused on how someone or something else has written the script for their life, and they don’t get a say in it. The more they come to accept this form of determinism or fatalism, often masked as scientific truth and not only religion, the more their depression and accompanying sense of futility grow. People with an internal locus of control grasp the power of their own actions, choices, thinking and attitudes in shaping their own destinies. They are much less prone to depression and rarely suffer from complacency because they recognize they’re in the driver’s seats of their own lives.

A lot is made of the up and coming millennial generation. More and more young people, we’re hearing, are lost and adrift, unable or unwilling to move out of their parents’ homes, get their own jobs/careers/health insurance, and so forth. What’s going on? If you scratch the surface with such individuals, you’ll almost always find a sense of complacency. On the surface, it’s depression. The person appears and often sincerely is unmotivated, not ambitious, not driven. But you’ll often find, in such cases, a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder resentment, or sense of entitlement, arising from this sense of complacency, from the false belief that one is more qualified to engage in the pursuit of values than one has really taken the time to become. A lot of these millennials were exposed to parents, teachers and others who reinforced for them the false belief that they’re not only entitled to the vast amount of wealth and accomplishment around them, but that such plenty comes into existence far easier than it really does, or can. Most prior generations were exposed to the idea, “You can make something of yourself, but it’s up to you to do it.” Complacency blocks such thinking in individuals, and on the social level as well.

Complacent individuals expect things to happen automatically and easily, with little or no effort expended. That’s one problem. The complacent person becomes easily disappointed, easily frustrated and then angry that things are not going as smoothly as he or she thinks they should. There’s a subconscious (and even conscious) sense that, “Others don’t have to work this hard. It isn’t fair.” Ultimately this leads to some kind of depression, because this “stinkin’ thinkin'” doesn’t lead to anything but a chronic sense of futility and victimization. It’s a modern form of fatalism, whereby the person feels as if someone or something else has written the script of his or her life, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. And the snake oil salespersons in the media, politics, and even the medical and mental health professions often stand ready to exploit that sense of victimization by claiming, in one form or another, “You’re right. It’s not your fault. You’re entitled to better. Get angry.” Well, anger is a nice alternative to depression, at least for a time. But in the end, you’re still stuck with the complacency that gave rise to the depression.

The alternative to complacency is a fresh perspective. Yes, therapy, but only if “therapy” means a whole new way of looking at yourself, your mind and your choices. It includes a willingness to believe that your own attitudes and thinking, including subconscious thinking, give rise to your emotions and ultimately your behaviors. It’s a spirit of honest and ongoing self-reflection/self-criticism whereby one reasons, “Obviously, if I’m unhappy, I’m doing something wrong here. I have some faulty assumptions and my choices are not, over time, leading to what I want. At the same time, I have the ability to figure out which choices are mistaken, and why, and make changes in my thinking and action that will yield better results.” Sure, the answers are not usually self-evident, and sometimes (rational) professional help is required. But self-change has to be your operating premise. So long as it is, there’s always hope, and you no longer have to be the victim of your own complacency.

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