The Magic of Malicious Compliance: Why People Engage in Self Sabotage

If there is such a thing as dark personal magic, then “malicious compliance” is surely one of its best and worst manifestations. Intended as an equalizer and liberator, malicious compliance traps the malicious complier in a conflicted cycle of self-damaging, self-diminishing vengeance-that-is-supposed-to-heal. In the regular world, the maliciously compliant person seeks to harm another by doing exactly what the other wants. In Marin-style NLP, what I also notice is that the maliciously compliant person is also seeking to heal everyone in their family—their family of origin. More on this part later in the article.

Malicious compliance is a tactic for causing pain and getting even. The Wikipedia entry for malicious compliance describes it well:

Malicious compliance is the behavior of a person who intentionally inflicts harm by strictly following the orders of management or following legal compulsions, knowing that compliance with the orders will cause a loss of some form resulting in damage to the manager’s business or reputation, or a loss to an employee or subordinate. In effect, it is a form of sabotage used to harm leadership or used by leadership to harm subordinates.[1]

When labor unions want to punish management, they have their union members “work to rule.” It is a non-strike way of striking. Wiki puts it this way:

A work-to-rule is malicious compliance utilized as a form of industrial action, wherein rules are deliberately followed to the letter in a deliberate attempt to reduce employee productivity.

As I understand it, the enlisted ranks of the military are a good source for malicious compliance stories. There is one about the sergeant who ordered the privates to get tin pails and mops, and clean up the floor of huge, empty building. The sergeant came back hours later. The men were standing in the supply shed, “waiting for orders,” because the only pails they could find in the shed were made of plastic, not tin. After all, the sergeant has specified “tin pails.”

Here is an excerpt from a current blog. The writer is recounting his experience as an enlisted man in the Air Force, dealing one day with a particularly arrogant major:

As Bernie and I dutifully approached his desk, he reperched his glasses to his nose that allowed him to peer up at us in a most contemptuous way. “Now boys”, he spoke so slowly and deliberately to make sure that even a Neanderthal could understand him. “I want this room painted all white.” To add insult to injury, he ordered me to repeat his order. “You want the room all white”, I repeated back his order mechanically with a special emphasis on the word “all”. The major didn’t pick up on the bitterness in my voice but Bernie did. He was holding his head down grinning from ear to ear…………..Finally we settled on a solution, we would paint the room just as we were order – ALL WHITE! When we hit on this solution, we were inspired.……..Everything got painted “white”. Ceiling, walls, floors, window panes even the desk, chair and phone were double-coated. Nothing was spared. Electrical switches, doorknobs and overhead light fixtures were not missed…………..The major got his wish! (quotation verbatim from

Malicious compliance is a preferred method by which the (apparently) righteously powerless can punish, and perhaps correct, the rude, unfair behavior of the (apparently) villainous and powerful. Children, including very young children, use the technique to try to punish and control their families, especially their parents. A brief tour down anyone’s memory lane will reveal thousands of maliciously compliant moments, some of them actually expressed as external behavior. Most moments of inspired malicious compliance are simply archived in the child’s mind, brilliant ideas and schemes to be pulled out later in case of extreme parental unfairness.

All maliciously compliant schemes begin with the words, “I’ll show you!” Some simple examples:

Parent: “Go to your room, and stay there! I don’t want to see you outside of that room again, do you understand me!?”

Child (in thought only): “Fine. I’ll go to my room, and I’ll never leave, and I’ll pee on the floor, and never go to school, and I’ll starve to death, and smell really bad, and then you’ll be sorry!”


Parent, during some sort of upset: “I don’t want to hear one more sound out of you, not one sound! Do you understand me! Do you?” Many hours later, at the dinner table, long after the parent has forgotten the upset, the child refuses to speak to anyone. The child’s plan is, “Fine. I’ll never speak again, if that’s what you want…..and then you’ll be sorry!”

Of course, in the usual flow of family give-and-take, these fantasies of compliant revenge are short-lived; they are quickly displaced by the child’s desire to re-engage with parents, family, and life. Few children actually succeed in never leaving their rooms again, or never again speaking, and so forth. But it’s the principle of the thing that counts, and the hope that underlies the principle. The principle is that the world that parents create for their children should not be unfair, capricious or cruel. The child’s hope, the tremendously important part of all of this, is that they can correct perceived parental abuse and incompetence by using “industrial action for children”—by maliciously complying with what the parental authorities claim to want, and with what these authorities improperly assert about those in their power.

As an example: if you, as a parent, continually pound into your kid the message, “You’re worthless and you’ll never amount to anything,” then your child will be tempted to maliciously comply with you—and to punish you—by growing up and not amounting to anything, and then you’ll be sorry. However, your child’s much more profound hope is that when you perceive what you have caused, you will not only be sorry and feel very, very, very bad, but that you will actually change. When you, the parent, change, then things will be better for the child—and everyone else in the family. Thus, in the domain of the child’s powerful, other-than-conscious creativity (the domain of beliefs and decisions), all your child has to do to force you to make things better is to make sure that things stay really, really, really bad—forever, or until you change, whichever comes first. (For a humorous and superbly wince-worthy demonstration of malicious compliance, view the “soap poisoning” sequences in the Gene Sheppard’s movie, A Christmas Story.)

The unconscious, identity-level patterning that blossoms out of this transformation of malicious compliance (“I will punish you by being who you say I am”) into “beatific compliance” (“I will save us all by making you better parents”) is breath-takingly long-lived. A little kid’s identity has no power in painful and abusive situations, except for two things: the child can control the intensity and the duration of their own suffering—nothing else. In desperately in-pain families, children are forced to conclude that they cannot ever be good enough, perfect enough, smart enough, etc., to stop Mom and Dad from making it bad. This then requires the kids to go to their own maliciously/beatifically compliant Plan B: “Dear Mom and Dad, I can’t stop you from making it bad, but you can’t stop me from keeping it bad, and maybe even making it worse, so I am actually in charge of all of this awfulness, not you. I can control how I feel and determine who I am, not you. I will protect you and cover for you. I will make sure that you don’t hurt me. I will hurt me in your stead. And I will never let this change until you have a chance to develop some more and get things right, because that’s how much I love you.” Malicious compliance thus transforms into delicious compliance.

In Marin-style NLP, we presuppose that all children love their parents, and that all parents love their children. This is not a variable in life. What does vary is how this love will be demonstrated. Some families are fortunate to be able to show love as love. In other families, love will be shown as something twisted, torqued, and ugly. Damaging ourselves our whole lives—by insisting on a reality in which we are unworthy, unloveable, or unsafe, in an unworkable effort to retroactively redeem our parents and correct our family’s story—is a profoundly beautiful expression of truly ugly love.

This is where we come back to “The Worst Belief in the World.” As you may recall from our previous article, the worst belief in the world is, “The most dangerous thing I can do is think that I am not in danger.” In addition to having to deal with being hijacked by their brain’s out-of-date, creature-level safety patterning, everyone with this “worst belief” is also operating from both malicious and delicious compliance. The malicious expression is something like, “I’ll show you! If you are going to make it so scary to be me, then I will stay scared my whole life! And I hope you’re watching while it happens! And then you’ll be sorry!” The loving, delicious version is, “Dear parents, if you can’t do any better than to make it totally scary to be me, then in your honor I will keep it totally scary, until you can do better. I want you to be able to be good parents. It’s not good for you if you’re not good parents.”

Thus, to revise the “worst belief” we have to update our old safety patterning and ease ourselves away from the consolations of our equally old patterning for malicious and (arrogantly, pointlessly) loving compliance. The good news is that both of these transitions and revisions are available. In fact, we all seem to be wired to naturally install these updates as soon as we are ready—as soon as we want to allow the new experiences.