This is a new version of a blog I posted on this website in 2014. It goes into more detail about the process of freeing ourselves from emotional and behavioral problems. This revised version will appear in the Appendix of my latest book, which I expect to publish by April.
Readers who are suffering from misery and self-defeating behaviors would do well to be seeing a psychologist, psychotherapist, or mental-health counselor. People can benefit greatly having a compassionate professional, whose own mental health is strong and stable, help guide them through the perils of mental, emotional, and behavioral struggles. Individuals with a diagnosable mental disorder should definitely be under the care of a psychotherapist or psychiatrist or both.
Professionals practicing depth psychology are in the minority, and very few of them address inner conflict as presented in my books. However, people who want to learn and apply this knowledge can attempt to do so on their own. This self-help approach involves learning basic principles, while practicing inner watchfulness to see how the knowledge applies on a personal level. The basics of this approach involve a three-step process.
In the first step, people begin to distinguish between painful, damaging symptoms and the underlying source of these symptoms. The symptoms consist of recurring negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors. A wide range of symptoms are involved, and they include anger, worry, anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, self-pity, boredom, insomnia, cynicism, addictive behaviors, chronic patterns of failure, feelings of being overwhelmed and trapped, and psychosomatic ills.
These symptoms have a deeper source that arises mainly from inner conflict. This conflict involves the compulsive, usually unconscious replaying and recycling of the eight first hurts (feeling deprived, refused, helpless, controlled, criticized, rejected, abandoned, and betrayed). When triggered by one or more of these first hurts, unpleasant, often painful, and self-defeating symptoms arise. Inner conflict also involves, as well, persistent and frequent unconscious clashes between inner passivity and the inner critic.
People discover for themselves, in the second step, which of the first hurts they’re most reactive or sensitive to. This can often be done by reflecting back on childhood to determine for oneself which of the hurts was most frequently or painfully experienced. This is not about blaming parents or siblings for emotional injury. It’s about recognizing the unresolved hurts and consequential unhealthy patterns that we as adults are still compelled and unconsciously willing to keep replaying with ourselves, other people, and life itself. (Exercises provided in the Appendix of my book, Freedom from Self-Sabotage: How to Stop Being Our Own Worst Enemy, can help pinpoint the unresolved hurts to which we are most susceptible.)
Everyone has, as well, some degree of inner passivity. We can now begin, in inner watchfulness, to try our best to identify those times and places when we sense the influence of inner passivity. The more we recognize this influence, the more conscious we become and the quicker we heal.
In our mind and emotions, we often unconsciously pick up on threads of thought or feeling that arise from memories or impressions associated with inner passivity, the inner critic, or the first hurts. This is a critical moment in our inner life. Are we going to follow this thread or not? If we do follow it, hours and days of misery might ensue. This thread of negative memory, consideration, and speculation is a pathway into needless suffering. This is the moment when, if we’re practicing inner vigilance or mindfulness, we can quickly identify the thread and recognize it as an invitation to suffer. With inner vigilance, we come to our rescue and refrain from following the thread into the dark side. Protecting ourselves at these moments is an excellent example of being more conscious. We’re making conscious the moment when, in the past, we would have chosen unconsciously to follow the thread of negativity—and suffer accordingly.
The third step involves understanding psychological defenses. We use a variety of psychological defenses (unconscious expressions of our refusal to recognize inner truth) to cover up our readiness to feel these old attachments in various new contexts.
Anger is one of the most common defenses. As an example, someone who is attached to feeling rejected, criticized, or controlled becomes triggered, and he or she might get angry at the person who’s doing (or who appears to be doing) the rejecting, criticizing, or controlling. The unconscious defense contends: I’m not looking for the feeling of rejection (or criticism or control). Look at how angry I get at him for rejecting (or criticizing or controlling) me. Self-pity also serves as a defense: I’m not looking for rejection (or criticism or control). Look at how bad I feel, how much it hurts, when I am rejected (criticized or controlled). Notice in these two examples how the painful symptoms are also simultaneously being employed unconsciously as defenses.
Blaming others is another of the most common defenses. The defense contends: I’m not receptive to feeling rejected. I’m not looking for that feeling. Rejection is imposed upon me by others. I blame them for what I’m feeling. They’re the cause of the rejection I’m feeling. My disgust or anger at them is proof I don’t want to be rejected.
There are hundreds of ways we use defenses to cover up inner truth. You need some understanding of your defenses if you want to make progress in this method of depth psychology. It is a tricky business exposing the chicanery of self-deception when you don’t have a skilled therapist to assist you. Again, it can be done, especially if the instructions are clear enough. When we keep reflecting on this knowledge, insights are generated. The insights become new consciousness that overcomes misery and self-defeat.
Now, understanding this three-step process, you can better identify inner conflict as you work through an emotional attachment. Here are more details of how the process can unfold in step two:
Describe a situation in which you became upset. Did you feel that someone refused you, or tried to control you, reject you, or criticize you? Get beneath your surface symptoms such as anger or self-pity (or other symptoms listed in paragraph three of this section). Try to recognize the deeper hurt that you’re taking on and reacting to. This is your emotional attachment.
Let’s say you suspect that you’re reacting to the feeling of being criticized (one of the first hurts). Produce memories from your past in which you felt criticized. Was your mother or father critical of you? Were they critical of each other, and did either or both of them appear to have been self-critical? Did they disapprove of you? Did you feel you were a disappointment to them?
Where else in your life have you experienced feelings of being criticized? Did it happen in your relationships or at work? Think about and write down the different ways you have felt hurt by the criticism (or what you took for criticism) of others.
Ask yourself, “Am I a critical person?” “Do others experience me as being critical?” “Am I critical of myself?” The more we’re sensitive to feeling criticized, the more likely we’re self-critical as well as critical of others. Whenever you’re having painful, critical feelings toward others or yourself, recognize that your impulse to be critical comes from how you resonate with criticism, meaning how you’re emotionally attached to the feeling of it. We take on the feeling whether we’re on the receiving end of the criticism or whether we’re dishing it out.
Look closely at your past relationships. Have you had a tendency to become involved with critical people? Have you felt hurt and passive when criticized, or have you lashed out in a tit-for-tat manner with criticism of your own? Have there been times when you might have provoked others, through careless mistakes or insensitive oversight, to be critical of you? Did they experience you being critical of them?
Are you something of a perfectionist? This would mean that you try desperately to do things perfectly, likely out of fear of being criticized by others or by your inner critic. We usually have some fear of whatever we’re attached to. The fear can be employed as part of one’s defense: I’m not looking to feel criticized. Look at how perfectly I try to do things. Look at how much I try to avoid being criticized, and how fearful I am that it might happen.
When feeling inner discord, we can find the deep explanation for the unpleasantness. We try to recognize which of the first hurts we’re reacting to. We also want to be conscious of whether we’re being passive to the inner critic and absorbing punishment from it. Once we recognize what negative emotion (from the first hurts) is triggering us, we expose the fact that we have been making a choice (albeit an unconscious one) to slip into an experience of that emotion. This is important—we benefit greatly by taking “ownership” of the fact that, unwittingly, we are choosing to become entangled in that negative emotion. We know from past experiences how painful it is to be caught in the throes of that emotion. Our improved consciousness—the sum of our new knowledge, growing intelligence, perceptiveness, and good intentions—is now able to help us “back out” of that emotional attachment or, better still, refrain from following the original thread leading into its web of negative considerations. Recognizing the psychological danger, we can say, “No thanks, I’m going to do my best to block out any thoughts or feelings dealing with this unpleasant emotion.” Soon you develop a new “muscle,” an inner vigilance, that keeps you alert to whenever the emotional attachment wants to reassert itself.
It might be helpful, at this point, to ask yourself, “Do I feel that I have the power to possess this knowledge? Or do I feel it’s beyond my grasp?” Clients have described getting “brain fog” when trying to penetrate intellectually into this higher knowledge. Our resistance to learning it can become stronger the deeper we go.
We know our self-development is proceeding favorably when we start experiencing bodings of inner truth. One client kept expressing a sense of hopelessness about ever being able to establish a loving relationship. He believed his sense of hopelessness concerning romance and marriage was a rational assessment of his dire prospects. Suddenly flooded with insight, he saw that his hopelessness was a result of his choice, in those moments of greatest anguish, to experience himself helplessly, through the sense that he didn’t have what it took to find a loving partner. His hopelessness, he realized, was pure inner passivity. He had been allowing his inner critic to torment him with accusations that he was, in matters of romance, a loser. His preoccupation with romance and marriage were just the ropes with which he bound himself to inner conflict. In that moment, he saw the receptivity of his inner passivity to the flagellation of self-punishment. This was a critical realization in his process of liberating himself from the scourge of inner conflict and his attachment to helplessness.
Another client, a business executive, had been ruminating painfully for years on whether he should be involved in “a more dynamic business” where he would presumably fulfill his dreams and aspirations. On his way to work one day, he had a jaw-dropping realization: His unconscious intention was not to clearly see his way forward but instead to remain stuck in confusion, self-doubt, and disappointment. He was emotionally attached to feeling criticized as an underperformer. Without deeper awareness, he was likely to act out that fate. He would not likely have become aware of this inner conflict (the back and forth in his mind of self-criticism and inner defensiveness) without having explored depth psychology.
Many people can achieve insight and inner freedom without personal therapy, but they have to want to uncover inner truth and be willing to put in the effort. The effort, though, can be mostly pleasurable, even something like a hobby, a way to live with a new sense of richness. Pleasure arises, too, from knowing we’re doing our best to make something of our life.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society, and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.