For more than 100 years, psychoanalysis has been trying to explain the hazards and dynamics of inner conflict. Yet people still don’t get it. Unconscious resistance and denial hamper our ability to see ourselves more objectively.
People are not only unaware of the dynamics of inner conflict, we aren’t even recognizing the existence of it within ourselves.
Unresolved inner conflict is the prime instigator of defensiveness, passivity, incessant desires, hostility, and violence. This inner discord, when unrecognized, renders us unwitting self-saboteurs who blindly foment personal misery and impair human progress.
We know that America faces a mental-health crisis. Yet an even greater threat to personal and collective wellbeing involves the degree to which inner conflict induces neurosis in “normal” everyday people, making them more thin-skinned, dull, fearful, passive, and uninspired. The human cost is amplified by inner conflict’s talent for also generating irrationality, stupidity, cruelty, and paranoia.
Over the years, psychoanalysis hasn’t been sufficiently coherent or persistent in exposing the hidden influence of inner conflict. Now, to their shame, many psychoanalysts no longer make inner conflict the centerpiece of their treatment approach.
Here’s the thing, emotional suffering and self-sabotage are directly connected to inner conflict. The following examples can help us understand this connection.
— Consciously, we want to feel strong and resilient, but unconsciously we can easily resonate emotionally with being weak, helpless, and lacking in self-regulation. Passive feelings keep subverting self-confidence. Wanting to feel expressive versus feeling shut down is a common experience of this conflict.
— Consciously, we want to be respected, yet unconsciously we’re often bombarded by our inner critic’s harsh disrespect. This conflict makes us thin-skinned, sensitive to feeling disrespected, and prone to taking things personally.
— Consciously, we want to feel our value and worthiness, yet unconsciously we compulsively undermine our sense of worth with persistent feelings of being insignificant and unworthy. This conflict often features intrusive and defeatist memories, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
— Consciously, we want to feel loved, yet unconsciously we’re prepared to indulge in feelings of being rejected, abandoned, and betrayed. Self-pity arises, along with the lament, “Nobody loves me, nobody cares.” Fear of intimacy arises because deepening affection is associated with the prospect of rejection, betrayal, and control.
Under the influence of these inner conflicts, we’re doomed to produce neurotic symptoms. It’s as if our brain has been hijacked.
Neurosis occurs on a spectrum that takes into account a person’s resilience, emotional stability, self-regulation, self-centeredness, and character. Like super-spreaders, those on the higher end of the spectrum can contaminate the environment with troublesome attitudes and behaviors involving hatred, bitterness, and rage. Those on the lower range also experience self-limiting symptoms such as being quick to feel overwhelmed, rejected, and helpless.
Neurosis is a worldwide contagion, a killer of intelligence, a pillager of decency, and a producer of negative emotions. Neurotic people are smart enough to build skyscrapers, create financial derivatives, and design new weapons systems. But they’re not conscious enough or evolved enough to avoid the overall incompetence that arises from their narcissism, callousness, hostility, and greed.
Inwardly conflicted, we punish ourselves repeatedly with recurring memories of minor or even imaginary transgressions. We experience everyday challenges as if we’re being deprived, controlled, or disrespected. We’re troubled by jealousy and envy, flooded with guilt and shame, and plagued by procrastination and indecision. We’re easily triggered by perceptions, sometimes just in our imagination, of being refused, manipulated, cheated, or abandoned. These negative emotions produce self-blame, anxiety, fear, and retaliation.
With deeper insight, we can stop this suffering.
Recognition of the significance of inner conflict is initially experienced as an offense to our egotism, a humbling of our self-image: “How could I, in not knowing this, have been so dumb!” To avoid this “humiliation,” we produce a variety of psychological defenses to cover up inner truth, among them blaming others and claiming victimization. The stubborn refusal to address inner conflict drives a compulsion to falsify reality.
Inner conflict often produces an overwhelming sense of helplessness, resentment, and disappointment, giving rise to a feeling that life is too difficult. “I know I’d do better,” we insist to ourselves, “if life wasn’t so hard.” Perceptions such as these can become guiding principles.
This self-deception binds us to a painful, self-centered way of perceiving the world and our place in it. We become insensitive toward others and have difficulty perceiving things from their point of view.
Inner conflict has mysterious origins, and it’s likely more a factor of nature than nurture. The human body, specifically the human genome, is riddled with biological flaws, scientists say. The presence of inner conflict in our emotional life is likely such a flaw.
Conflict abounds: Human nature is challenged by the polarities of good and evil, pleasure and displeasure, and eros and thanatos. Happiness depends on our reconciliation of arrogance and humility, as well as on how well we navigate the conscious wish for freedom versus the compulsion to experience self-imposed oppression. Even a romantic relationship can be immersed in love-hate ambivalence.
Insight heals these conflicts. Take greed, for instance, a symptom of inner conflict. Greedy people yearn to feel satisfied and fulfilled. But they don’t recognize their inner conflict, which is their emotional determination to feel that what they have is never enough. They don’t understand the psychological dynamics producing their inner emptiness, the underlying woe that makes them so materialistic. When unresolved, this conflict (wanting to feel their value versus needing materialistic “proof” of value to cover up their unconscious self-rejection) dooms them to a shallow life plagued by unhappiness.
Inner conflict produces widespread divisiveness. As anger, bitterness, and cynicism arise, we see enemies everywhere. We also see others as either inferior or superior because inner conflict creates the compulsion to judge, to condemn, to envy, and to manipulate. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia are driven by unresolved self-criticism, self-rejection, and self-hatred. Self-haters are usually unaware of their self-hatred. Through projection, they feel instead their hatred of others. This is accompanied by their conviction that others harbor malice toward them.
The inner conflict here is between the wish to feel good about oneself versus the compulsion, powered by the inner critic (superego), to demean and slander one’s own value and achievement. This dynamic, in varying degrees, is a problem for most neurotics, not just haters. Even in everyday personality clashes and family disputes we typically generate the same level of criticism and ill-will toward others that, consciously or unconsciously, our inner critic directs at us by way of thoughts, feelings, and insinuations. This negative reaction is often activated when we unwittingly transfer on to others our determination to experience them in unpleasant ways that parallel our own inner conflict.
Inner conflict can push people to the extremes of the political left and right. As a spinoff of the underlying inner divide, polarized politics can foster sharp division and ill-will even within the same camps. In reaction to inner conflict, extremists are attracted to the fringes where they feel with some intensity their separation from others (a reflection of the disconnect from their better self).
Their political position is one of defiance, reinforced by self-righteous certainty, which together produce the illusion of being superior and powerful. This posturing serves as an unconscious cover-up for how they inwardly and painfully vacillate, again unconsciously, between self-assurance and self-doubt.
This inner dynamic is also at play with conspiracy buffs. They relish the illusion of power produced by “knowing” what others don’t. It’s all a coverup for their underlying disconnect from inner strength. Again, it’s more evidence for how inner conflict degrades mental and emotional functioning.
Language itself provides evidence for the claim that inner conflict contaminates our emotional life. These following polarities all point to mental and emotional challenges: good or bad; right or wrong; strong or weak; happy or sad; negative or positive; and purposeful or aimless.
We hold on to inner conflict because we can’t imagine ourselves without it, even while it infringes on our freedom and happiness. There’s a stubborn loyalty to the old, conflicted self, along with resistance to the new person, the stranger, one might become. As we recognize inner conflict, though, we overcome this resistance and liberate our better self, which gives us the capacity to acknowledge and respect the intrinsic worthiness of others.
Most of us can understand well enough the ethos of class conflict and racial conflict. Yet it might take our recognition and resolution of inner conflict, the deeper source of enmity and division, that finally brings us together. Meanwhile, here’s one last conflict to consider: Do we become informed and more conscious, or do we passively allow our inner critic to remain the master of our personality?
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.