We’re stay-at-home people now, seesawing in this historic upheaval between feeling strong and feeling weak. Many of us don’t trust that we have what it takes to be brave and heroic. As if on a ventilator, we struggle for the oxygen of resilience, unable to feel a solid bottom in the breathless pandemonium.
Three huge stressors are colliding: the pandemic, the stay-at-home requirements, and the economic collapse. For many, the emotional needs and physical demands of cooped-up kids are additionally stressful. Pressure builds inside, and many of us begin to react inappropriately, angrily, and viciously. Not surprisingly, police report that domestic violence is dramatically on the rise, including child abuse.
Domestic-abuse perpetrators are the weakest among us, those most disconnected from the ability to be strong and resolute. They’re the ones who crack first. It’s important for all of us, however, to have psychological understanding of the nature of the stress we’re feeling. Otherwise, we’re apt to stumble into various self-defeating behaviors and do things we’ll regret. It’s no time to be our worst enemy.
Strength is felt through a deeper connection to our good and abiding self. However, we might not be able to make that connection without an understanding of the psychological aspects of our weakness. A primary source of emotional weakness is inner conflict. This conflict produces worry, anxiety, passivity, fear, anger, indecision, and bitterness. Acquiring the ability to dispel these negative emotions is a learning process that exposes the dynamics of inner conflict.
A common form of inner conflict entails, on one side, self-doubt and inner defensiveness, and on the other side, self-blame and self-rejection. This conflict is more intense in neurotic people, those among us who are frequently and painfully triggered by the everyday challenges of normal life. The more that people absorb self-blame and self-rejection, the more likely they are to blame, criticize, and reject others. And the more they’ll feel justification in lashing out at others.
These two sides of this inner conflict—the side that defends and the side that blames—each strive to prevail. The conflict features a passive side within us versus a self-aggressive side. People go back and forth in their minds, often unconsciously, feeling—and feeding—this inner conflict mainly through thoughts and feelings that are expressions of (or byproducts of) the underlying conflict. Here are some examples. In such conflict, the self-aggressive side usually prevails, making it more likely that individuals will react with frustration, anger, and abusive behaviors.
Inner conflict is like a psychological virus, one that produces an emotional immune deficiency. Modern mental-health treatments would be more effective if the psychological establishment recognized and understood the nature of this “virus” and began to teach people how to protect themselves from it.
In the conflict between passive defensiveness and belittling self-aggression, each side has its own kinds of expression or experience, arising as thoughts, memories, feelings, and negative emotions. People often have scant idea what they’re dealing with. They have little or no knowledge concerning the underlying psychological dynamics of the conflict. For most people, the distress they’re feeling is, as they experience it, the anticipated suffering of life. They have little sense of how, through depth psychology, they can improve the quality of their experience. Deprived of this knowledge, they’re hindered from overcoming their inner conflict and freeing themselves from its painful symptoms.
One of the conflict’s symptoms is the undermining of emotional strength. Superficial advice on how to feel resilient is not likely to be effective when we’re unwittingly allowing inner conflict to weaken us. How are we weakened? The conflict gives power to the self-aggressive inner critic. Our passive side, when reacting to the inner critic, gives power to this aggressive side by taking seriously its allegations and mockery. The passive side becomes an enabler of the aggressive side. Our authentic self, in contrast, is able to neutralize or deflect as irrational nonsense the insinuations and accusations of the inner critic. The inner critic (superego) is a primitive, irrational drive in the psyche that wants only to assert authority. It cares nothing for our well-being. The more we’re under the thrall of the inner critic and the more we fail to see the nature of inner passivity, the weaker we are in terms of emotional strength and the more alienated we are from our true, essential self.
When our inner critic has too much influence over us, we are inwardly passive. We’re unable to block or defeat our inner critic and establish our good, essential self as our trustworthy inner authority. Our passive side of the conflict does try to represent our interests in the conflict with the inner critic, but this passive side does so ineffectively, in a feeble manner. It uses psychological defenses and inner defensiveness to blunt the inner critic’s attacks. People who are stuck at representing themselves from this passive side are at a great disadvantage. When their conflict is activated, they identify unconsciously with the passive side of it. In doing so, they almost always lose to the self-aggressive side, and they end up feeling bad, shamed, punished, and defeated.
This psychological dynamic is the underlying instigator of domestic abuse, where inner conflict is externalized as family conflict. The similarities between the inner process and the externalized acting-out are striking. Perpetrators of domestic abuse behave violently—with aggression that’s as unwarranted, irrational, and cruel as the inner critic’s—toward those they perceive to be helpless or passive. The victims, meanwhile, absorb the punishment, often passively, as happens in the psyche of people when they’re absorbing self-blame and self-rejection. Domestic abuse is just one example of the ugly face of humanity’s aggressive-versus-passive inner conflict.
There are other variations of inner conflict. A person can put himself in conflict by stubbornly refusing to accept scientific facts, such as the dangers of the virus. Another person interprets compliance to stay-at-home directives as the feeling of being passive and submissive to authority. Someone else craves the normal life that the pandemic has rendered impossible, rather than feeling strength in acceptance of reality. Such conflicts make people emotionally weaker and less intelligent. (Other basic inner conflicts are described here, here, and here.)
As inner conflict is being resolved through knowledge and insight, we establish a connection with our authentic self. Now we’re in touch with a powerful, benevolent inner authority. We feel our value and power more fully than ever. We’re much more likely to react to challenges in wise and healthy ways.
Many people are being resolute and brave in dealing with the coronavirus and economic fallout. Still, they have underlying worry and anxiety, much of which arises from feelings of helplessness. This helplessness entails the sense of being restricted, trapped, powerless, and insignificant. For many, it’s the sense of being not only at the mercy of fate but painfully or agonizingly so. It’s painful because of the sense of being disconnected from one’s strong, better self. This emotional disconnect circles back to inner conflict and the distress of putting oneself at the mercy of one’s harsh inner critic.
Of course, we’re all helpless to some degree as the world’s upheaval plays itself out. Yet on an unconscious level, inner conflict causes people to embellish and accentuate the helpless feeling. I say more here and here about this inner process in which helpless feelings descend into self-abandonment, self-alienation, and the bittersweet allure of victimization.
Inner conflict is no one’s fault. It’s an aspect of human biology. It can be alleviated, as mentioned, by growing self-knowledge. Intensified by the pandemic and economic collapse, inner conflict will be more than many people can handle. A great many are likely to feel rising levels of stress, anxiety, fear, and panic. People tend to react to their unresolved psychological weaknesses, particularly helpless and trapped feelings, by becoming increasingly angry, belligerent, irrational, and violent. These reactions, though self-defeating, create illusions of power, which compensate for the unconscious willingness to spiral into helplessness. If conditions remain precarious in the coming months, I expect we will see rising levels of domestic abuse, along with increasingly damaging political rhetoric and actions. We need a vaccine for the coronavirus, of course, and we also need to vaccinate people with better psychological insight.
Meanwhile, connect with your authentic self and you’ll hold yourself, your family, and the world together.