The mental-health pandemic pummeling young people doesn’t get the headlines Covid does. Even last fall when the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, warning of “soaring rates” of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, the story faded after a day.
There’s no vaccine for this problem, no good answers either, it seems.
Now there’s growing alarm about a rise in suicide among pre-teens. The New Yorker magazine has a long article on the subject this month, written by Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. In the article, he provides behavioral and personality profiles on several pre-teens who committed suicide.
As I see it, inner conflict is, in large measure, the hidden cause of the children’s despair. Solomon doesn’t directly mention inner conflict in his article, and he gives just the barest attention to a psychoanalytic perspective of the children’s plight. The prevalence of inner conflict in the human psyche is a basic premise of classical psychoanalysis. But the current medical-psychiatric model for treating mental-health disorders has abandoned this approach to understanding human nature.
Solomon wrote an article for The New Yorker, in 2014, that offered a psychological profile of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who shot and killed 20 students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Based on Solomon’s reporting, I wrote a post back then, titled, “A Deadly Case of Inner Conflict,” which offered reflections on Lanza’s mental state that I thought Solomon was overlooking.
Once again, in his latest article, Solomon is overlooking inner conflict as a source of the problem. I’ll apply psychoanalytic insights here to show that inner conflict is likely the main source of the emotional turmoil afflicting children who are in danger of committing suicide. Solomon describes the personality and behavioral traits of Trevor Matthews, a 12-year-old who died last year after leaping from his apartment building. Trevor was a brilliant student, Solomon writes, “charming, generous, and humane,” who “was frequently disciplined” and could be a bully and turn suddenly violent. He continues:
Many had perceived him [Trevor] as someone who inflicted suffering on others, not seeing that he was suffering intensely himself. But people who respond to others aggressively and act impetuously are at acute risk of suicide, because they respond to themselves with impulsive belligerence, too. Bullying is strongly associated with suicide not only among its victims but also among its perpetrators. Experts speak of childhood depression as having internalizing symptoms (withdrawal, sadness) that are often ignored and externalizing symptoms (aggression, disruptiveness) that are usually punished. Both can be manifestations of the same underlying illness. And Trevor, like many bullies, was also sometimes the victim of bullying. On one occasion, a group of boys held Trevor down and kicked him.
This assessment, while it speaks obliquely to Trevor’s inner conflict, is not sufficiently clear and comprehensive. I’ll restate what Solomon has written above in an effort to offer more insight.
Trevor’s agony was likely the result of an unconscious conflict between two operating systems in his psyche, his inner critic (superego) and his subordinate ego. This subordinate ego is a weakness in the psyche, a kind of inner no-man’s-land that harbors fear, self-doubt, and passivity as its principal aspects. This part of us produces shame, guilt, and depression as it absorbs admonishments and even self-abusive invective that flows from our inner critic.
Conflict of this kind—between inner passivity and self-aggression—is common in neurotics. Even so-called normal people can be battered at times by it. This conflict can be more intense in people suffering with mood or personality disorders or other serious psychiatric disturbances. Many people are able to escape their suffering when they understand their emotional predicament in terms of inner conflict. Instead of being cannon fodder stuck in our psyche’s battle zone, we can, through an understanding of the dynamics of inner conflict, become objective observers of our plight, able to stand back from the inner melee, experiencing a new degree of consciousness that protects us from the fallout of inner strife. It’s a case of becoming stronger and more rational as we begin to see and understand the irrational turmoil that inner conflict, and our psychological ignorance of it, subjects us to. With the best insight, we can make much of the unconscious conscious.
As Solomon notes, children who are bullies and who are the victims of bullying are more at risk of suicide. Both the bullies and the victims are reacting to inner conflict. Bullies are driven to become inappropriately aggressive in order to cover up their inner passivity. In varying degrees, this passivity is a presence in everyone. It’s an emotional leftover from the many years of childhood we spend in stages of helplessness, dependence, and subordination. Unconsciously, however, we’re resistant to recognizing this inner weakness. A bully’s aggression is his reaction to his underlying passivity. His unconscious defense goes like this: “I’m not emotionally aligned with a passive sense of self. I don’t identify with myself in a passive way. Look, I’m the aggressor. I enjoy being the aggressor. That proves I do not, at my deeper core, know myself through a sense of self-doubt and weakness.”
The aggression of bullies is a protection from their inner critic, which will mock them for passive weakness and for their emotional resonance (identification) with it. Bullies instinctively identify with the passivity of the victim. They know what it feels like to be bullied because they’re the target of their own bullying inner critic. Obviously, the bully and the victim are acting out the clash of aggression versus passivity. Bullies feel driven to adopt a bullying posture to “prove” themselves innocent of passive affinities. The worse the bullying behavior, the more that bullies are acting desperately to hide from themselves an awareness of their resonance with the victim and with their own passivity.
Many of the victims of bullies muster enough inner strength to survive the bullying and to thrive later in life. But many others are pulled into the passive side of inner conflict, stuck in an inner defenselessness for which their own inner critic viciously mocks them. They, too, are heavily conflicted, prone to depression and suicide. Often the young victims of bullying become bullies of weaker children. Inner conflict compels all of us, much of the time, to experience ourselves, others, and the world in terms of conflict.
Inner conflict, with its accompanying tension or stress, is an assault on our mental acuity. When conflicted, we are, in a given moment, representing through inner dialogue the excuses and defensiveness of the passive side of inner conflict, while simultaneously absorbing emotionally the insinuations and accusations of the aggressive side. Energy that would otherwise go to purposeful or creative pursuits is bound up, often painfully, in this conflict. Inner conflict is a primary contributor to a wide range of painful self-defeating symptoms, including loneliness, incompetence, apathy, and a lack of resilience.
A major polarity in human nature is between wanting consciously to feel strong while being compelled unconsciously to experience various kinds of weakness. An individual’s inner passivity makes him or her an easy target of the primitive, often vicious inner critic. Solomon refers to this, in the indented excerpt above, when he writes, “…they respond to themselves with impulsive belligerence, too.” It is more precise and helpful to say, “They react in a painful and self-defeating manner to the impulsive belligerence that their inner critic inflicts upon them, not realizing how, through their inner passivity and accompanying inner conflict, they unwittingly allow themselves to be a target for this belligerence.”
Solomon notes that depression increases the risk of suicide. Both childhood and adult depression are caused in part by the degree to which the inner critic overwhelms the passive side of the psyche (the unconscious or subordinate ego) with self-aggression and self-denigration. This passive side of inner conflict has little choice but to experience guilt, shame, and depression when it fails to block the inner critic’s aggression. When we begin to become conscious of this inner passivity, and then understand the inner critic as a primitive drive that has no business butting into our life, we are able with our intelligence and desire to avoid suffering to infuse our passive side with the presence and consciousness of our better self. When we see our plight as inner conflict, our enhanced consciousness connects with our better self. Now our better self lays claim to the realms of the psyche that inner passivity has been occupying.
Freud identified inner conflict when writing of Thanatos, the death drive, and its opposing psychic force, Eros, the will to thrive. This interpretation of human nature depicts an inherent polarity—the conscious wish to be strong versus the mysterious impulses or even compulsions to experience weakness, inept self-regulation, and self-defeat. Freud was always trying earnestly to bring into better focus the nature of our conflicted psyche, and he did so largely through the concepts of ego, superego, and id.
The New Yorker article notes, “Experts speak of childhood depression as having internalizing symptoms (withdrawal, sadness) that are often ignored and externalizing symptoms (aggression, disruptiveness) that are usually punished. Both can be manifestations of the same underlying illness.” First, it’s not helpful to call depression an illness. Since experts can’t say precisely what that illness is, the public is left with a sense of helplessness. Who’s going to heal this illness? With its medical model, psychiatry has been failing miserably, as Harvard’s Professor Anne Harrington documents in her book, Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness (W.W. Norton, 2019).
When instead we think about the problem in terms of inner conflict, we begin to see how we ourselves can heal our troubled mind. We begin to make the psyche’s dynamics more conscious, at which point our new self-knowledge, along with our intelligence, begins to plot a way forward that leads to enhanced inner strength. Granted, this optimistic prognosis applies to the general population and not necessarily to those individuals with mental-health disorders. Still, I do know from experience that many people diagnosed with mental-health disorders can benefit from this deeper psychological knowledge. They should, at least, be given the opportunity.
Second, withdrawal and sadness, like the external symptoms of aggression and disruptiveness, are indeed manifestations of the same underlying problem—and that problem is inner conflict. Withdrawal and sadness are emotional symptoms that arise from the passive side of inner conflict (where emotional suffering has its deepest roots), while aggression and disruptiveness are behavioral symptoms that reflect the influence and values of the aggressive side of the conflict.
Without mentioning inner conflict directly, Solomon’s article provides plenty of evidence for its presence. For instance, the article notes that children who spend five or more hours a day online are nearly twice as likely to have suicidal tendencies as those who spend less than an hour. Spending so much time online feeds one’s passive side, especially if the content is mostly trivial or sensational. The deeper the passive experience, the greater the vacuum into which the inner critic will thrust itself. An excess of inner passivity also gives inner conflict free rein to establish itself in the psyche.
Trevor, the boy who jumped from his apartment building, was given to nightmares, the article notes. “He would be screaming in the middle of the night,” his mother said. While sleeping, all of us are more defenseless, more susceptible, to inner conflict. The inner critic doesn’t go to sleep. Its self-aggressive drive stays active. Because we’re asleep, we have less capacity than usual to protect ourselves from its onslaught.
The article mentions the alarmingly high rates of suicide and suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth. Solomon says these high rates reflect “an unaccepting society—and, frequently, an unaccepting family.” This blaming of society and family is unfair and partly untrue. In the West, the LGBTQ community is becoming more accepted than ever, even if some conservative diehards still rail against it. The idea that condemnation, persecution, or even nonacceptance is driving them to suicide makes sense only if they have unstable emotional resilience to begin with. The nonacceptance or condemnation they’re experiencing likely derives mostly from how their inner critic assails them for confusion and self-doubt with respect to their sexual orientation. Inner conflict produces the painful feeling of not knowing one’s own mind or being overly sensitive to the opposing beliefs of others. The realm of sexuality can be another playing field upon which people experience inner conflict. Through no fault of their own, many in the LGBTQ community may be more disconnected emotionally from the self-assurance that heterosexuals can feel. For all these reasons, the high suicide rate among them is likely attributable mostly to inner conflict.
Millions of children are suffering, and so-called experts are floundering in their attempts to rescue them from this misery. Solomon recommends medication, along with Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, as the best treatment options. These approaches have had some remedial benefit. But they’re not a solution to the problem. New, harmful symptoms can arise when the underlying conflict goes unrecognized. The best solution is in knowing and learning essential facts about human nature. Why have the experts not discovered the facts about the basic dynamics of emotional suffering? Isn’t it obvious that some measure of inner conflict is present even in normal, everyday children struggling with wanting versus not getting, who are trying to be good versus bad, strong versus weak, and happy versus sad? Why aren’t we teaching our children the life-saving knowledge that would release them from their misery?
In my opinion, the experts can’t see their own inner conflict. Doing so exposes the folly of ego-identification. Our ego can’t allow itself to be humbled. Inner truth, when realized, demotes the ego and elevates our more evolved, better self. That’s a step too far for those who can’t bring their deepest weakness into focus. It’s the main reason the findings of classical psychoanalysis were abandoned, and why, tragically, psychoanalysis is just a shell of its former self. Too bad, since exposure of inner conflict and our unconscious compulsion to recycle and replay it would help us all to become stronger, more capable of overcoming the world’s many dire threats to progress.
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.