People are clashing angrily these days over abortion, gay marriage, gun control, immigration, economic injustice, policing practices, and health care. These are all issues we need to talk about, yet preferably not with malice and hatred. The negative emotionalism we’re seeing in others and often experiencing in ourselves happens largely because of conflict that’s unresolved in the human psyche.
The hostile split in the United States between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, secularists and religious, and urban and rural is not really about who’s right and who’s wrong. The discord is primarily a result of inner conflict, and most people are largely ignorant of the dynamics of this conflict and how it degrades their lives on a personal level and contributes to social disharmony.
Our inner conflict is the slop we bring to the communal table. The conflict creates inner turmoil in our emotional life, causing negative emotions such as feeling devalued, unworthy, helpless, or disrespected. Yet our first instinct is to blame others for what we’re unconsciously generating within ourselves.
Examples abound of how the personal dysfunction of everyday people infiltrates society. For instance, a person who feels a desperate need to succeed is likely unaware of a possible deeper motivation, namely unconscious self-doubt, a sense of unworthiness, and even self-loathing. This individual, whose inner conflict could produce acute self-centeredness and perhaps narcissism, would likely be indifferent to the existence and needs of others. He might also be quite hostile toward others, mirroring his inner relationship with himself.
Even the smartest people are failing to see the existence and nature of their inner conflict. Everyone, including the most successful among us, has some degree of inner conflict. Even a person who is trying hard to be good or successful can be driven, in part, by deep unconscious self-doubt concerning his or her value and significance. This person’s conflict might entail the conscious wish to succeed versus the unconscious expectation of failure and defeat.
Social unrest is also heightened by psychologically naïve individuals who feel compelled to devalue and disrespect the ideas and values of anyone who disagrees with them or who is allegedly disrespecting them. Because of inner conflict, they are quick to feel attacked. Also contributing to social unrest are the many people who, feeling insecure concerning their difficulty expressing themselves in an objective manner, employ irrational rhetoric and partisan talking-points that feel true emotionally.
Many people feel that to be open to the views of others is somehow to be overpowered by them and to be required to submit to their perspective. It feels to such people that they can only maintain a sense of self (which, undermined by inner conflict, is already fragile) by being in stubborn opposition to what others supposedly want them to believe.
Inner conflict causes personal, social, and political discourse to be compromised and debased. In my view, our species’ most important intellectual pursuit involves understanding the psychological process whereby we generate negative emotions and self-defeating impulses. However, the psychological and educational establishments, in their failure to understand and teach depth psychology, are not helping everyday people become smarter and wiser about the basics of sound mental health.
Many people are unconsciously ready to be swayed by a negative feeling in preference to a positive insight, especially if the negative impression “validates” their denial, bitterness, cynicism, and anger. Because their inner conflict produces a disconnect from their virtues and emotional strength, many people are anxious to relieve the stress of being unresolved or undecided, and they will take the shoddiest opportunities and buy into the biggest lies to relieve the tension.
Our instinct is to deny our collusion in producing negative emotions. As mentioned, we tend to blame others for the suffering that we’re unconsciously generating within ourselves. To effectively blame others, we have to feel animosity toward them. The more we deny or repress inner conflict, the more animosity we’re likely to feel toward others. More examples of inner conflict are found here.
Many people feel unsupported and abandoned by their political and institutional leaders, and they believe themselves to be justified in their cynicism and bitterness. Yet an underlying factor, and perhaps the primary influence, involves the degree to which they are, through inner conflict, failing to connect with their better self and support themselves emotionally. The abandonment they feel can be largely self-abandonment.
The negativity we’re generating within ourselves is also projected or displaced onto others, whereby we perceive them to be the ones who possess all of this negativity. When we dislike them intensely, we cover up the divide that we’re refusing to see in ourselves. In this process, people are largely unaware of their individual participation in social unrest.
With inner conflict, we automatically experience conflict in our relations with others, as well as in negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. The more conflicted we are, the more divisive we are.
If the conflict is not recognized or understood, the greater the likelihood that failure or defeat will be acted out in some area of one’s life. Even if such a person, by all appearances, is succeeding in the world, inner conflict can cause the process of achieving this success to be riddled with stress and anxiety or involve flirtation with self-defeat.
With inner conflict, the more we make the other out to be corrupt or evil, the better we can relieve, at least temporarily, the emotional pain we feel within ourselves. When practicing demagoguery, politicians take advantage of this aspect of human nature to gain followers. When people hear political opponents being described in harsh, derogatory language, they’re able, for the moment, to lighten their own inner conflict. They do this by aligning with the accuser’s words, feeling inwardly, “You see how worthless and crooked those other people are. If anyone is corrupt or worthless, it’s them, not me. At least, I’m not as bad as them.” The more an individual uses such defensiveness, the more he evades a true reckoning with himself.
Many people are unconsciously waiting to be persuaded by a negative feeling, especially if the negative impression serves to cover up their great psychological “sin,” namely their unconscious readiness to maintain their inner conflict, to identify with themselves through this conflict, and to refuse to shed any light on the roots of this psychological dysfunction. Under these conditions, negative impressions influence us quicker and more convincingly than insight or truth.
These above examples are only a few of the many expressions of human dysfunction, and they reveal the unfinished business of our conscious evolvement. It’s time to be humble and to recognize that we’re creatures in urgent need of self-knowledge.
The dysfunction might now be producing a more malignant effect because the cultural norms, social institutions, and identifications—religious, economic, family, communal, and ethnic—that have supported us emotionally and physically have been waning and transforming. People who are too conflicted to know and to identify with their better self are disconnected from that better self, and they tend to be desperate for some compensating form of connection. They go searching for connections and identifications wherever they might find them, and they don’t have to go far to swallow a daily media diet of divisive political commentary.
In the past few decades, the commercialization of divisiveness and negativity through a highly partisan mass media has contaminated the human psyche and contributed largely to social unrest. People grow rich promoting both environmental and social degradation.
Still, we’re very likely at some point to triumph if we can assimilate the knowledge of depth psychology. The lessening of inner conflict and its resulting negativity is humanity’s sublime labor, and depth psychology is a vital tool for this undertaking. It’s our best security against environmental degradation, weapons of mass destruction, and social unrest because the process of inner growth makes us much wiser.