What’s brewing inside us when we’re frequently feeling wrong or bad? How about if we’re feeling lonely, overwhelmed, jealous, anxious, or bitter? Or if we’re having difficulty getting our life in order and functioning at our best?
It’s time to stop blaming others or society at large for our miseries. That doesn’t mean we should blame ourself instead. The answer is to become smarter and more insightful about the unruliness of our conflicted psyche. Our unconscious mind, our psyche, is a cauldron of irrational dynamics in which compulsive, almost instinctive, inner conflict frequently bubbles up as unpleasant, often painful symptoms.
It’s our inner or emotional conflict that produces these symptoms, so it’s really helpful for us to understand the nature of our own personal inner conflict. Readers are likely to be experiencing one or more of the 50 common, self-defeating symptoms mentioned in this post. I provide for each symptom a brief analytical comment that exposes the underlying conflict. You probably know your own symptoms (such as boredom, guilt, indecision, anxiety, self-pity, and codependency), but you might not be aware of the underlying cause of the symptoms. Each symptom, when traced to its source, reveals the hidden dynamics in our psyche that are undermining the quality of our life.
To some degree, we experience ourselves and life through these unpleasant symptoms. In addition to producing misery, the symptoms produce personality characteristics that are often unappealing and self-defeating.
There’s a lot to ponder as each symptom is briefly analyzed. We’re trying to fathom the liberating knowledge of depth psychology as it applies to us personally. Readers will be struck by how unconscious dynamics spit in the face of common sense. The following insights expose the extensive irrationality at the core of human nature. We can see more clearly the awareness that’s needed to make rationality prevail over irrationality.
In reading the following content, note that one’s mind, overwhelmed by this accounting of the vagaries and contrariness of unconscious irrationality, can go numb, almost like a mild dissociation. Watch out for that numbing effect—it’s mostly our ego’s resistance to humbling inner truth. This is forbidden knowledge because it embarrasses, even mortifies, our ego. If the knowledge feels overwhelming, you could stop reading and come back later to continue.
Each symptom in this context is understood to be chronic and persistent. Each analysis of each symptom is understood to represent just one key glimpse into an underlying complexity. Okay, enough preamble, here we go:
FEELING LONELY—wanting to feel connected and loved yet being willing unconsciously to indulge in unresolved emotional memories of feeling rejected, abandoned, and betrayed.
FEELING DEPRESSED—wanting to feel good about oneself, but unconsciously and passively soaking up negative insinuations from the inner critic and allowing it to inflict punishing self-denigration.
FEELING BORED—wanting to feel pleasure in life yet being determined or compelled unconsciously to feel an inner emptiness involving deprivation, refusal, and helplessness.
FEELING TRAPPED—the emotional impression that arises when, consciously, we want to feel free while, at the same time, we’re making an unconscious choice to experience a general or specific situation passively, as if hopelessly or helplessly restricted.
FEELING PRESSURED—consciously wanting to feel relaxed, yet unconsciously using life’s demands and responsibilities to satisfy one’s unconscious, passive willingness to feel burdened or imposed upon.
FEELING OPPRESSED—consciously wanting to feel free, yet not being sufficiently conscious to liberate oneself from the oppressive inner critic.
FEELING OVERWHELMED—wanting to feel strong and centered, but unconsciously allowing inner passivity, especially in challenging life situations, to intrude psychosomatically and emotionally upon us to generate feelings of weakness, confusion, and fear.
FEELING DISRESPECTED—wanting to feel respected by others, but unconsciously identifying with one’s passive side in its conflicted role on the receiving end of the inner critic’s disrespect and self-abuse.
FEELING DEVALUED—wanting to feel valued, yet being first in line, through one’s inner critic and enabling inner passivity, to allow oneself to feel devalued.
FEELING ANGRY—wanting to feel strong and expressive of self, yet being able to muster, because of inner passivity, only reactive, distressful, and self-defeating anger.
BEING JUDGMENTAL—being quick to find fault with others as an unconscious reaction to how one is quick to absorb mockery and scorn from one’s inner critic, thereby to identify with the one being judged.
SHYNESS—wanting to put one’s best foot forward, but lacking confidence or boldness because one’s inner conflict is producing an unconscious readiness to identify with feeling unworthy, socially disabled, or unappealing.
APATHY—wanting the pleasure of being engaged with life versus passively surrendering one’s better self to the inner critic.
ENVY—consciously wanting to enjoy the bounty of life, but unconsciously embellishing want or desire for the unconscious purpose of covering up one’s unresolved willingness to indulge in feeling deprived and refused.
JEALOUSY—wanting a love object versus unconsciously using an alleged love object for the purpose of feeding an emotional willingness to recycle and replay unresolved emotional attachments to rejection and betrayal.
DISCONNECTION—consciously wanting the pleasure of feeling connected to all that is right with self, others, and life, yet unconsciously, under the influence of both an active inner critic and copious inner passivity, succumbing to the displeasure of feeling alienated from one’s better self.
PERFECTIONISM—the felt need to do things perfectly, though the unconscious purpose is to stave off the inner critic’s anticipated condemnation for allegedly making mistakes or being inadequate.
CYNICISM—feeling smug, superior, and incisive as an unconscious means to cover up an insecure self that, undermined by inner conflict, feels powerless to be a force for good or a person of integrity.
WORRY—wanting to feel worry-free, yet being tempted to imagine bad things happening, based on one’s compulsion (unconscious willingness) to reproduce and replay a passive, helpless feeling of being overwhelmed by (or dealing ineptly with) challenge or misfortune.
ANXIETY—a more intense version of the inner dynamics involved in worry, while also involving unconscious anticipation of forthcoming inner critic attacks.
FEARFULNESS—again, more intense—the emotional conviction that humiliation, danger, or malice is lurking, though this displeasure often arises due to one’s emotional entanglement with inner passivity, as when fixated on the prospect of being overwhelmed or defeated in some challenging situation, as happens inwardly when the inner critic overwhelms inner passivity.
REGRET—the passive willingness to absorb the inner critic’s accusations of foolish misjudgment in one’s present or past, and to suffer accordingly for each painful reminder of this implied folly.
DEFIANCE—consciously wanting to feel strong, while also feeling an inner weakness, perhaps an unconscious identification with a sense of unworthiness, for which defiance is a stubborn, face-saving compensation, however self-defeating.
BITTERNESS—wanting the pleasure of inner harmony, but unconsciously feeling compelled to experience a painful hostility that surfaces as unconscious displacement upon others or life in general of the bitter scorn one absorbs from the inner critic.
PROMISCUITY—wanting to feel connected and loved, but experiencing a lingering, unresolved emotional attachment to rejection or abandonment that compels one to settle for a desperate, third-rate experience of love.
COMPULSIVITY—wanting self-regulation while at the same time feeling, through inner passivity, the need to passively submit to authoritative inner directives, however irrational they might be.
AMBIVALENCE—the conflict between intently desiring what one supposedly wants to possess or achieve while conjuring up and embracing allegedly valid reasons for disliking or despising that same person, object, or objective.
INABILITY TO CONCENTRATE—wanting to absorb knowledge or work efficiently versus an unconscious willingness or determination to experience oneself through familiar, unresolved weakness and passivity.
GUILT—the feeling we deserve to be punished, caused by our weak, defensive reaction to the tyranny of the inner critic with its litany of accusations against us.
SHAME—the feeling of punishment—the desolation of self-abasement—that follows our passive acceptance and absorption of the inner critic’s harsh judgments against us.
COMPARING—the unconscious willingness to resonate with self-abasement or the notion that we’re not as good as the next person, even while we’re searching our mind for evidence that we’re better.
COMPLAINING—the act of complaining aggressively about our alleged victimization, to avoid acknowledging our underlying passivity and our inner conflict, both of which induce self-doubt, self-criticism, self-rejection, and a failure to thrive.
INDECISION—consciously wanting to be decisive versus the unconscious willingness (because inner passivity is so seductive to our psyche) to passively experience the sense of not knowing one’s own mind.
LYING—feeling compelled to override a passive feeling of being caught or trapped, based on how, on an inner level, we also use deception and irrationality (psychological defenses) to fend off the inner critic.
STUBBORNESS—the feeling of power in one’s rigidity, defiance, and staunch beliefs, again to override inner passivity with its readiness to react to feelings of being manipulated, controlled, and forced to submit.
NEEDINESS—having an urgent desire to connect or bond with individuals, groups, or beliefs as a reaction to (compensation for) one’s unconscious compulsion and willingness to experience oneself through feelings of abandonment, alienation, and unworthiness.
RIGIDITY—a passive disconnect from self, coupled with fear of the inner critic, that can compel one to feel a need to have one’s body on alert, at attention, ready to react to danger.
UNFRIENDLINESS—an unwillingness to recognize or acknowledge others with generous kindness, derived from one’s entanglement in inner conflict and the accompanying likelihood that one will not appreciate, respect, and love one’s own self.
INCOMPETENCE—self-sabotage that arises through one’s compulsion to put on display (act out) the predicable outcome of being passively receptive to being berated and punished by the inner critic for passivity, folly, and failure.
PROCRASTINATION—consciously wanting to be engaged and responsible, but unconsciously being compelled by inner passivity to feel (and be) disengaged, disconnected, and dispirited, often accompanied by passive-aggressive defiance of the inner critic: “I decide when I’m going to start working.”
LACKING SELF-REGULATION (over impulses and cravings, including addictions)—this expansive symptom is a result of being entangled in the conflict between wanting to feel strong and capable of self-regulation versus being passively compelled to experience a sense of helplessness at protecting one’s best interests. Also contributing to this symptom is inner passivity’s willingness to be on the receiving end of mocking and scolding criticism, rejection, and abuse from the inner critic for real or alleged foolish behaviors.
COMPULSIVE GOODNESS—consciously wanting to be good versus fearing the onslaught from the inner critic for daring to be anything other than what it deems to be good.
CODEPENDENCY—wanting to be strong but being compelled through inner passivity to identify emotionally with the weakness of others and, in self-deception, to frequently assume to play the role of the stronger one.
FATALISM—capitulating passively to the inner critic, usually with silent protestations that one really does want to be stronger.
DESPAIR—similar to fatalism, though likely more painful.
AGGRESSIVE FANTASIES (sexual or otherwise)—pretending through one’s imagination to be aligned with an aggressive stance to life, while identified emotionally with the passive side.
PASSIVE FANTASIES—a capitulation to the passive side, often to libidinize (sugarcoat or eroticize) the passivity through sexual arousal.
SELF-PITY—indulgence in the sense of weakness, victimization, and defeat, often of a bittersweet, masochistic nature.
NEGATIVE INNER DIALOGUE—hearing and engaging in energy-sapping defensive thoughts to counter accusatory voices (often deeper in the unconscious mind), all expressions of the back-and-forth tumult and irrationality of inner conflict.
MILITANT IGNORANCE—employing stubbornness and defiance (as misleading impressions of righteousness and power) to deny one’s willingness to feel overwhelmed by change, progress, and the challenges of self-development.
Can you sense the inner conflict inherent in each of these analytic insights? Can you sense, as well, how the underlying constant or theme of inner conflict is our instinctive, compulsive, or unconsciousness willingness to produce the displeasure inherent in the conflict? In other words, the conflict serves as our means to produce our unconscious appetite for displeasure. Once we see and understand inner conflict in this light, our resulting, enhanced consciousness enables us to drop the rope in this futile tug-of-war.
Again, the analysis I’ve provided here reveals just one glimpse, though a vital one, of the underlying dynamics at play in the conflict. These dynamics afflict so-called normal people as well as neurotics. At issue is the degree to which the conflict is acute and damaging. When the conflict is especially acute (as with more serious mental-health disorders), many people will not be psychologically healthy enough, sufficiently capable of objective introspection, to be able to benefit from this deeper insight.
A core dysfunction behind these 50 symptoms is the passivity vs. self-aggression conflict. Let me briefly describe it here. (I’ve written extensively about it in my books and articles.) In the psyche, inner passivity defends and the inner critic attacks. Symptoms often arise as forms of self-punishment (especially guilt, shame, self-pity, regret, and depression) in reaction to the inner critic’s “successful” infliction of self-abuse.
Emotionally and mentally, we’re all engaged to some degree with the struggle between our passive, defensive side (inner passivity) and our inner aggression (inner critic). Our better self is sidelined when these two opposing sources of irrationality are allowed—through our lack of consciousness—to serve as the managers of our mind and emotions. Inner passivity (lodged in our unconscious ego) is the mastermind behind our largely unconscious psychological defenses, and we identify with this passivity when we express inner defensiveness (in our mind) or outer defensiveness (when speaking to others). The other source of irrationality, our inner critic or superego, is the primitive aggression that poses as the master of our personality, the “decider” of what is right and wrong, and the punisher of our “transgressions.”
Our daily life can be degraded by this main inner conflict between inner passivity’s defensiveness and the inner critic’s self-aggression. This conflict is often the main instigator of unpleasant, painful, and self-defeating emotional and behavioral symptoms.
As our consciousness pierces the veil of superficial awareness, we begin to see how, through our ignorance of the existence and patterns of inner conflict, we have been unwitting originators of our own unhappiness. We see, too, how inner passivity, with its ego-inspired defenses, has made us masters of self-deception.
Inner conflict also consists of the unconscious compulsion to replay and recycle unresolved emotional attachments to the first hurts of childhood. These hurts consist of emotional sensitivity to actual or imagined deprivation, refusal, control, helplessness, criticism, rejection, betrayal, and abandonment. These unresolved hurts can manifest in adults as a lingering, unconscious impulses—accompanied by defensive and irrational thinking—to interpret everyday life situations through the negative emotions of the first hurts.
As one example of the underlying conflict, consider the first hurt of rejection: Here, typically, an individual consciously wants to feel accepted or loved but unconsciously and compulsively misinterprets certain experiences as rejection. This misinterpretation derives from one’s instinct or compulsion to replay and recycle the unresolved sensitivity to rejection.
These glimpses into the origins of common symptoms reveal what’s really important to know, both about our personal self and human nature in general. Knowledge of our psyche’s deeper dimensions is vital. An unevolved mentality derived from our lack of self-knowledge is degrading the planet, spawning weapons of apocalyptic destructiveness, and provoking group and national hostilities and violence. Self-knowledge is civilization’s compass.
Peter Michaelson’s latest book, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), is available at Amazon.