One of president-elect Joe Biden’s priorities is to bring peace to the nation’s warring camps. The task will be easier as more of us begin to understand the deeper psychological dynamics that undermine unity and civility.
When bitterly at odds, we’re usually under the influence, at least in part, of our personal psychology. We claim we’re fighting over whose policies and values are better for the nation. But the fight, when bitter, arises largely from our psychology. Emotional and behavioral reactions spring from human nature, distorting our beliefs and perceptions. These reactions, which compel us to make enemies of one another, are poorly understood by the public.
All three of the reactions discussed here involve inner conflict. Inner conflict is a condition we all have in common. It’s the primary source of whatever disharmony we feel within ourselves and toward others. Inner conflict produces malice, irrationality, foolishness, racism, greed, hostility, and unkindness. The degree to which each of us is inwardly conflicted determines the quality of the attitudes, deportment, and temperament that we each bring to the temple of democracy.
As examples of inner conflict, we look for love but harbor self-rejection; or we crave respect but generate self-criticism; or we want to be strong yet are plagued by feelings of weakness. With inner conflict, we swing back and forth, experiencing one polarity, then the other, over and over.
When saturated with inner conflict, we unwittingly contribute to social or political conflict. We don’t know how to live without discord, whether within our self or with people and everyday circumstances. We’re not free people, at least not inwardly so, when plagued by such psychological reactiveness.
The first of the self-defeating reactions involves our tendency to experience negative emotions (fear, anger, defiance) at the possibility of being overpowered and defeated by the beliefs and intentions of domestic opponents. We elevate opponents to the rank of enemies based on the particular dynamics of our inner conflict. Often the enemy is chosen (or an assumed enemy’s threat is blown out of proportion) to accommodate our unconscious compulsion to produce and recycle the passive fearfulness circulating in our psyche.
In other words, our unresolved inner conflict distorts reality. We want to believe our inner fear is justified by external circumstances. Unwittingly, we decline to recognize that we’re falsifying reality to cover up inner fear. In this process, we exaggerate the other’s side’s malice and threat. Feeling threatened or oppressed can easily be self-imposed or self-generated.
The anger we feel toward those we have targeted as enemies feels like power, as if our forceful opposition puts us in a strong position. This is a misleading sense of power, employed unconsciously to cover up our underlying fragility. Again, this reaction is ultimately self-defeating because it arises from a distortion of reality and generates stress and negative emotions.
Sometimes people are fighting not so much to win as to avoid the painful feeling of losing: “If they win, I lose.” Hence, we fight back with anger and hostility to avoid this feeling. Deep in the psyche, however, losing is, for many people, an emotional attachment or unconscious expectation. The feeling of losing triggers distress when people have pronounced doubt, deep in their psyche, about their intrinsic value. People will resort to blaming others and falsifying reality in order to avoid disturbing the fragile self-image that fears inner truth.
In our psyche, we’re tempted to experience the political views or preferences of others as an oppressive force (e.g. playing up the notion of the “war” on Christmas or having LGBTQ or Black Lives Matter values “shoved down our throat”). Irrationally and perversely, people are unconsciously willing to cling stubbornly to their positions because, psychologically, they are unable to liberate themselves from feeling oppressed. Shifting from feeling oppressed to feeling inwardly free is a profound transformation. For many people, it never happens. Inner conflict compels us to experience ourselves and the world through a sense of oppression and alienation.
This reactiveness helps us to understand the “Don’t tell me what to do!” anger and rage that characterizes many of those who refuse to wear face masks during the pandemic. When a rational public-health directive is politicized, it has already, in our psyche, been “emotionalized,” becoming another variable through which we can feel oppressed. Growing awareness of the source of these reactions liberates us from the suffering.
This quickness to react emotionally to feeling controlled arises from inner passivity, a weakness in our psyche. This passivity originates in the helplessness, dependence, and fearfulness of childhood. Growing up is, in part, the quest to become strong and independent and to overcome this passivity and fear. Yet emotional associations with this passivity remain in the adult psyche, as evidenced in the struggle of so many to feel the inner strength required for healthy self-regulation and the assertiveness needed to make one’s way successfully in the world.
As a common reaction to underlying passivity, we flip into an aggressive stance and become stubborn, angry, belligerent, willful, controlling, and defiant. For many people, it’s one or the other extreme—either feel oneself to be passive in a way that’s distressful and painful or else react with over-the-top aggression and the impulse to become controlling or righteous.
This kind of aggression tends to be inappropriate and self-defeating. Nonetheless, it’s often the only sense of aggression that people can muster, given their inner passivity. This unhealthy aggression is acted out in the social and political realm as hostility and scorn for the other side and rejection of its values.
This helps explain the devotion of Donald Trump’s followers. Trump is a genius at falsifying reality, and his followers, by identifying with him, can feel power in defiance of reality. The shamelessness of denying reality feels like power: “Reality is what I say it is.” Reality is mocked through illusions of power (or self-defeating expressions of power) such as willfulness, stubbornness, defiance, shamelessness, and bellicosity. This inauthentic power is appealing because it denies one’s identification with (and emotional attachment to) inner passivity and its associations with helplessness and powerlessness.
Trump displays the bluster of bellicosity and indignation to an extreme degree, and his followers are seduced not so much by Trump himself (Sarah Palin evoked the same reactions) but by his aggressive coverup of inner weakness. His followers resonate emotionally and intuitively with this weakness since they harbor it within themselves. Their fervor and bellicosity serve to deny this identification with inner weakness, yet their cultish passivity to Trump, an infantile man, serves as evidence for the underlying truth.
We all have some degree of inner passivity. Left-wingers, for instance, are prone to injustice collecting, which is one of inner passivity’s symptoms. The healthier we are, the more we minimize the influence of inner passivity. People of all political persuasions can circle back and forth between passivity and aggression. For example, left-wingers take a position (let’s say political correctness) and express this viewpoint forcefully, often sanctimoniously. In reaction, right-wingers, in their unconscious passivity, can now feel threatened and oppressed by the fervor and righteousness of the left. These right-wingers now react with their own aggression, perhaps proclaiming more emphatically the sinfulness of abortion, while feeling power and superiority in this righteousness. Now the left, feeling threatened by this fervor, comes back with another proclamation about truth and reality. And on it goes.
Passivity becomes triggered, flairs up as counteracting aggression, as each side feels intimidated by the growing intensity with which the other side reacts. However, when people are psychologically more astute, they clear out thin-skinned reactivity and the negative emotions that arise from inner conflict. They’re more infused with compassion, generosity, fearlessness, and love. These positive attributes, rather than ideology, become their guiding light.
Have inner conflict and the reactiveness of people become more severe? Psychiatrists believe climate change is a threat to mental health. There’s a psychological price for denying or ignoring climate change: It accentuates underlying helplessness and breeds cynicism. Other factors are battering the psyche. To what degree has the amplification of partisan journalism been feeding the dark side of human nature? Also challenging many people—and inflaming their resistance—are the spread of LGBTQ values and the prodding to overcome white fragility and overthrow the caste system ensnaring Blacks. The effects of rapidly advancing technology are confounding in themselves. This can all feel overwhelming, and it may now be instigating widespread irrationality, conspiracy mongering, and claims of fake news.
The second psychological reaction (all three are interrelated) fueling our discord involves our personal sensitivity to feeling devalued and disrespected. We all want to feel we have value, that we are important. Yet in our psyche each of us struggles, in varying degrees, with self-doubt and self-criticism. Many of us also struggle with more painful self-rejection and self-hatred. Humanity’s greatest weakness might be this easily accessible pain associated with doubt about one’s worthiness and, commonly, an aching conviction of one’s unworthiness.
With such inner conflict, many people are compelled to resonate emotionally with feelings of unworthiness. Now they need a target to cover up or deny their unconscious willingness to identify with themselves in this limited, painful way. On the racial front, Blacks and other minorities become such targets, cruelly used as receptacles for the disrespect and devaluation that white people are harboring within themselves.
We want to believe in our goodness and intrinsic value. Yet inner conflict creates the impression we lack value and are gravely flawed. Feeling this underlying self-doubt can be incessant and painful. To protect self-image and shield the ego, we hide from ourselves (through psychological defenses) the degree to which we harbor an emotional readiness to believe the worst about ourselves.
Just about all of us, to some degree, belittle or disrespect ourselves through our inner critic. In many people, the inner critic is brutal, constituting self-condemnation and self-rejection. In such instances, people project self-rejection on to others, seeing them as deserving of rejection. This way, through self-deception facilitated by psychological resistance, they blame and detest others to the same degree that, through the self-rejection and self-hatred emanating from their inner critic, they blame and detest themselves.
In other words, there’s a felt need to reject or belittle the other side (conveniently identified as “different” or alien) in direct proportion to how one is absorbing from one’s own inner critic the feeling of being rejected and belittled.
More insidiously, there also exists a compulsion to reject the other person and then, through identification, sneak into one’s own psyche that feeling of being rejected. Unconscious psychological defenses are activated: “No, I don’t want to resonate with being a lesser person. It’s those others who are unworthy and loathsome. Look at how much I despise them!” People often have to ratchet up their animosity and hatred in order to reinforce this defense.
Each side will project on to the other what is secretly harbored within, namely feelings of being unworthy and undeserving of respect. This deep emotional attachment or addiction to feeling disrespected is a personal identification that can be clung to with masochistic intensity.
In the political and social realm, both the left and the right can take each other’s opposition personally. In these heated debates, many people readily feel they themselves are being devalued. In doing so, they become emotionally reactive. Both sides experience anxiety and generate animosity, refusing to become responsible for their inner reactiveness.
A third psychological reaction involves the manner in which so many people experience themselves through a limited sense of self. America is known for the individualism of its people. Having a strong sense of one’s individual self contributes to one’s confidence and esteem. But this self-assurance needs to be balanced with the reality of how interconnected and interdependent we are.
We’re all born with a pronounced self-centeredness. Obviously, babies haven’t acquired the worldly experience that would facilitate objectivity. Knowing only their own little bodies, they feel as if they’re the center of the universe. They tend to believe that whatever comes their way is self-bestowed. Only gradually over several years do youngsters become aware of other points of view.
Adults can regress and become entangled mentally and emotionally in these infantile perceptions. For instance, in accepting conspiracy theories and disinformation, they feel an old childish defiance and sense of power. Reality is what they say it is. This explains why so many people are prepared to believe an evil global cabal is manipulating us all. The false belief is more evidence for the existence in the human psyche of inner passivity, which itself produces the readiness and willingness to experience helplessness, powerlessness, and victimization.
Self-centeredness lingers in the psyche in a way that limits one’s intelligence. People can easily revert to an infantilism involving entitlement, self-interest, and conceit that crowds out other vital considerations. The feeling arises, “If I want to own an assault weapon, who’s to stop me.” This is the voice of an infantile mentality. In itself, possession of such weapons can express a desperate yearning to feel all-powerful, as compensation for underlying helplessness and powerlessness.
An adult’s identification with the ego is a remnant of the young child’s acute self-centeredness. Many adults, especially those with a narcissistic predisposition, feel their ego protects them from collapsing into a painful sense of insignificance. White supremacy, for instance, is more about protecting a fragile self-image than the blood of whites.
People who are quick to see evil in others aren’t seeing it in themselves or in those with whom they have identified. This see-no-evil mentality relates directly to their unwillingness to look, for the purpose of healing, beyond their ego and its defensiveness into the heart of their own deficiencies and dysfunction.
Clinging to the ego makes us emotionally unstable. It can produce manic swings between grandiosity and self-rejection. Ego-identification impairs the individual from connecting emotionally with (or identifying with) his better self. Entangled emotionally in self-rejection, for instance, a person is likely to experience bitterness and anger toward those he blames for his misery. He’s blaming others to cover up his unconscious willingness to resonate (sometimes masochistically) with feelings of self-rejection.
As mentioned, this unconscious readiness to feel belittled, unsupported, or rejected is a symptom of inner conflict. Many millions of people are experiencing inadequacy and failure. The conflict leaves many people seething with resentment, convinced they’ve been treated unfairly or victimized. Many grievances are valid, yet one’s inner conflict, to the degree it is present, contributes to the misery. Barack Obama insightfully said as much of the rural white working class (during his first campaign for president), and he was hammered by the Right for saying it: “They get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Globalization (along with new technologies and the financialization of U.S. capitalism) has been brutal for American labor, small farmers, and small-town residents. Some workers adapted to these challenges with continuing education, yet the challenges were too much for many. The political system certainly could have been more supportive. American media, as well, might have been more charitable in recognizing the value of working people instead of mindlessly lionizing CEOs, celebrities, and athletes.
Sophisticated urbanites might wisely have been more respectful of their country cousins. Yet to what degree did rural folk play up emotionally the feeling of being mocked or disrespected? Feeling mocked and scorned can be a feature of their relationship with themselves. Rather than address this, they in turn mock and discredit urbanites, experts, and intellectuals.
The degree to which actual failure is entangled in unresolved inner conflict makes it all more painful and complicated. For one thing, the psychological factor throws individuals into naked self-centeredness or rigid egotism, a regression to childishness. This weakens the connection to one’s better self, and it impedes one’s ability to generate more initiative and to feel more open, generous, and kindly toward others.
Of course, prosperous, sophisticated people are not exempt from ego-identification and its accompanying self-defeating reactions. Many of them are desperate for status, fame, wealth, and power to prop up their ego. The ego requires self-aggrandizement, the admiration of others, or at least some measure of accomplishment in order to maintain itself without undue suffering. If one’s better self has not been cultivated and strengthened, the ego, when it regularly wavers or collapses, plunges the individual into painful states such as depression, cynicism, bitterness, and rage. The ego gets sucked into inner conflict; the authentic self doesn’t.
While people who identify with their ego can be cunning and superficially successful, they’re unlikely to be compassionate and wise. They’ll continually need to belittle and condemn others and hype their own ego to avoid turning on themselves with disgust.
As we recognize the source of these reactions, we liberate ourselves from inner conflict and rescue our better self from its imprisonment in ignorance. We rescue the nation, too, from its time in darkness.
This article is a revision and expansion of The Psychological Roots of National Disunity, published here in 2012.