Our emotional weak link, the inner conflict lurking covertly in our psyche, turns us against ourself and each other. We create enemies of fellow citizens to the degree that we’re inwardly conflicted.
Whether liberal or conservative, the political and cultural viewpoints we embrace, when spitefully expressed, are largely emotional reactions to inner conflict in one’s psyche.
Unfortunately, people are largely blind to this inner dysfunction and its operating principles. As a result, we’re easily swamped by the negative and self-defeating reactions that arise from this inner turmoil. Now, with the rise of modern complexity and dysfunction adding to the mix, decency and civility are collapsing.
To address the problem, we must understand inner conflict and see it operating in ourself. Here is the essence of five basic inner conflicts: (1) while we do want consciously to feel our value, we can be determined unconsciously to recycle and replay old emotional impressions of being unworthy; (2) though consciously wanting to feel emotionally strong, we can have unresolved attachments to memories and impressions of being weak, needy, and fearful; (3) while wanting to feel our goodness, we can be convinced emotionally of our wrongdoing or sinfulness; (4) though wanting to feel free, we can be determined emotionally to experience ourselves through impressions of being controlled and oppressed; (5) while yearning for success, we can unconsciously be resonating with feeling like a failure.
Each of these five examples reveals the underlying emotional weakness that characterizes inner conflict: An unconscious, psychological tendency to identify with a weak, passive sense of self. This inner passivity is an emotional residue of childhood; it is not, in any way, our fault. The more we’re encumbered by it, though, the more likely we are to be at our weakest or worst.
At our weakest, we unconsciously go looking for impressions of being victimized, oppressed, and disrespected—and then strike back with self-righteous indignation. We create these misleading impressions of victimization and oppression either as they relate directly to us or through our identification with what we see or imagine others are experiencing.
Human beings have slowly, over many millennia, become more conscious. As rationality advanced, our psyche became less primitive and reactive. In this process, the world’s democracies have become the frontlines for our evolving intelligence and wisdom. Yet still, we’re just moving along a spectrum of self-development that stretches into the far unknown.
Many adults are neurotic, which means they have insufficiently broken free from the irrationalities, fears, magical thinking, and emotional sensitivities of childhood. Even so-called normal people can be challenged by inner turmoil, resulting in bouts of moodiness, selfishness, impatience, boredom, greed, and incompetence.
With neurosis, many people slip into a self-pitying victim mode rather than embark on the brave road of taking responsibility for the quality of their experience. We can’t count on the world to support or value us. Such an approach is too passive. It’s better to learn to value ourself and, despite the injustices we’re likely to encounter, manifest this value in our engagement with the world.
There are, of course, people who have truly been oppressed and victimized. Yet even so, the rule still applies: Becoming stronger within oneself by recognizing and overcoming the elements of inner conflict produces, over time, inner freedom and social progress.
The challenge of inner conflict is huge just in itself. Now, however, modern life is on our doorstep with its unsettling, overwhelming effects. This new upheaval puts great strain on our conflicted psyche, leading to greater irrationality, negativity, cynicism, blaming, selfishness, tribalism, and overall dissension.
Not only do we have a pandemic to integrate emotionally, we also have the impacts of domestic and world terrorism, sex and gender reframing, social media disinformation, the flood of human migration, the spectacle of accelerating species extinctions, the question of what to teach our children, the imperative for racial equality, growing wealth disparity, a tense abortion standoff, political ineptitude, and grievance-filled slants on news and commentary.
The probable number-one emotional disrupter is climate change. Many of us who aren’t stone-cold deniers are experiencing, to some degree, a helpless morbidity in the face of climate catastrophe, especially as we observe our leaders’ ineptitude. This underlying helplessness is often largely repressed, which means the sense of impotence and hopelessness can weigh even more heavily upon us. Some people regress emotionally, becoming childlike in their passivity. Or they become guilt-ridden, cynical, and fatalistic, which are more symptoms of underlying passivity. Or they react to their sense of helplessness with misplaced anger, bitterness, and malice.
The second most significant disrupter of emotional stability might be the pervasiveness of grievance-filled news and commentary. A U.S. government fairness doctrine, abandoned in 1987, had required broadcasters to present differing viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance. Following abandonment of the doctrine, broadcasters quickly found mass audiences in hate-filled content that targeted rival ideologies and values. This sinister perspective, broadcast to millions of naïve listeners, is emotionally appealing to them because it “justifies” blaming others for their own psychological weakness. Persuaded by skilled, angry influencers, people are prepared to believe the worst about others, just as they do about themselves through their unconscious ego’s passive receptivity to the self-aggression of their inner critic (superego).
It’s understandable now that many are feeling disconnected, disempowered, and overwhelmed. The timeworn political slogan, “Make America Great Again” served as a reminder of decades past when the psyche supposedly felt more protected by traditions, custom, and a slower pace of change. Now, with all the hurly-burly, the failure to recognize and deal with our inner weakness makes us especially impressionable, more indifferent to truth, more disposed to tribal loyalty, populist frenzy, and conspiracy theories.
As these disruptions weigh upon us, many people can unconsciously deny or cover up their inner weakness by producing visualizations or fantasies in which they’re reacting forcefully or violently. Usually, these impulses of reactive aggression are contained, meaning limited to one’s thoughts and imagination. Even when contained, however, these negative emotions tempt people to vote in elections with spiteful or nihilistic intent, or to identify with the most irrational, bellicose politicians, or to be unwilling to make their best effort in workplace and social interactions.
Often, this reactive aggression is expressed verbally in chronic complaining, but it can also emerge as abusive and violent behavior. Even when contained within oneself, it contaminates one’s personality, contributing, for instance, to the indifference, loneliness, and self-pity that downgrade the quality of one’s life.
The anger, scorn, and bitterness we extend to others serve as psychological defenses that cover up and deny our entanglement in inner conflict. Instinctively, we inflict belligerent fault-finding on others to cover up our unconscious allegiance to a limited, conflicted sense of self. In targeting others, we’re acting out an unwillingness to reveal, especially to ourself, the repressed impressions of self-doubt, inadequacy, and weakness with which, deep down, we emotionally resonate and identify.
Racism, bigotry, and misogyny—all toxic to national aspirations—are products of inner conflict. These attitudes and behaviors arise among people who, because of inner conflict, are unable to recognize and appreciate their intrinsic value. While consciously they may want to feel good and worthy, they’re compelled unconsciously to resonate emotionally with self-criticism, self-rejection, and a sense of unworthiness. Through an unconscious process called projection, they attribute this sense of unworthiness to others, thereby denying inner truth.
Their unconscious self-deception adamantly claims, “They’re the unworthy ones, not me!” They sacrifice others as scapegoats upon whom they can project their own deep identification with unworthiness, all the while perversely taking on needless suffering through their hidden, vicarious identification with those they are insulting or degrading.
What’s the remedy for such folly? We need to make conscious, as much as possible, the conflicted dynamics of our emotional life. These dynamics tend to be self-damaging when our conscious oversight is lacking. We can recognize and resolve inner conflict by noting, objectively and perceptively, the content of our mind. This self-reflection includes recognition of the self-deceptions produced by our unconscious defenses.
As a passive reaction to modern life, feeling overwhelmed produces a variety of negative reactions within us. We can, for instance, experience a lot of anger, in part because chronic anger, as reactive aggression, is the only “strength” that our passivity and self-doubt allow us to feel. Such anger, as mentioned, is a psychological defense (employed unconsciously to protect our identification with our ego) that covers up our stubborn allegiance to a superficial, unevolved sense of self.
Chronic anger also covers up, as a defense, an unconscious readiness to feel overlooked and disrespected. With inner conflict, we’re likely to resonate emotionally with feeling disrespected because we’re kissing cousins to a despised disowned part of us. To protect an ego-ideal, we are determined to repress this weakness and hide it from ourselves. However, when our ego-ideal goes unchallenged by deep self-knowledge, narcissism arises and with it a host of ways we become insensitive and hostile to others.
Chronic anger directed at others or at the world in general is a misleading, self-defeating form of aggression. This misleading aggression can feel intoxicatingly powerful, righteous, and gratifying. This gratification heightens the conviction that we’re being strong, not weak. Again, the inner weakness we’re covering up is our unconscious readiness to experience ourselves, repeatedly and compulsively, as unworthy, insignificant, helpless, and overwhelmed.
The crisis of homeless is, in part, a consequence of the many people who, overwhelmed by modern life, have collapsed into helplessness. As another example, the conspiracy theories that arose following 9/11, notably the contention that the U.S. government was behind the attacks, were embraced by people who, psychologically overwhelmed by the event, collapsed into irrationality. The “truth” they stubbornly embraced felt reassuring, grounded in reality. Being “in the know” produced their illusion of power.
Stubborn, angry self-righteousness is a mentality common to both conservatives and liberals. This mentality covers up our fragile ego’s fear of being wrong, insignificant, or powerless. The most belligerently aggressive among us are likely to be militantly resistant to psychological insight. They shun opportunities to look inward to examine the source of their misery or belligerence. Their belligerence merges with self-righteousness, and they cling to a belief or set of beliefs not for truth’s sake but because the fervor of their beliefs feels, as a convincing denial of inner weakness, so gratifying and true. It’s all a protection-racket designed instinctively to make their ego, both the conscious and unconscious elements of it, impervious to higher truth.
Another unhealthy reaction to inner conflict is the childish sense of entitlement (“I’m not unworthy—I deserve whatever I want”), which provides a multitude of opportunities to feel indignant about allegedly being unjustly treated. In the United States, lax gun laws likely feed this sense of entitlement. Neurotic individuals can feel entitled, through their legal ownership of assault weapons, to shoot to kill because their perceptions of malice or danger are assumed to be objective. Even if law-abiding, they can, in their imagination, be seeing people as targets.
Many people become narcissistic as a compensation for how poorly they connect emotionally or psychologically with their essential value. This passive disconnection from their better self makes them insensitive or indifferent to others. They’ll also be more receptive to disinformation from outside sources, just as, on the inside, they’re overwhelmed by the irrational jumble of inner conflict.
Our inner critic, an enemy of our integrity and instigator of inner conflict, is highly irrational and aggressive. When we’re inwardly passive, it inundates us with scorn and mockery. If we’re too disconnected from our better self, we’re at our inner critic’s mercy. This emotional disconnection means there’s no one “home” to protect us from the inner critic’s enforcement of its primitive will and judgment. This passive disconnect weakens us, making us more likely to feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges and prey to disinformation.
People can often sense an inner form of oppression, though usually obscurely. They might know they have an inner critic, but they’re not likely to know the dynamics of inner passivity and inner conflict. Through their lack of self-understanding, they instinctively attribute this sense of oppression to the malice of others. Or unwittingly they become agents of their inner critic, submitting themselves to self-criticism, self-rejection, and even self-hatred. If they’re especially inwardly passive in the sense of being disconnected from their better self, they can adopt the inner critic’s values and become bullying and cruel. In whatever manner this plays out, the common spinoffs are bitterness and anger.
Inner conflict is a condition long engrained in human nature. The genesis story of Adam and Eve, an iconic depiction of the inner conflict between right and wrong and good and evil, is testament to humanity’s longstanding sense of inner discord. We’re conscious enough now to bring this all into focus. Healing our inner conflict is a learning process. With insights from depth psychology, we can speed up the process.