Neurotics are torn by inner conflict … Every neurotic … is at war with himself.
~ Karen Horney
Due to a general lack of practical information regarding inner conflict, many try to address the wide array of symptoms without understanding the inner conflict itself.
Symptom intervention often fails because the original inner conflict – the cause – remains unaltered.
This post will:
• Clearly define inner conflict
• Provide real-world examples of inner conflict
• Show the disastrous symptoms of inner conflict
• Give critical reasons to understand inner conflict
• Outline a three-step healing process for resolving it
What is Inner Conflict?
Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast. And each will wrestle for the mastery there. ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Inner conflict is the result of two opposing motivations inside one person. These motivations may be based on conflicting beliefs or conflicting needs.
Here are some simple examples that don’t usually cause significant personal problems, but help to understand inner conflict:
Conflict: You are hungry, but don’t have time to eat because you have an important meeting right now. You’re conflicted with your need to eat vs. the need to do your job.
Likely symptoms of this inner conflict: Frustration, anger, mild despair
Conflict: You have plans for a social outing, but your child is lonely and says she really wants to spend time with you this evening. Your social needs (companionship, friendship) are conflicting with your family needs (need to be a responsible parent/family member).
Likely symptoms: Frustration, confusion, anger, guilt, jealousy (of those who don’t have child-rearing responsibilities)
Conflict: You must pay a utility bill at the local office, but the utility office is located in a dangerous part of town. You don’t feel safe going there. Your physical needs (for running water, heat or electricity) conflict with your need for personal safety.
Likely symptoms of this inner conflict: Fear, confusion, indecision, despair, helplessness
Again, these need conflicts may not be catastrophic issues. You may resolve them simply enough. Grab a nutrition bar as you walk down the hall to your meeting. Explain to your child that you will come home early to spend time, or cancel the social outing, or otherwise negotiate. Find a friend to go with you downtown to pay your bill.
Most of us try to resolve known inner conflict by trying to find a way to meet both needs without having to neglect either of them – to find a work-around or compromise. Sometimes this is possible when the needs are conscious and understood.
It’s when the needs are unconscious and misunderstood, but you still experience the resulting symptoms, that real problems occur. More on that in a few paragraphs.
Let’s take a look at how inner conflict comes from opposing beliefs.
Here are some examples of how personal beliefs may conflict with each other.
Belief #1: You believe you should be more assertive and outspoken to advance your career.
Belief #2: You believe you will be ridiculed or dismissed or not taken seriously if you speak up or attempt to assert yourself.
Likely symptoms: Fear, hesitation, self-loathing, passivity, passive-aggressive behavior, resentment, despair, a sense of futility, apathy or inner emptiness
Belief #1: You believe other people should be helping you more around the house.
Belief #2: You believe it is your responsibility (in your role) to do it all yourself, without complaining.
Likely symptoms: Resentment, despair, overwhelm, a sense of martyrdom or self-victimization, helplessness, futility
Belief #1: You believe you must eat right and exercise consistently to have more energy and avoid dire health consequences in the future.
Belief #2: You believe you are too weak, undisciplined or unworthy to stick to any health protocol so that you feel good.
Likely symptoms: Cycles of yo-yo dieting or dieting sabotage, self-criticism, procrastination, frustration, hopelessness
Why Inner Conflict May Be your Most Important Issue
There are three reasons inner conflict could be the key issue for all of us:
1. Inner conflict is largely unavoidable. Given our needs, beliefs and the nature of life in general, it would be impossible to avoid any experience of conflict. You cannot control when one need will arise that conflicts with another. It’s so common that most people do not even recognize needs conflicts as such.
2. The mind is a belief-making machine. Given the large variety of both positive and negative experiences, coupled with the fact that (especially as children) we tend to see experiences as a reflection of who we are, both positive and negative beliefs form without any conscious effort or awareness.
3. The most important reason inner conflict may be your key issue has to do with the physical and psychological impact of chronic inner conflict (stress). We can all live a lifetime – decades – with unresolved inner conflict. The typical symptoms of frustration can readily evolve into chronic emotional distress, depression, anxiety, panic, sleeplessness, and a myriad of stress-related conditions.
Worse, we may not consciously understand the nature of the inner conflict and therefore remain powerless to do anything about it. This is why it’s so important to understand and learn to resolve inner conflict.
The Most Challenging Aspect of Resolving Inner Conflict
A man’s conflicts represent what he ‘really’ is. ~ Erik Erikson
It’s common to be consciously aware of only one side of an inner conflict and still experience the full effect and symptoms.
How is this possible?
Research shows most of our decision-making activity is unconscious. People make up to 10,000 decisions daily, becoming consciously aware of decisions only moments after they are made. Deeper processes involving unconscious factors (needs and beliefs among them) rule decision-making, according to research.
“We think our decisions are conscious, but [these] data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg,” says John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. Read more about the research here.
Some suggest this research calls into question free will. Free will or not, I suggest it’s a clarion call for healing inner conflict.
When your behavioral choices are determined by an inner conflict you do not understand, it can sabotage your entire life. For example:
The reason for not sticking to a diet could very well be related to unrecognized and conflicting needs or personal beliefs.
I’d like to start my own business, but I just keep procrastinating. It’s awful!
The procrastination is probably driven by unconscious needs or limiting beliefs.
I really need to end my relationship. It’s so unhealthy. Every time I try to do it, though, I freeze. I am so confused.
Again, sabotaging the healthy choice to break up surely has to do with needs and beliefs that are outside conscious awareness.
You know part of what you want, need or believe. You experience the symptoms of both sides of the inner conflict. Your unconscious needs and beliefs still impact the decision, even though you do not consciously understand how or why.
Some form of stress or frustration is the inevitable result. There is a missing piece to the puzzle, without which you cannot resolve the issue or prevent yourself from repeating the same patterns in the future.
Three Steps to Resolving Inner Conflict
Healing inner conflict is a process that usually occurs in steps or stages. The following is an overview of the stages, based on my experience working with individuals.
1. Full Awareness of the Inner Conflict
Conscious awareness of the both sides of an inner conflict is the most challenging part, and often requires help from a therapist or coach who understands how to help you discover the unconscious motives in play.
Here’s the rub: The part of the inner conflict that is on the outside of your conscious awareness (repressed) is usually difficult to accept. This hidden part of you is often attached to painful memories. You’ve probably been avoiding ‘going there’.
Still, the resolution is not likely to happen spontaneously, without any increase in self-awareness, painful or not. When you are sufficiently aware of the full inner conflict, you are able to consciously understand yourself and say things like:
I want to be happy and live long, fulfilling life. And part of me is motivated to remain unhappy because I also believe I deserve to feel bad about myself.
I want to make my needs known and be respected. Part of me also believes that my sole purpose is to make others happy and that caring for my own needs is selfish.
I need to get motivated and do my best at work. I want a successful career and to make more money. And I also believe if I am successful, I will never be able to handle the pressure and extra attention.
I really should tell everyone I know about my new business venture and promote myself so that I can create the lifestyle I want. I also believe that when people learn what I am doing, they will ridicule me, tell me I shouldn’t be striking out on my own, or even shun me in some way.
When you’re fully aware of the unconscious side of the conflict, you are in a position to do something about it. As long as one element remains outside of awareness, no resolution is possible.
2. Sit Mindfully with Both Sides of the Inner Conflict
Now is the time to slow down. Inner conflicts are resolvable. You don’t resolve inner conflict, however, by rushing through it, attempting to override the part you aren’t comfortable with. Yet, this is precisely what most of us try to do.
So, stop. Honor both sides of the conflict by understanding them. After all, this is you. Your life. Your mind. Of course, it should be easy to honor the conscious, positive element. You’ve been doing that for a long time. Honoring the negative, self-sabotaging side is another story entirely. Most of us don’t even know where to begin. We’d just as soon annihilate this part of ourselves, but that’s just wishful thinking.
This is where a deliberate, mindful approach comes in handy.
Stop trying to brush over the issue, hoping it will magically vanish. Just be aware of it for a bit. Sit mindfully with full consciousness of both sides of your inner conflict. Does it make sense that you’ve been stuck for so long, given your conflicting needs or beliefs?
If it doesn’t make perfect sense, you may not actually understand the particular needs or beliefs that are relevant. This is another case where trained outside help may be invaluable. It’s hard to see what we believe. Sometimes it’s even harder to fully associate – or mindfully experience – the negative or painful side of a conflict. More objective feedback and a trained guide may be necessary.
Wouldn’t it make perfect sense to procrastinate if part of you legitimately believed you would be ridiculed and humiliated and ultimately fail as soon as you took positive action? Further, this unconscious negative belief is probably backed by a trail of painful, repressed and unresolved memories that serve as subjective evidence. It affects your decision-making process and will continue to do so until resolved.
Now, the common tendency is to minimize the negative belief or conclude that we ‘shouldn’t’ feel that way, thus negating an important, unresolved element of our own psyche. Some of us even begin to ridicule and humiliate ourselves for feeling that way at all.
Ironic, isn’t it? Unconsciously fearing humiliation often leads directly to self-humiliation. This is self-sabotage at it’s pernicious best.
And this vicious cycle of denial and self-condemnation only exacerbates the inner conflict, further repressing the negative side and guaranteeing its longevity as an unconscious influence over important life decisions.
Whether or not you minimize your personal history or criticize yourself for feeling a certain way, your past has a dramatic impact on the decisions you make. Past experience is considered primary in shaping the very meaning of present events and guiding related decisions. View research on how past experience wires the brain for present decision-making here.
If you do have the correct sides of the inner conflict in mind (which is a major accomplishment in and of itself) and really do sit with full awareness, without self-criticism, then a surprisingly powerful healing process has already begun.
Research shows when you’re mindfully aware of something potentially stressful, you can attend to it without a stressful reaction. This phenomenon has been proven even in more extreme physical circumstances, such as oxygen deprivation. Read research about it here.
Under these circumstances, with the entire issue on the table, your conscious mind will harness resources and begin naturally to find solutions. New ideas will emerge.
3. Intervention for Integration of the Inner Conflict and Inner Harmony
Further integrative work may also be needed. Long-lasting inner conflicts are often entrenched in trauma or deeply rooted beliefs about who we are. Some of these beliefs are so familiar and taken for granted that we could scarcely imagine who we might become without them.
At any rate, now that all the right cards are showing, skilled intervention can actually work. Which techniques might be included in such an intervention? It could be techniques to help recover from personal trauma. You may need to do some individuation work around your parental relationships. You might benefit from some of the more strategic interventions, such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming or parts therapy.
Considering you’ve chosen an intervention or protocol that is relevant, I am tempted to say it doesn’t matter which method you or your therapist/coach uses. It’s far more important to be addressing a causal issue.
There are many effective tools to choose from. If you’re not dealing with the right issue – or only one element of the problem – then no tool will work. This would be like taking your car into the shop and misdiagnosing the mechanical failure. All the fancy tools are useless, or only temporarily helpful, when not applied to the real problem.
This is why I spend a lot of time emphasizing what I call ‘positioning work’ with my NLP students. You’ve got to put the client in a position to heal before applying the specific healing methods. Positioning involves knowing where to look, combined with gathering the right information.
The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed. It is just these intense conflicts and their conflagration which are needed to produce valuable and lasting results.
~ Carl Jung
Psychotherapist Peter Michaelson’s books are a unique and brilliant revelation of unconscious motives and self-sabotage.
The AHA Solution is a free and enlightening video that reveals how hidden psychological attachments work to sustain inner conflict and motivate us toward what we don’t want.
For practitioners and coaches, the iNLP Center training is an excellent place to learn to work with subconscious phenomena.