Inner conflict is a private war within oneself. People tend to think it’s about making a difficult decision. According to conventional thinking, that decision can range from choosing a style of shoes to more serious considerations such as a career move to another city or the compromise of one’s integrity over an ethical issue.
But these examples illustrate only conscious inner conflict. Much more significant are the unconscious varieties. These deeper conflicts are the roots of our suffering. When we expose the roots, we can resolve the conflict and end the suffering.
One way to expose the roots is get a shovel and start digging. Here we penetrate the ground beneath eight common emotional experiences: 1 – loneliness; 2 – envy; 3 – depression; 4 – greed; 5 – guilt; 6 – sadness; 7 – boredom; and 8 – indecision.
I’m talking here about chronic conditions, meaning, as in this first example, not occasional loneliness but chronic loneliness. Keep in mind that I’m trying to expose the essentials of the deeper conflict behind each of these varieties of suffering because of the importance of that self-knowledge.
1—Loneliness, when chronic, is the result of wanting to be in the friendly or loving company of others at the same time that the person is prepared, unconsciously, to experience old unresolved feelings such as separation, rejection, abandonment, or unworthiness. Put succinctly, the conflict is between wanting love but expecting rejection or abandonment. Typically, the individual is aware of wanting friendly or loving company but is unaware of how prepared or even determined he or she is to feel unloved and unworthy. As we expose our emotional attachment to feeling unloved or unworthy (a remnant of childhood perceptions and hurt), we become stronger emotionally and capable of moving beyond loneliness. We see that our loneliness is a result of the fact that we’re choosing unconsciously to continue to feel rejection, unworthiness, etc.
2—Envy comes about when we yearn for something we’re usually unlikely to get. We feel a strong desire for a certain object, status, wealth, or person that remains out of reach. We’re convinced that we really want what we’re yearning for, yet we’re also, simultaneously, indulging in the bittersweet feeling of not having or not getting that alleged benefit. Paradoxically, we want to get the desired object and we want to feel deprived or refused, all at the same time. The envious person is aware of wanting but completely unaware of the appeal of the self-pitying victimhood of not getting. This old pain is familiar from the person’s past, and it can become a cornerstone of one’s identity. Usually envy is dropped when this potent insight is absorbed.
3—Depression feels like getting sucked into a black-hole of daily existence. Here the conflict is between inner aggression, which emanates from the inner critic or superego, and inner passivity, the place in our psyche where self-doubt accumulates (or where consciousness of our goodness and value has not permeated). Our inner critic hammers away at us with all sorts of insinuations, allegations, and outright accusations of our defectiveness and unworthiness. Our inner passivity, on the other side of the conflict, tries to defend us, but it manages to do so only with weak and ineffective excuses and denials. The more we absorb the inner critic’s aggression, the more likely we are to become depressed. As we recognize and resolve this conflict, our true, genuine, or authentic self emerges to become our contact-point with strength, wisdom, and positive emotions.
4—Greed is comparable to envy, and it’s also the particularly painful feeling of never being satisfied, never having enough. On the surface, greedy people believe they really do want more. But deeper down they’re cozying up to the feeling of emptiness or nothingness. That negative association haunts them at their core. They’re so disconnected from their essential value that only more and more accumulation of materialistic benefits seems to have any chance of filling the inner void. The inner sense of unworthiness is their default position, and often they compensate with arrogance and narcissism as well as greed. The more desperately they want to accumulate materialistic benefits, the more acute is their impression of lacking within themselves a foundation of goodness, integrity, and value.
5—Guilt is the feeling, arising out of inner conflict, that we have done something bad or wrong. When our aggressive inner critic accuses us of being flawed or foolish, or of indulging in some unresolved negative emotion, we typically absorb some degree of that aggression. In other words, we “buy into” the accusations coming from our inner critic, which means we take them seriously instead of dismissing them out of hand. It’s through our unconscious inner passivity that we let the inner critic hold us accountable. Guilt becomes a measure of the degree to which we absorb the inner critic’s aggression instead of being able through inner strength to deflect it.
6—Sadness can be appropriate much of the time. Yet often it’s an inappropriate response to a particular situation. It can also get in the way of being able to offer emotional support or compassion for oneself or others. Chronically sad people can be entangled in self-pity and prone to identify strongly, from a passive victim perspective, with their “plight” and the “plight” of others (sometimes the plight is just imagined). In the conflict between aggression and passivity, they offer themselves up as the defeated underdog. This unconscious strategy attempts to curb the inner critic’s bullying through the proposition that you shouldn’t kick someone when they’re down.
7—Boredom is largely a product of a blocked imagination, such that more intense stimulation is required to produce an appetite for life. This can produce hyperactive individuals. The creative blockage is due not to a lack of intelligence but to inner conflict. A creative imagination uses psychic energy that in turn produces pleasure. But psychic energy can be usurped by the inner critic and turned into a negative force that demeans and belittles the individual, along with his or her creative efforts. Also, the inner critic can oppose “the power” of the creative imagination, and shift the individual over to the passive side. The passive side can also sacrifice pleasure, and adopt various forms of suffering, in the hope of deflecting the inner critic’s ruthlessness.
8—Indecision is sometimes appropriate to particularly challenging situations. But often the painful feelings are produced because we have a default position in our psyche that produces an impression of weakness or helplessness (inner passivity). We usually experience this passivity as painful and so we fight against it. But while one part of us hates it, a deeper unconscious part is willing to experience it because, as an unresolved emotion left over from childhood, we still in part identify with ourselves through that weakness and uncertainty.
It’s important to understand, as well, that most of the varieties of suffering that arise out of inner conflict are not just symptoms of that conflict but are also employed unconsciously as psychological defenses that block us from awareness of our determination to stay entangled in the conflict (see “Get to Know Your Psychological Defenses”).
With unresolved inner conflict, we produce conflict with others. That’s why it’s so important for each of us to do the inner work that leads to world peace and harmony.