Battling Our Inner Conflicts

One of my favourite psychology books is Karen Horney’s, Our Inner Conflicts. No one explains psychological conflicts better than this German-American psychiatrist does. Horney makes the brilliant point that both sides of an inner conflict are not wanted – a real conflict that is, not just a bad case of indecision over two equally desirable alternatives. She believes a victim of conflict gets hung up on the two opposed “trends” and is thus unable to pursue the outcome they really desire.

Karen Horney

Karen Horney explained how both sides of an inner conflict are things we do not want! (Image: public domain.)

Here is how this mechanism gets started.

The about-to-be conflicted individual represses what they truly want (for any number of reasons) and then goes looking for alternatives, all of which are, of course, less desirable than what has been pushed out of sight. The human mind being what it is, the moment we conceive one alternative its opposite immediately springs to mind. Several pairs of opposites may be generated in this way, but eventually one possibility, along with its inevitable opposite, will seem like the most probable choices.

However, neither possibility is really wanted; neither option is the forbidden first choice, although the victim of this exercise in futility remains unaware of the situation. The conflicted person has no choice but to thoroughly examine the two unwanted opposites. Unknowingly, the situation has boiled down to choosing the lesser of two evils. What should they do? Which undesired option should they choose?

A conflict is born.

The way out of the painful and frustrating trap lies in finding and releasing the repressed – yet desired – first choice. Horney says we can detect conflicts by looking for inconsistencies in our ideas, values, behaviour, and so on. This will reveal the two unwanted opposing trends, but how do you find the hidden first choice? The subject matter of the unwanted trends clearly points the way.

Let me clarify with an example. I once had a severe inner dispute that I labelled my go/stay conflict. I was living a simple but deeply troubled life as a manic-depressive hermit at the time.

Trend #1: An ambitious set of plans centred on selling my humble home beside a ten thousand acre tree farm (on the edge of the wilderness) and moving to some incredibly beautiful and remote place deep in the romanticized Canadian wilds. That is to say, I thought of making an anti-social move to banish myself altogether.

Trend #2: This was a more modest proposal to remain somewhat sociable and stay where I was, decidedly on the edge, yet only a twenty-minute drive from a small town where I had access to the usual benefits of civilization available in such places. (My life was not unlike that of Henry David Thoreau as he described it in Walden.)

The subject matter of the conflict is clearly lifestyle. Now, I am, and always have been, an intellectual. You can see that my illness had already landed me in an unsatisfactory situation for someone of that nature. So what was I repressing? A powerful desire to move to Vancouver where I could wildly indulge my passion for obscure books in the second-hand bookshops, avail myself of the services of the city’s huge new library, rent art films, enjoy classical music, and generally participate in the cultural life of a large city!

Why repress such a desire?

Lack of money and, of course, my crippling mental illness. By burying what seemed impossible, I suppose I was trying to spare myself a lot of fruitless anguish. It did not work, of course, but I was far less knowledgeable about these things when the repression took place.

It is worth noting that I recovered the repressed material by chance. I sat down one day and asked myself what I really loved, what I enjoyed doing, and what would best further my writing aspirations. With reading books, collecting books, a taste for art films, and listening to classical music at the top of the list it did not take long for the inner-city lifestyle to present itself.

Then the dam broke.

So powerful were the released feelings that I was left trembling. As a manic-depressive, I am naturally extremely emotional, but I spend most of my time feeling either depressed, anxious, angry, or irritable. I was not familiar with these newly unleashed emotions, yet their emergence vanquished the conflict.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

11 thoughts on “Battling Our Inner Conflicts”

  1. Thanks, Lucinda. Life being what it is I am now farther away from Vancouver than I was when I lived in the woods! At 63, it seems unlikely I will ever live in the expensive big city again. This does not bother me, though. The point of psychiatry is to reveal the truth so you can adapt and deal with it rather than burying it in the unconscious where it makes endless mischief. I grew up in small towns so I think it is somehow appropriate that I will come to my end in one.

  2. Thank you for this post, Thomas. I must admit that I’m not particularly knowledgeable about psychology (which is a pretty terrible admission for a writer), and Horney’s work sounds like a good place to start. If you have any other suggestions for a novice, they’d be gratefully received!

    I’m glad you came to terms with your repressed desire. You may never actually live in a big city, but one of the blessings of the internet, for which I never cease to be grateful, is that it has united most of the modern western world in one big virtual city. Cultural and intellectual inspiration and the company of like-minded people are only a few clicks of the mouse away.

  3. Writers tend to be “naturals” when it comes to psychology, Mari. I often mention Freud’s remarks about 19th century writers anticipating much of what he had to say. Since authors pioneered the ideas, I jokingly claim that we may describe the basics of psychology as the practice of “applied literature.”

    In my experience, psychology books are a matter of personal taste. That is to say, different personality types tend to prefer certain approaches to psychology over others. I found what I was looking for in the work of C.G. Jung, although it distresses me to see what the silly New Agers and some remarkably obtuse Christians have done with it. The key issue seems to be how much stress you put on the importance of the unconscious. If you believe the unconscious mind plays a huge role in our lives then Jung is for you. If you are sceptical of this, then stick with Karen Horney who takes a more objective view of the unconscious and places more stress on conscious processes. She falls somewhere between Freud and Jung and is outstanding in her ability to communicate her ideas.

    Since you write horror novels, I will stick my neck out and hazard a guess that you might find Jung at least entertaining.

    A good introduction to Jung’s work is Anthony Stevens’ *On Jung*. Barbara Hannah’s biography, *Jung: His Life and Work* is an excellent primer and gives a solid sense of where Jung was coming from. Jung’s autobiography, *Memories, Dreams, Reflections* is superb and a favourite of mine. Robert A. Johnson’s *Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche* is short and inspiring. Try one of these and see how well it fits. *The Portable Jung* is the best way to come at Jung’s work direct.

    I am beginning to grasp what you say about the internet and the company of like-minded people, Mari. For years, I used the web only for information gathering and dry emails. Being rather solitary (and wrapped up in myself), I casually ignored its social aspects. However, as I get older, I find myself more willing to reach out to others and make connections, or allow others to approach me. As someone who does not make friends easily, I value these connections highly.

  4. “By burying what seemed impossible, I suppose I was trying to spare myself a lot of fruitless anguish.”

    I really like how you said that. I think that on one end, an intellectually ambitious person has an unbridled motivation to seek knowledge. On the other end, that very same person can throw their hands up and walk away from a dream because that dream was only intrinsically founded in the first place, and who’s to stop you from walking away? Now, when I say dream, I mean the dream of manifesting your mental world into your physical, social world. I don’t think a person that loves knowledge ever gives that up.

    I enjoyed your post and I think it’s commendable that you regularly produce such thoughtful, articulate pieces. Thank you!

  5. Thanks for the kind words, everydaybuckle; a little encouragement is always welcome. Just as you say, like all lovers of knowledge, I never give up on my intellectual pursuits. As for moving to Vancouver: if (when!) my fantasy novel becomes a bestseller, I’ll be down there like a shot! One of the great things about the internet is that, when you move, you don’t have to leave your online friends behind.

  6. I’m experiencing a very similar thing currently, I’ve somehow boxed myself into an either/or situation of moving back to my country to live with my family or moving to a new American state thats cheap when all I really want to do is move to New York, the city I was meant to live in when I came into this country. I conceived a list of pros for moving back home and only now do I realise I was really miserable when I was there.

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