Understanding and resolving internal conflicts
Sometimes when we want something, when we try to deepen our wellbeing and be more resilient, there’s another part of us that is pulling us in the opposite direction. This internal conflict can mean we take one step forward then get pulled one step back, struggle more than we need to or repeatedly procrastinate.
This can happen when there is a benefit to having the problem, or a downside to having the solution. This is often at a subconscious level, and is no judgment on a person's character. So invite you to be open minded and curious when considering this. Some examples of internal conflicts (which can also be called “secondary gains'') could be:
A person feeling like they don’t deserve to be healthy.
Someone getting attention and care due to a health condition.
A person having a problem which allows them to feel sorry for themselves in a world which can so easily feel harsh and uncaring.
An individual not knowing who they would be if they didn’t feel angry at so many things all the time.
Maybe someone feels that the environment they live in needs to be fixed, and improving their wellbeing while the environment stays the same is letting the people off the hook who they believe need to do the fixing. Similarly, forgiving someone who did something bad to you can feel like letting them off the hook.
If someone got their body in shape, they might feel deprived of eating their favorite foods, foods that also provide them with comfort in stressful times.
Someone might want to be more calm and focused at work, but that means they would stand out, they would no longer behave like everyone else running around in stress. It might also mean they would be more productive which could mean they’d be given more work, and they don’t want more work.
As you can see from these examples, sometimes there’s real legitimacy to these secondary gains, while other times the reasoning is based on emotional reasoning which doesn’t fully stand up to scrutiny.
It’s in stories
We often see these kinds of internal conflicts in stories. It’s the hero who is sent off on a journey to slay the dragon. While the hero is called to become a great warrior and fulfill his potential, there’s another part of him that’s afraid, that wants to turn around and go home, that doesn’t believe he can do it. Think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, perhaps the most famous monologue “to be or not to be”, is about someone being conflicted about whether he should commit suicide or live and suffer.
Listen to the part of you that’s pulling in the opposite direction
If we try to motivate ourselves to just push through and get the outcome regardless of what we’re experiencing internally, we may not only cause ourselves far more suffering than we need to, but we’re also missing out on the wisdom and knowledge that is contained in those parts of us we’re trying to override.
It’s very possible that someone would get more work if they were calmer at work. A person putting all the responsibility of wellbeing onto their shoulders may very well mean that the environment they work in doesn’t change when it really should. If someone feels they don’t deserve to be healthy, there’s almost certainly a reason for that. The conflict we may try to override is actually a doorway to work on yourself at a deeper level. There is a reason these parts of us are there.
Let’s say John is working in a company he really loves and he wants to move up to a particular leadership role in that company. On the one hand, he sees amazing benefits from being in that position: he’ll have more control over what projects to work on, he’ll be able to lead a team in the way he believes it should be done, he won’t have to deal with some of the smaller tasks that annoy him, and he’ll get a higher income, but…
…he’ll also have to speak publicly, which terrifies him, he won’t be working next to a co-worker who’s become a dear friend, and because he thinks the job is so fantastic, he’s afraid other people are going to try and take it from him.
If you simply told John “hey, don’t think about those negative things, just put all your attention on the benefits you’ll get” that’s asking him to ignore information and in a sense lie to himself. He’ll require motivation and courage every time he has to speak publicly, he’ll feel the loss and grief of not working side by side with his dear friend, and he’ll always be afraid someone is trying to take his job.
Plus, when we’re experiencing these internal conflicts, not only are we not making progress, but we’re also losing energy. All that pulling and pushing that’s going on inside of us can be mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting.
I believe a much more humane approach is to listen and understand those parts of us that are pulling in the other direction and to work with them.
If John worked with those parts of him that were afraid of public speaking, if he worked with his sadness at not being able to work next to his friend, and his fear that others might try to do things to take his job, he would very likely get the same outcome of moving forward that he would have had if he had used discipline and motivation to push through. However, his progress would have been a much gentler experience that would likely give him more sustainable energy and a healthier state of being because those parts of himself would have found some resolve, there would have been an integration of their wisdom into who he is rather than trying to override them.
Questions to ask yourself to identify internal conflicts
This is not an exhaustive list. I invite you to have an open mind when asking these questions as secondary gains are often at a subconscious level and don’t operate from the same logic we’re used to using.
Is there any downside to making this change?
What would I have to give up to get this result?
What’s the benefit of staying where I am?
What would it be like if I didn’t have this problem?
Who would I be without this problem?
Who would I be if I achieved this?
What would happen if I achieved my goal?
What would happen if I didn’t reach my goal?
Is there any part of this change that doesn’t feel safe?
Does any part of me feel like I don’t deserve this outcome?
Does any part of me feel like I deserve to stay where I am?
What to do about it
A very useful tool that you can use to work with these internal conflicts is called “Tapping”. If you’re unfamiliar with it, here are the basics:
“Tapping” (EFT) is a scientifically proven, mind-body method. It allows you to rapidly process the emotional intensity of situations in your life.
It involves lightly tapping on acupressure points on your body while focusing on a specific problem. This physical action of tapping sends a calming signal to your brain and body. This essentially means you process the stress from the situation and are able to re-programs yourself.
Remember to take responsibility for your own wellbeing when using Tapping or any other method.
Using Tapping for internal conflicts
1) Bring your internal conflict to mind
2) Note if you can feel any emotion or physical sensation when you focus on this. (eg: feeling stressed, angry, tightness in your chest, pit in your stomach etc). Identify the level of intensity for you right now on a 0-10 scale (0 being no intensity, 10 being maximum intensity).
3) Tap the side of hand point continuously while saying the following 3 times:
“Even though_____________(insert internal conflict), I deeply and completely accept myself”.
eg: “Even though I want to have a great body, but it will mean I’m deprived of my favorite foods, I deeply and completely accept myself”.
(Note: If the last part of this statement feels off, you can try using “I accept I’m feeling this” or “I’m OK right now”).
4) Gently tap the 8 points about 7 times each with your fingertips while repeating a brief phrase at each point, that reminds you of the problem. eg: “I would be deprived”.
5) Test to see if there has been any change on the 0-10 scale of intensity or a change in emotion/physical sensation. You may also have had other thoughts, more nuances, random memories etc come to mind throughout the process. If this is the case, it’s often worth tapping on these individually.
6) Repeat, adjusting statements to reflect any changes you experience.
keep in mind that these are just the basics of one method. You may either need more knowledge or the guidance of a trained practitioner to get the results you want. Check out these blog posts to learn more about tapping.
Side of hand photo originally by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash
Tapping points photo originally by Albert Dera on Unsplash
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash