Resolving psychological conflict through inner dialog
How to put your inner conflicts to good use
Introduction: We CAN resolve major Inner conflicts
Desire-conflicts reduce life-satisfaction
When our desires are clear and coherent, we are free to assess personal and environmental resources, craft a plan of action for satisfying our desires, and act to achieve satisfaction. Regrettably, that essential initial clarity of desires is not always present, with the result that we are too often unable to act to make ourselves happy.
Beyond the problem of having clear desires is that of having well-integrated desires, for if our desires are in essential conflict, or if we are in conflict with ourselves about these desires, we will also often be unable to get to the point of acting on our own behalf. The conflict problem is more critical than the lack of clarity problem. It’s also usually more complex.
Consider this example, about a rather minor concern: the problem of getting enough brownies (for some of us, this might be a genuine problem!). Suppose we want to eat more brownies, but also want to eat a healthy diet and lose some weight. These desires are in obvious conflict.
This conflict could be resolved relatively easily (if we know how), but suppose further that we grew up with a parent who routinely shamed or otherwise punished us when we sought out for ourselves the simple pleasures of life. We may well have learned from this parent that it’s BAD to want something for ourselves, and thus have not only a conflict BETWEEN our desires, but also a conflict ABOUT our desires.
This is a truly challenging problem, and will typically lead to serious internal stress. It may also lead to self-sabotage, self-medication, depression, or existential paralysis (i.e., we become simply unable to act).
Desire-conflicts can lead to lack of awareness
We do not typically have full awareness of our desires. Desires about which we are conflicted often get pushed out of our awareness, because of the distress caused by the conflict. Yet, this only submerges the conflict. Subconscious conflict between desires and about desires can still act to block our becoming more self-aware1, with the result that the clarity we’d like simply cannot be achieved. It thus makes sense to focus on resolving inner conflicts, as a first priority, when we seek to improve the level of satisfaction we have in our lives.
Good consequences arise from resolving this inner conflict
Increasing our consciousness of our desires, whether or not they are in conflict, or we are conflicted simply about having them, is a useful part of a larger process in which we can become more clear about what we truly want, as a preliminary step to setting out to satisfy our desires.
I describe here a clinically proved process for exposing and resolving inner conflict about desires,a process which typically has these beneficial outcomes:
- Our overall stress level will be reduced.
- Confusion about our desires, in the area on which we focus, will cease to be a problem.
- We will be able to move much more gracefully from wanting to acting, with the result that we will learn more, and our life will come to feel more satisfying to us.
- We will become more self-approving.
Persisting desire-conflicts often develop from poor parenting
Good parenting promotes development of good self-regulation
For well over a decade, modern developmental psychology and neurophysiology has been looking at various aspects of early brain development in relation a young child’s social environment and later psychological health. The results of this exploration has been profound.
It has become obvious that healthy brain development requires a healthy social environment. Specifically, this means having parents or caretakers who provide adequate help in managing the feelings of the young child, and in assisting them to learn to self-manage their own feelings.
Babies are born with essentially adult feelings, already “hardwired”. They are NOT born with all the skills they need to manage those feelings. For that they are dependent upon their caretakers. The central task to be learned by the young, developing brain, in relation to these feelings, is how to calm things down when there’s too much excitement or disturbance in the brain. If this calming does not occur, and excess levels of disturbance are too frequent or long-enduring, normal cognitive develop well may be seriously impeded.
A health-promoting caretaker provides two things essential to the healthy emotional development of a baby and young child:
- A calming influence for them when they become upset. The long-term effect of this will be a gradual learning to “self-soothe”.
- A minimum of unnecessarily upsetting feelings directed toward them. This has the effect of minimizing unnecessary stress, leaving them to learn to deal with essential stresses appropriate to their developmental age.
Poor parenting promotes development of enduring inner-conflicts
Many serious things can happen to a child’s developing brain as a consequence of an insufficiency of “calming influences”, or an excess of inappropriate upsetting feelings deriving from interaction with caretakers.
One of these serious outcomes – enduring internal conflict about personal desires – can arise when a parent is such a noxious influence that the baby/child benefits learns to isolate themselves from their parent. In such a situation, most children learn to imagine how a parent will react to them in critical situations, so that before the parent actually has a chance to produce this reaction the young child can “see” them coming, in their mind. In essence, the baby/child learns to create a simulation of their parent, so that they can acquire a kind of protective (and adaptive) self-control. By reacting to the imagined consequence they can avoid encountering the real consequence of contact with a noxious parent.
This is much like an adult who learns to resist the urge to drive fast, in those situations where they can anticipate that the police may be watching for speeders. Contact with the ‘internal cop’ allows the driver to avoid the external cop, and the driver does NOT get a ticket.
When a child does this with a noxious parent it is a very clever accomplishment, howsoever true it is that this development is never intentional or even conscious. Little brains simply do this sort of thing as part of their learning to navigate in their world. It’s part of their natural struggle to survive and to thrive.
This adaptational cleverness has a cost, of course. Not only is this kind of internal self-control potentially destructive, it also is likely to be continued long past the time when the parent’s direct influence on the child has ceased.
Psychotherapists call a constructed, internal parent-simulation of this sort a “parental introject”6. Getting rid of this introject can be a critical step toward growing a healthier sense of self and a becoming happy with ones life. But the task is often not easy, and is usually well beyond the capability of an individual working alone and without having advanced knowledge of personality dynamics, psychopathology, and psychotherapy.
This document describes a process by which someone in psychotherapy can work productively with themselves between sessions, relative to this problem of having a toxic parent-introject. This process is also useful for simpler things, such as working out an internal conflict between internal points of view which are entirely ones own, such as a conflict between the desire to lose weight AND to eat delicious deserts.
Destructive parent introjects will interfere with good adult self-care
Healthy parents foster their child’s discovery of their own, developing nature, accepting it and helping their child to celebrate it as it emerges. A child with such a parent typically learns to listen well to their own inner desires, and thus learns to steer their life by a true map, as it were7.
Unhealthy parents foster the child’s expressing a nature the parent finds acceptable, irrespective of the child’s actual nature. Such a parent may be overly directive, or hypercritical, or ignoring, among other things. A child with such a parent typically learns to be inappropriately attention to their parent, and will come to ignore themselves inappropriately as well, and thus learning to steer their life by a map of the desires of someone else’s mind, not a map which describes their own desires, responses, feelings, and thoughts.
When ones parent introject is supportive and approving, there will be no problem deriving from it. When ones parent introject is not supportive – is ignoring or critical or harsh, and so on, happiness is not possible. It isn’t really “on the map”.
The simpler parts of our personality – those which experience and manage our most basic feelings – are the first to appear, as we develop. They are childlike – which is to say full of feeling, not very clever, capable of generating great joy and delight, and very vulnerable. When we are small, they need the supportive, calming influence of a healthy parent.
When we are adult, these same parts need us to manage them exactly as a healthy parent would manage a cherished child. We must be our own healthy parent, to become a successful adult. However, if we are still carrying around an unhealthy parent introject created in our brain when we were just a child, this healthy self-parenting will surely be difficult, and may simply be impossible.
The reality and benefit of internal dialogs within our personality
There is considerable evidence that our personalities are organized not as a unitary, single whole, but rather as a network of parts – something like an internal family. This modular organization of our personality mimics the organic modularity of our physical brain, and both brain and personality experience the same benefits from modular organization:
- efficiency – Only one part of the brain or personality need be active at any one time.
- specialization – Individual parts can function as “experts” in solving certain kinds of problems.
- diversity – To the degree that different parts of the brain and personality “see” the world in different ways, the likelihood that some part will actually have a decent grip on reality at any point in time will increase. When the brain/personality functions more as a committee and less as an solitary autocrat, better decisions get made.
While the concept of internal dialogs between the parts of our personality is an advanced concept in the realm of neuropsychology and neurophysiology, it is at the same time mere common sense to most people. We’ve all experienced “internal arguments” or conflicts. We may refer to these as simple “can’t make up my mind” episodes, but a deeper investigation will often reveal that we have in our mind distinct part-personalities, which communicate with each other – but not always well or to good effect. Becoming aware of these internal dialogs can be an extremely productive activity in, and outside of, psychotherapy.
Some of our personality parts are younger than others, because they developed at an earlier stage in our development. With some people, the existence of these parts is rather obvious. When they shift from one part to another, one can notice a change in their voice and body language. With many other people, the change is more subtle, and one must look carefully to see it.
There is also considerable evidence that these internal personality parts converse, as it were, with each other. This most typically happens below the level of consciousness. Regrettably, these “conversations” do not always go well – just like a parent with an upset child who finds that sometimes talking is impossible! Communication breaks down, and dysfunction can quickly emerge.
Since the parts of our personality are united by common interests, and a common core personality, there is an inherent motivation NOT to be in conflict, when possible. Therefore, if we can offer overt support for safe, constructive inner dialog, the outcome will most often be quite productive8.
Becoming aware of previously unconscious internal dialogs
This is actually rather easy to do, if one goes about it in the right way. One begins with something that arouses feeling, and about which one has two or more points of view. Note that we cannot always know in advance that we actually have an internal conflict about something. Sometimes we simply look at something to see if this is the case. In any case, it is worth pointing out that our internal dialogs are almost always conducted mostly outside of our full awareness. Usually, that’s a good thing, but when we need to resolve internal conflict, it isn’t at all beneficial. It is more useful then to bring the dialog into awareness.
How to select and describe a problem, then activate, manage, record, and conclude a deliberate internal dialog
I will now describe the process of resolving an internal conflict. You are well advised to carefully read through the remainder of this article before attempting actually to DO anything, so that you have an accurate overview of the process, including the accountability part of it. Only then are you likely to be satisfied with the results you obtain.
Why this process is likely to work for you
A number of factors will be working to produce success when we use the process described below, including:
- structured procedure – A planned, carefully thought out, and experientially-validated procedure will act to keep us on track and moving forward as quickly as possible. Its steps have a sound rationale, and they’ve proven successful with many people.
- deliberation – We will slow down the internal dialog process, which will help us to become much more aware of what’s happening.
- openness – We will simply allow the dialog to develop, without steering it. We simply will admit at the beginning that we do not and cannot know exactly what will occur. The exploration of our internal process is what will help us get to a conflict resolution.
- careful examination of results – We will carefully look at what this process produces. This will foster not only a growth of self-knowledge, but also an increase in awareness, coupled with a reduction or elimination of internal conflict. One likely effect of this is that we’ll be more open to future explorations of this kind, and less fearful of what might happen if we honestly look at ourselves.
- accountability – This is about making results visible, especially relative to one or more planned outcome goals. Two kinds of accountability will be suggested. Both have benefits.
- social facilitation – This is the name given to sociologists to the fact that when we know we are being watched our behavior changes. It is known that in social situations people eat more, engage in less illegal behavior, and will attend keep promises more reliably. We are interested here in utilizing the last effect.
Selecting and describing a problem
Choose something that matters
What matters? Anything about which we have significant feelings will qualify. That we have such feelings indicates that something of value to us is involved.
Many people suffer from inadequate self-respect, often referred to as “poor self-esteem”. Invariably, at the heart of such a problem is a failure to value ones automatic reactions to the elements of ones life. In contrast, someone with high self-esteem will not feel a need to ignore, much less justify, these reactions. They will merely note what matters to them, and be respectful of that. Paying attention to yourself in this way sounds simple, and it can be, but for those who do not have the skill well in hand, it can be distinctly challenging. Practicing this skill will make it less difficult.
Be assured that simply engaging in the inner-conflict resolution process described here will virtually always lead to increases in habitual positive self-attention and constructive response. As you start to get the process to work for you, you’ll find it increasingly easier, and you’ll want to repeat it because of the positive results it produces – including increased self-esteem.
So, we begin with something about which we have feelings, and those feelings typically will be troubling. That last fact will provide us with motivation for working through this “internal conflict” process.
An example: Wasted weekends
I will propose an illustrative example, and use it to illustrate the steps of this process. This will help to clarify how actually to do the process. To clearly separate the example from the main text, I will present it in italic green font
Suppose that we have developed a concern about how we spend our weekends. Beginning a weekend, we often want simply to rest and recover. Exiting the weekend and entering into the work week, we’re often remorseful about not having made better use of the weekend. This problem has been with us a long time, and we’re tired of feeling frustrated by it.
This problem meets the criteria for selection given above: we experience a conflict, and significant negative feelings are involved, so that we see that the matter is of real consequence.
Problem description – a critical step
Nothing dooms a life-change effort quite so completely as working on the wrong problem2. For example, if a health care professional does this – mis-diagnoses the problem they’re trying to treat – the excellence of the healing methods they introduce will matter little, for the problem being addressed is not the real problem. The result? Most likely it will be a treatment failure.
We must get the problem correctly-grasped, as closely as we can. While there is no sure and certain method for doing this, there are some approaches that seem to work well in most cases. Once you have some idea of the problem you want to resolve, try the following, to achieve a better description of the “real” problem:
- Describe carefully how you become aware of the problem, in course of your daily life.
- Describe the physical context of your emerging awareness. Describe, preferably in writing, some examples of this “becoming aware”. ((In our example, the problem arises soon after the weekend is over, or as it is ending. We’re at home, or sometimes at work the next morning.)
- Describe the internal sequence of events which lead to your awareness. Again, briefly describe, in writing if possible, some examples. ((In our example, we’re reflecting on the weekend, “rerunning the tape”, as it were.)
- Describe what you’re thinking, saying to yourself, or seeing in your mind right before you become aware of the problem. Notice as closely as you can the stimulus for your awareness that you have a problem. ((In our example, most often it’s a thought that “it’s over, time has run out” which arises late Sunday night. At that precise point, we start to feel bad – and our problem-awareness emerges.)
- Assume, just for a moment, that the heart of all problems is in fact undesirable feelings about something. (It’s hard to imagine calling something a “problem” if we didn’t have bad feelings about it, somehow.) Let’s take a moment to explore those feelings.
- Write down what you feel at the moment you become aware of “the problem”. Because this material is very important and slips out of our awareness easily, capture it in writing. ((In our example, the feelings that emerge are disappointment, sadness, and a little anger.)
- You may find it valuable to try to refine your feelings-description by reframing it in terms of the known basic human feelings (which I have described elsewhere3). While it may take a little time to do this, it’s worth it, since change in these feelings will be how we assess the results of any action-plan we implement. Reducing our initial feelings-description to fundamental feelings can be challenging, and having an expert to work with can be quite helpful. ((In our example, is just a form of the basic feeling called “distress”, and we feel it both about the situation and ourselves. We’ve momentarily lost hope. is just another angle on the same thing – a sense of loss, and our involuntary reaction to it. This, too, is “distress”. This reframing actually leads to a breakthrough of sorts: since “distress” is the involuntary reaction of our brain to loss, if we can do something to stay hopeful and optimistic these feelings will not occur. It’s apparent that we’re already beginning to move toward the elements of an action plan for change.)
Moving closer to our distress: Drafting an action plan
We’re not focusing on developing an action plan, here, because it would be foolish to do so when we’re in a state of internal conflict and cannot decide on a goal. Still, beginning to draft one can be a useful means of better understanding what really triggers our conflict, and THAT can be quite useful to us. So…we will start an action plan draft, with no intention of finishing it right now.
The most important thing to know before starting this step is that you will doing a lot of revisions. This is necessary because you’ll be learning a lot that you didn’t previously know, as you go forward, and it will necessitate plan revisions. In addition, your early versions of the plan will be incomplete, so as you become less conflicted and more aware of your dominant desire, you’ll be able to write in more and more specifics. Finally, remember that our immediate goal is not to come up with a plan to implement, but to get closer to our internal conflict. When that’s under control will be the time to return to the plan and finish it.
- Imagine an ideal solution to your problem. Assume that you are in the situation where you usually realize you HAVE a problem, but this time there’s no problem at all. Everything’s fine. Look at this “no-problem” fantasy.
- Describe, in writing, what happens, in your imagination. When people make a movie, they write out a “scenario”, which is a little story detailing what happens in the movie. You need to do the same for your “ideal solution” – write a scenario. It’s important to realize that all scenarios are developed incrementally – they go through a series of drafts. It’s entirely appropriate to initially have a very rough draft of your scenario. You’ll keep working on it, and it will get better, and more useful. Initially, the important thing is simply to get something down in writing, so you think about it and revise it. What you’re visualizing is not an action plan, but a situation which you’d like to make real by implementation of an action plan. To GET to this situation will be your goal. ((In our example, here’s the initial draft “scenario for success”: We start our weekend happy and hopeful. We do something different with our weekend – we don’t yet have clear what this is, but that problem’s for later. We get to the end of the weekend, look back, and feel quietly satisfied. It’s been a good weekend. We’re ready to go back to work.)
- Now, starting with your present situation, list out a series incremental steps you might take to make your goal real. Consider what other people might have done to achieve similar goals. Break things down into sub-goals, and assemble them into a sequence. This will be your rough-draft action plan.
- Review your rough draft plan. Is it entirely satisfactory? At the end of plan execution, can you reasonably expect to be satisfied in all the ways you want to be? If not, revise the plan. When you feel comfortable with it, remind yourself that later revisions will be expected and necessary. It’s a work-in-progress, and that’s a good thing.
Personal check-in: are we in conflict yet?
Now, we’re at a critical point. IF you are having no internal conflict at this point, you can simply go forward with a more thoughtful process of locating, evaluating, and selecting possible elements of your action plan. You should adopt a brainstorming approach, and begin by coming up with as large a list as possible of possible action steps which might lead to accomplishment of your goal. Then, once again, arrange the steps in a reasonable sequence, build in some process-check mileposts4, and go forward to the completion of the plan, at which point you can evaluate your results.
In our example, we found a problem that was real and important. We decided that we wanted to resolve it, by developing some kind of plan of action, executing that plan, and achieving some real and undeniable success. What kind of success? A meaningful improvement in how we feel when the weekend is over. The problem, as I have described, has these notable qualities -
- Resolution of the problem will be evaluated at the end of the resolution effort – implementation of the action plan. “Trying” doesn’t count; only results count.
- The desired change is well-specified: we want to feel better. How we feel about something is not hard to assess, as we will see. With a different problem, the desired change might be better described in terms of increasing or decreasing some specified behavior – such as spending more time with ones children.
If you find that you can just move forward with developing your action plan, you don’t have an internal conflict problem. But, since you already know the conflict exists, then at some point you’ll start to feel your internal conflict. This conflict is what stops you from simply getting on with crafting and executing the action plan, and so we must give it attention. It’s time to dance with the devil, as it were. How might we do that?
Embracing the distress: Managing and recording the internal dialog
Viewing our internal conflict in a more productive light
We know that the internal conflict between two or more parts of our personality comes up with it’s stimulated, or “triggered”. It can be a little hard to clearly see what triggers the conflict, but it tends to become rather clear if we pause to look at it. What we want to do here is activate the conflict, then “take the ride”. What I will describe is a process for productively doing just that.
In our example, we discover that we’re comfortable until we get to the point of actually specifying the list of possible activities we might engage in, during a weekend, which would result in our feeling satisfied when our weekend is over. At this point, something starts changing inside us. We start some kind of invisible “squirming”. We’re distinctly uncomfortable. The “devil” has been “called out”. This is exactly what we want right now.
At the point you begin to feel uncomfortable, you are likely to want to respond as you have learned to do in the past. Some people distract themselves, or self-medicate in some way5, or engage in some kind of denial-thinking. This is all an attempt to get rid of the discomfort. We learn these responses out of desperation, when we are young. We really cannot do any better. But doing better now, as an adult, is the whole point of this process. It’s designed to achieve success, as you will see.
So, when you begin to feel uncomfortable, celebrate. This is GOOD. Why would I say this? The answer isn’t obvious. Here it is: Denying or avoiding internal conflict will not make it cease; it just pushes it out of our awareness, for a time. The conflict WILL return; you can count on it. The solution is to bring the conflict out into a safe public space, and then to work with it in a way that leads to resolution. The first step in this process is to trigger the conflict, then NOT to turn away.
“Taking the ride” by bringing the internal dialog “into the room”
When, as a psychotherapy client, you’re working with your therapist, you have a coach, a director for the internal drama. This is very, very helpful, especially when an internal dialog gets complicated. However, what we will be doing here is teaching you to be your own coach. It’s entirely possible, and you’ll most likely like the outcome.
What we’ll do next is encourage each part of the internal dialog to “take the floor” and express itself fully. We’ll be tracking the dialog by writing it down, so that we don’t need to rely upon memory when we want to review what happened. Writing will also slow the deepen the process, which will allow it to work more effectively.
When we allow adequate room for each part of us to express itself, the action paralysis that tends to characterize internal conflicts where some part of the dialog is stifled tends to dissolve. The first time one sees this happen, it can be surprising, because it’s a genuinely new event.
So, it’s time to move out of the paralysis of silence, and let the voices of our internal conflict-dialog speak – to each other, and to our own full awareness, probably for the first time ever. The outcome will be something entirely new, never before seen. Do this, to get started:
- Make a space to work – You’ll need to have some time, and a good environment. You need not to be interrupted. Just about any quiet space will do. You’re only going to be writing, and that can occur many places. The time needed will be modest. These internal dialogs, when actively supported, do not tend to go on for long. THAT happens when they are NOT actively supported, and that’s what we’re trying to change.
- Obtain journaling tools – This need only be a sheet of paper and something with which to write. A spiral notebook is even better, since you’ll likely using this process multiple times, and keeping your records straight has real benefits. Recording voices in writing not only slows things down, internally, it dramatically elevates our self-awareness.
- Trigger the conflict – Bring to mind what you know starts your discomfort. Focus on it while your sense of your conflict rises.
- Become quiet, and listen – Your reaction, as it’s triggered, will have a point of view. Notice this. A voice is emerging, and you’re going to listen to it.
- Allow the active point of view to speak, and record what it says – Your job is just to listen and and write. Don’t worry about anything else. You’ll find that the inner voice to which you’re listening will speak for a time, then fall silent. At that point, it’s expressed itself, and has nothing more to say for now. Quickly note the apparent character of the voice you’ve recorded, and give it a simple working name. Here are some names that people I’ve known have used: Scared kid, Mr. Cynic, Grouchy, Eager beaver, and so on. Colorful names are good, as they will help to well identify the part of you that’s expressing itself at the moment. I find that its helpful to write down this casual name once, then follow it with a working abbreviation. So, for example, “Mr. Cynic” might be abbreviated by “MC” or “Cyn.”. Beyond this point, every time this voice speaks, if it speaks again, it can be identified with this abbreviation.
- Wait for the next point of view, or voice, to emerge, then record it as well – You simply want to continue to be a good reporter, nothing more. Typically, when one voice expresses itself fully, another will jump up with a contrasting viewpoint. Perhaps after several exchanges, a third or even fourth voice will speak up. Just be open to whatever happens. A good listener will notice that sometimes a voice will begin to emerge simply as a feeling. Notice that much, and put the feeling into words, and the voice will often become quite clear. Just stay with this process until there are no more voices.
Concluding the dialog
Be cautious about assuming the dialog is over. Look again at the situation which gives rise to the conflict. Look at each of the voices you have written down. Are they truly silent, now?
When no voices (points of view) emerge to speak, you’re finished – at least until the next time this conflict emerges, if it does. If your conflict is relatively simple, there’s a good chance there won’t BE a “next time”, but if one of the voices is indeed an introjected parent, as described above, there probably WILL be. The solution to this is deconstruction of the introjected parent part of your personality. That is a task to be accomplished in psychotherapy. For several reasons, this is NOT a do-it-yourself project! Be assured, however, that coming to see and experience this part of you for what it really is will change things forever.
For now, your task is simply to notice the point of view which spoke last. THAT is where you have come to rest. That voice is now the point of view that has dominance in your mind. Notice carefully what that voice said. Explore your thoughts and feelings a bit, just to enlarge your awareness. If you feel any discomfort about this position, it’s likely that some voice has more to say, so it is best to resume the dialog. Otherwise, your comfort will be clear, and your conflict is over.
Returning to your action plan development
Then, return to constructing your action plan. If you encounter another conflicted inner dialog, you now know what to do about it, so do it. Constructing an action plan is not the topic of this article, so just know that you need to put one together, and then act. Continually assess your progress, if the outcome takes time to emerge. Persist, and learn, and continue to revise your problem description and your action plan, as needed, until you achieve your goal. All of this will be helped if you make active use of the idea of accountability, which we take up next.
Showdown: Creating, managing, and making best use of accountability
“Accountability” is simply a process by which you somehow confront yourself with the consequences of your action. In a basketball game, it would make no sense to take a shot, then immediately turn and walk away, without waiting to see if you actually made the shot. Similarly, it makes no sense to engage a life-change process in which you never quite know if you’re being successful.
But there’s more to it than that. With many people, getting to success is not even a possibility, simply because they have trouble actually implementing a change process. They falter getting out of the starting gate. The solution to this is to bring in some accountability early in the change process.
There are two parts to successful accountability: setting goals, and taking measurements. Neither part is particularly difficult, but both are a bit technical, so inexperienced people often have trouble with them.
Set a goal – then break it down into sub-goals.
In basketball, the goal is clear. In your change project, what is the goal? It needs to be specified. Since we’re concerned here with successfully resolving inner conflicts between various parts of our personality, it’s easy to say that our goal is simply “resolution of conflict about…” whatever matter of concern you are focusing on. This is a good “generic” goal to start with, but it needs refinement.
In our example, the goal was to resolve conflict about what to do with our weekend, so as to feel satisfied at its conclusion. When we’ve concluded, we will no longer be conflicted AND we’ll have a good idea about how we’re going to solve the “wasted weekend” problem. Clearly, we’re concerned about TWO goals: getting rid of conflict, and having better weekends. It’s a simple fact that looking at the second goal will help us achieve the first!
But, as suggested above, we need to focus first on more immediate concerns. Since many people have problem with using some change process they have chosen, their initial goal needs to be simply to start and finish the change process, period. So, just to keep things straight: we’re involved with THREE goals:
- Start the change process.
- Resolve internal conflict about desires.
- Resolve the substantive issue which was giving rise to internal conflict.
You’ll find that over and over in your life you’ll be involved with these three goals, so working them through in relation to any issue at all will turn out to be more useful than you might initially expect.
The three steps above are actually a rough-draft action plan! Steps one and three need to be broken down into sub-goals, of course. Step two is already broken down, in the internal conflict resolution process detailed above.
So, since many people have trouble with just getting started, let’s look the general problem of motivation.
Strictly speaking, this has nothing to do with accountability, except for this: engaging an accountability process is one way of increasing motivation to act, and to act well. However, it’s not the only way. You should engage other ways as well. Here are some motivation augmentation methods to consider:
- Imagine, then write down, the benefits of completing the act or set of acts for which you are going to engineer some accountability. Do as good a job of this as you can. You truly want to show the observing part of your brain what you will be missing out on if you do not accomplish your goal. When you have your list, put it up in a place you can see it, so you get reminded. When you lose track of payoffs, you lose motivation. Don’t let this happen.
- Imagine the costs of failure. As with the benefits, aim for vivid written descriptions. In psychology, when we act to avoid a cost, we call this “negative reinforcement”. For example, it feels good to avoid a traffic ticket you might well have gotten by being careless. Such negative factors can have a powerful motivating influence. Put this list, as well, where you will see it.
- Discuss your little project – in this case, your planned effort to resolve some inner conflict – with someone you care about. Merely talking something through often clarifies many parts of it, including your reasons for doing it. The person you talk with doesn’t have to know anything about the problem you’re looking at. It might even help if you find that you have to carefully explain the problem.
Now, we’re ready to engage what is probably the most powerful accountability process of all – the mere presence of another human being can do more than help us clarify a problem, as well as the benefits of solving it, and the costs of not solving it. That mere human being can help us actually start, continue, and finish a change process designed to solve our problem.
Use social accountability to activate social facilitation
We’ve already discussed social facilitation a bit above. It’s the fact that people usually act better when they’re being watched. So, we simply need to set up a situation where we’ll be watched, relative to our attempt to engage this inner conflict resolution process.
There are many ways to do this, and adapting the process to meet the needs of the individual involved – YOU, in this case – is essential. Here are the steps:
- Find someone who is willing to be your “check-in person”. Ideally, they know something about motivation, change processes, and perhaps even inner conflict problems. Perhaps they can be persuaded to read this article, to help them understand better what you’re attempting. But, mostly, they just need to be willing to help you. That’s the truly essential quality they need.
- Agree with them exactly what you’ll be trying to do, and about when you’ll be reporting to them about your progress. It’s best to break what you trying to do into small steps, simply because this makes success easier. Here are “small steps” you might choose:
- Producing a list of inner conflicts on which you might choose to focus – just a brief description of each will suffice.
- If you already have a conflict in mind, then a good small step might be to produce a written problem description, following the steps given above. If you need to break that down into two or more steps, do it. Just attempt what you can easily do. What you want to do is to have a success, because success breeds more success.
- The next small step might be to produce a rough draft action plan.
You need to continue this process of setting small goals, in conversation with your accountability assistant, and check in with them at an agreed-upon time, to report your progress or lack of it. It’s that simple.
When you report a lack of progress at your check-in, pause. Look at what happened. Break it down. If you find that you cannot go forward with resolving one conflict because of another, then focus on the newly emerging conflict. If you find that you’re attempting too much, break your task into pieces. This always makes it easier. The main idea here is simply not to allow yourself to be blocked. Find a way around or through obstacles, and just keep going.
All the steps above are binary in nature, which is to say that you can only either (a) do them or (b) not do them. However, your overall goal is to improve how you feel as a result of resolving inner conflict. So, it’s appropriate, at the very beginning, to get a baseline measure of your feeling status. Do this using the 0 to 10 scale used by a number of psychotherapists.
The question to confront yourself with is “When looking at the matter about which I feel conflict, how disturbed do I feel?” Consider that “0” on the scale means “not at all disturbed” and “10” means “as disturbed as I possibly could be”. FEEL where on the scale you should put yourself – you cannot get a good measurement any other way. An approximation is fine, but do get a number, and write it down.
Then, after you’ve worked through your conflict resolution process, do this self assessment again. THIS is a moment of accountability. Note that because this is not a binary measurement it is much more sensitive to success or failure. If you still feel some disturbance, you probably should keep working on the problem. The issue causing the conflict has likely shifted a bit, and its essential nature has changed. Restart the whole process, which will be easier because you’re now familiar with it.
Conclusion: Getting started, and persisting
Go as far as you can on your own, then follow the instructions in the Showdown section above to use social accountability to keep you going. Alternatively, you can use social accountability from the very beginning. Do what pleases you – what makes the most sense to you.
If “80% of life is just showing up”, you do a lot just by working on the process outlined in this article. If you add to this some persistence, working to overcome obstacles, asking for help when you need it, you’re well on your way to being your own hero. The inner conflict process outlined above can help you very significantly. It can show you how to be an unstoppable force, on your own behalf. It just might be one of the greatest adventures of your life.
2 This is an important outcome of research in Cognitive Psychology on problem solving behavior. It has been found that most problem solvers, and especially amateurs, spend too little time on problem definition. They’re eager to “solve it”, and take action too soon. As a result, they too often end up wasting resources, energy, and motivation, by working on the wrong problem. Success goes up significantly when they simply spend more time LOOKING at the problem, in the course of which they often end up redefining the problem multiple times – each time doing it better.
3 I take up this subject, in some detail, in my Feelings – deepening self-awareness in the early stages of psychotherapy.
4 A “milepost” is checkpoint on a journey. It’s a place where you get a sense of how your journey is progressing. In a life-change process, it’s a point that occurs before completion of the process, where you pause to see how you’re doing so that you can alter the action plan if things aren’t going well enough. Structured, planned “mileposts” serve to keep things on track, and to prevent disaster from occurring unseen. It’s another way of using the powerful idea of accountability, by creating feedback.
5 “Self-medication” is a term used in psychotherapy and social work which means “use of illegal drugs or alcohol with the intent of reducing psychological disturbance”. It’s an act of desperation and/or ignorance. Better solutions are almost always available. It’s useful to extend the idea of self-medication to include use of prescription drugs, as an alternative to constructive engagement with problem solving, psychotherapy, or some other personal life-change process.
6 An “introject” is something we take into ourselves whole – without selectively discarding parts that are of no use. Some animals swallow their food whole, without chewing. Children who construct an “internal parent” which simply copies the parent’s relevant characteristics are doing the psychological equivalent of this. Parental introjection is rather common.
7 I assume that the reader understands that when I write about listening to one’s inner desires I do not think, or seek to encourage others to think, about “desire” in an overly simplistic manner. For example, I might well truly desire my neighbor’s car, or whatever, but will also place that desire in the larger context of my need to find my own behavior acceptable to me, not to harm my neighbor, not to take what isn’t mine, and so on. These are my desires as well. In the beginning, there well may be conflict between some of them, but if they are all allowed to “speak” to me, it’s highly likely that I will work out a response that will work for me and others. So should ALL desires be managed, ideally.
8 This inherent motivation NOT to be in conflict, is significantly less likely between people, especially if one of them is an adolescent! Adolescents can quickly learn that conflict gives them a positive benefit at times: separation from a parent. A clever parent will know this, and manage the adolescent’s need for separation so that serious conflicts rarely occur.
How to print this page
Use the page print function built into your browser. It's usually an item in the File menu right below the caption of the window in which this page is displayed.
Only the page's core content will be printed. All images outside of the main content area, all navigation tools and links, and extraneous header and footer material will be omitted from the printed page.
Many browsers also have a print preview function on the same menu - you can use this to see how the printed page will look before you actually print it.