Perhaps you know it. A nagging feeling that something is not right, that nothing makes you happy and you honestly don’t not know why. For example, you react with annoyance to people even though they haven’t done anything bad to you. According to Carl Ransom Rogers, founder of humanistic psychotherapy, a large part of our life dissatisfaction stems from internal dissonance, the difference between what we do and what we would like to do, or — even worse — what we never ever wanted to do at all. This discrepancy may be the reason for depression and sometimes even quite serious mental disorders, psychosomatic problems and, in severe cases, even dissociative identity disorder.
Tento článek v českém jazyce najdete zde.
Special thanks to David Kupfershmidt, my friend who helped me with proof reading and editing of this article.
Where is the internal conflict born
Every one of us has an idea about what we want to do. I want to exercise every day, I would like to have more time for my hobbies, I would like to have more time for my kids, I won’t work more than 45 hours a week, I will buy a new BMW, etc., etc. These are often our own or adopted ideas, principles, rules or dreams, that quietly dictate how our own life should look like. In principle, this is not a bad thing; indeed, rigid rules can sometimes make your life significantly easier, because they automatically exclude some possible solutions. But a problem arises when reality does not for some reason correspond to our expectations and rules. And it might get worse when this occurs because of our own actions. In this case, according to Rogers, a so-called internal conflict or incongruence arises and creates an unpleasant inner tension. If it lasts for a longer time period, this internal conflict leads to states like anxiety, depression, feelings of guilt and other psychological and sometimes psychosomatic problems.
Every person is his own CEO, without the possibility to quit
Our system of internal values and visions could be compared to the values and mission statement of a company. Moreover, the parallel with companies applies here even though most of us may not be conscious of our own values and vision, which often remain untold even though we’re trying to act according to them. If you’ve ever wanted to do something for yourself (or your company, eventually), try writing a personal statement of values and vision. It will not be easy, but it certainly will be a very interesting experience for you.
When Walt Disney was founding his company, he formulated a mission statement declaring: ‘To make people happy’. And, it was quite easy for him to ensure that every single project complies with that mission statement of the company. It was a simply formulated mission, though a bit complicated to check. However, to manage your own life is in fact even more complicated than to manage your own corporation. All responsibility here is put solely on you and no one asks you whether you’re competent enough for such an important executive role or not. And, until the European Commission says otherwise, there won’t be a single newly born baby coming with a user manual in English and a warranty.
We’re just thrown in our own lives and since a certain age we have to manage them on our own. It is important to openly admit to ourselves that not everyone was born a manager, never mind a leader, and that the good corporate rule ‘to delegate effectively’ does not work in our life as one might assume from the comfort of a corporate air-conditioned office. It is actually this art –- to delegate responsibility for our own lives and our happiness on somebody else –- that is bringing us nothing but more and more suffering. We are, (un)fortunately, responsible for our own luck in this case?
How we’ll be able to grapple with life is more or less the result of a combination of our innate talents, how our parents have raised us, our education, and ultimately, the people we surround ourselves with and the articles, books and films that we read and watch. All of this has an impact on our ‘self-actualization’ process, which is Rogers‘ term for the basic need of every living organism to constantly improve itself. But even this need is just one out of huge number of needs requiring a certain time and effort. If we leave it unfulfilled, the internal conflict will come back, and the whole spiral will start spinning again.
How does the internal conflict come
The contradiction between the reality you live or perceive and your values, wishes and needs will always occur, except if you’ve happily chosen to be a monk living in a monastery somewhere in Tibet. If you were actually expecting the word ‘IF’ behind that ‘always’, do not wait for that one anymore. ‘Life is a bitch,’ professor Hanzlik at our high school used to say. The person who does not succumb to internal conflicts and finds enough strength to deal with them wins. It’s like driving a car – a future accident is less a question of ‘if,’ but more of ‘when and how serious.’
To demonstrate how the internal conflict emerges, let me present a simple yet concrete example: the idea that you will do exercise every day. But, what if one day a disease comes, or you break a leg, or you’ll have to spend the whole day on a plane, or your child becomes sick, or suddenly you have too much work, etc.? If the exercise was really one of the important values for you, it will bother you and you feel a certain dissatisfaction because an internal conflict would occur. And that would happen after the very first day not matching your plans. Now imagine that these days will be five, ten or maybe twenty in a row. Your will start to feel more and more uncomfortable. I know it … I know it from my own experience, as well as from friends for whom exercise is an essential part of everyday life. But, the important thing is how you’re going to face such an internal conflict.
There are several possibilities. You will exercise no matter what, but this could eventually lead to unpleasant health consequences. You will exercise once it is possible — which requires self-discipline and a certain degree of self-reflection, because ‘possible’ is rarely ‘pleasant’ or ‘I just have time for it now.’ Or, the other choice – again and again you won’t do the exercise at all, which one day might result in you doing the exercise just once per month and being internally miserable because of that. Well, so the prediction of the worst way possible and its consequences is quite clear, but what to do about it?
Life is about priorities
When you have one goal, one mission, one wish, your life is very simple. It happens rarely, but it does. When you have more of these, it is necessary to set priorities. Nonetheless, very few people actually have properly sorted their life priorities. Even those for whom money is everything, in fact, have a lot of other desires and wishes of which at this time they might not know – love, friends, health, time for themselves. Yet, priorities are not here to encourage you to focus exclusively on the point with the highest priority and let the others go. If you do it like that, and I must admit that I did that before, it won’t lead to the desired result. However, from the time management point of view it is often said that it’s better to start with quick and easy tasks with lower priorities. So tonight, instead of drinking a glass of alcohol, which is supposed to help you to go through another day and/or get to sleep, go out for an hour-long walk in nature. And many more such examples can be found. The problem is that us people often prefer looking for problems (see, I’ve just found one), and the reasons why something is not possible or won’t work, instead of seeking a solution.
Imagine that we will build a paper plane that more or less resembles the one we used to build during our childhood years. Now we take it in our right hand, and we have two options. If we want to prove that we can’t build paper planes anymore, and that we simply can’t do it, we’ll certainly find a way, how to throw it so that it does not fly. On the contrary, if we want to find a way it could fly the furthest distance possible, we throw it once, twice, three times, and even ten times to find the right way to throw it, or slightly change it so that it will actually fly. If you are one of those whose paper plane ‘definitely will not fly,’ you’d simply need to wait for some time till you’ll get to the point when your perspective will change. It does not mean that your approach is wrong. I believe that at this moment, it’s the best one you’re capable of. Everything needs time. And, after all – there’s still a paper plane you’re holding in your hand, not a sheet of paper, isn’t it?
The importance of saying no
We said that a majority of us has more than one wish, value, principle, or whatever you want to call it. And we mentioned that it’s a good idea to attach priorities to them, since they don’t have equal importance to us. The problem is that the reason why sometimes we do not act according to these values are external factors – work, the needs of people around us, our will to fulfill someone’s wishes at all costs, etc. Let’s do an experiment – as you put your values down on a paper, try to think now about things that prevent you from their realization or acting according to them. For sure there is a number of external factors why it is ‘not possible’ to meet them (and Czechs, like myself, are champions in finding those). But we have another old saying: ‘If one wants, everything’s possible…’ And to many of these external factors we can actually say NO. When our boss asks us if we could stay a bit longer and finish the work he’s not able to finish by himself instead of spending a lovely evening with our family, we can actually say NO. Likewise, we can say NO when colleagues that we don’t really like that much invite us to grab a beer in the evening. Nonetheless, the art of saying NO is not easy to learn. It requires training, clearly defined priorities and discipline. We’re the ones who is shaping our everyday lives … On the other hand, you might find out that there is actually a large number of external factors, to which you can say NO quite easily.
No pain no gain
Then there are the internal factors preventing us from acting according to our inner conviction. The main ones are comfort, laziness and fear. When we want to exercise regularly, why do we sit in front of the television in the evening, even though we missed the workout that day? Why don’t we start to do something to fulfill one of our dreams? Why don’t we say NO to our boss, when he wants us to do something that never should have been a part of our work? Every journey begins with the first step. Each cake starts with freeing up space on the table, so that we can prepare the pastry. Every single step counts. I once saw a survey on jogging. It stated that once a person puts on jogging clothes, eventually he really goes out and does it. The very first step is therefore also the most important one. As the Germans say: Übung macht den Meister (the practice makes the master).
Panta rhei, aka, everything flows
At first glance, it might seem that applying sufficient effort could solve the internal conflict once for all. You just write down what you want to do, what you really do, resolve this incongruence (mismatch) and you will live happily ever after. But it does not work like that. Even Heraclitus of Ephesus already knew that everything flows. Everything around us is constantly changing, and as we keep adapting to our environment and self-actualize ourselves and therefore we change as well. We change our behavior, wishes, goals and their priorities. So try to find one hour of time for yourself once every three months and take a look again at how you’re actually doing in this area.
4 steps to a successful fight against internal conflicts
The fight with internal conflicts actually is a never-ending process. The more successful you become at it, the more satisfied you will be with your life. This will, of course, require some effort, but it will be worth it. So here is a summary of those four steps to more successful fight against internal conflicts:
- Write down your inner values, wishes, dreams and rules
- Try assigning to each a point value from 1 to 100, where 100 is the highest priority
- Write down all the factors preventing you from realization of every single point on your list – no matter whether those are external factors or yourself.
- Repeat this exercise every three months.
And, if you ever need a guide or support on your way to resolving your internal conflicts, please do not hesitate to contact me.