How to Manage Inner Conflicts and Psychological Turmoil
If you were stuck in a thunderstorm, would you try to control the lightning?
Posted January 4, 2020 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
Contemporary psychology treats emotional or cognitive conflict as a reality that is rooted in the brain. Whether you are torn about maintaining your marriage, confronting someone, debating political views, or managing your finances, these conflicts also typically reside in a context in which there is a "this" or "that" option.
For instance, in a marriage, you may stay or leave; you may either confront or ignore someone; you may express Democratic or Republican views; or you may buy an expensive luxury item or not. In every situation, weighing both sides can create inner turmoil. And when it is unresolvable, this turmoil can lead to despair.
Conflict management as usual: Traditionally, we approach inner conflicts and psychological turmoil by trying to gain greater clarity, weighing pros and cons, taking time off, or negotiating situations.
But what if we likened enduring psychological conflicts to weathering a perpetual storm? Would we really want to control this storm? Wouldn't relocating be preferable? And how exactly might we achieve this, mentally?
The relocation strategy: Superficially, the metaphor of "relocating" might make you think of distracting yourself, avoiding a situation, or moving on. Indeed, all of these approaches can be helpful.
But what if "relocating" yourself meant that you attend to who you truly are, rather than what you perceive yourself to be? Effectively, you shift your experience and understanding of yourself from being "of the mind and mental processes" to being much than that, and even quite different from that.
According to the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, there are two realities: a phenomenal reality based on what we perceive, and a noumenal reality, which is what things fundamentally are, regardless of how you perceive them.
As a metaphor, consider what a cow is. To a Hindu, a cow may be seen as sacred. To a hungry person, a cow may be seen as a source of steak. And to a zoologist, a cow may be seen as a collection of animal cells. The same cow may be perceived in many different ways, yet the cow, in essence, is simply what it is.
As an extension of this idea, psychological conflicts, as they are traditionally considered, are phenomenal realities. And to "relocate" from the storm of inner conflicts, we need to see through these conflicts and their various dimensions into what they truly are.
The causes of turmoil: To see who we truly are, we might consider the following hypothesis. The things that worry us are not the causes of our turmoil; turmoil is the natural result of living in the world.
Turmoil seeks reasons to justify itself. And sometimes, it even invents these reasons. Much research points to this.
For instance, a leading theory about "why we worry" is that people who worry excessively have biased attention to threat content in their thoughts. Hypothetically, two people could have identical lives with wins and losses. However, the person who worries more is the one whose attention is fixed on the losses.
You may wonder why a person may choose to fix their attention on threats. One leading strand of research demonstrates that worry serves a protective function—to avoid the shift from positive to negative emotions. Called the cognitive contrast theory, this theory explains that psychological turmoil in the form of excessive worry protects people from the positive-negative shift and keeps them in negativity all of the time. This explains why your brain will go to great lengths to find reasons to worry.
The usual approaches to turmoil: Trying to switch your attention away from threats is possible and sometimes helps, but for many people, the threats return. Another way of dealing with turmoil is to see the folly of worry by switching to a state of being beyond this. This will require entertaining an entirely new hypothesis about who you truly are, and then seeking out a life path to explore this.
The new hypothesis—You are magical beyond belief. It's hard to believe that there is a magical reality beyond what you think you are. Everyday life is hardly magical.
Yet, when we reflect on sublime and extraordinary states induced by beautiful things or drugs like LSD, we can see that we are capable of at least temporarily experiencing bliss. If these states of bliss are like a paper fan on a hot summer's day, how can we metaphorically find the air conditioner? What is a state of permanent bliss that we can access?
Ancient theories in Hinduism explain that the true nature of the "self" is actually this blissful state. Called "atman," this self is the one that you might consider connecting to. Other religious traditions also point to the possibility of this state. For instance, Jewish mysticism points to visionary experiences and altered states of consciousness. And various shamanic traditions imply the same.
Of course, if we only believed in rational thought, we would be perfectly justified in rejecting these claims. But I am asking you to suspend judgment for a while, and to entertain the possibility that this bliss exists.
The new approach based on the new hypothesis: If you believe that there is a blissful state of being that is your true self, then your approach to future turmoil should be informed by the following guiding principles:
- All turmoil relates to the brain and mind and is illusory.
- Being prone to cognitive biases, unconscious influences, and worry that justifies itself, we cannot trust the brain or mind to make our best decisions. Worry is a weak and unpleasant form of control.
- When you experience turmoil, identify this as your "lower" self. You are capable of more blissful states of being.
- Rather than spending your waking mind constantly looking for threats, look for bliss and reasons that justify why you should feel this way. After all, if it is your essential and true nature, why would you not want to justify it?
- As a simple start to this more perpetual state of bliss, find something or someone to love. Expose yourself to moving art, scenes of beauty, or choose a meditation method that works for you.
As the poet Hafiz says:
"I'm happy even before I have a reason
I'm full of Light even before the sky
Can greet the sun or the moon.
Dear companions, we have been in love with God
For so very, very long.
What can we now do but forever Dance!"
If you are stuck in a storm of emotions, rather than trying to control them, relocate to knowing who you truly are. See these emotions as an ambush from the world that will distract you from your essence. Start your journey toward your essence now. And if you can believe this, you will move from "journeying" to being.