What Causes You Inner Turmoil?

When you're at war with yourself, there's generally a good reason.

Posted Apr 17, 2015

"Inner Turmoil," from flickr, used with permission
Source: "Inner Turmoil," from flickr, used with permission

Being in heated conflict not with others but with yourself can—let’s face it—be agonizing. To be split down the middle, to endlessly waver between two (and sometimes more) options, can at its worst be almost unimaginably distressing. Obsessive to an extreme, it can lead to a paralysis of will—and much lost sleep. For as long as your thoughts and feelings are vehemently colliding with each other, running riot inside your tormented head, any way forward seems hazy, or hopelessly ambiguous.

It’s like a cerebral merry-go-round. Feeling at once agitated and confused, your self-torturing reflections, and the emotions accompanying them, whirl ’round and ’round. And although you crave some sort of closure to the stormy commotion inside your brain, no “truce” seems practical. For there’s an almost perfect balance—or more accurately, tension—between the positives and negatives of each alternative you’re anguishing over.

No one actually chooses to put themselves in such a dilemma as this. Why in the world would they? But in certain situations, it’s as though dissenting parts of your being have taken you over and they just can’t—or won’t—get into alignment. So when you’re in the midst of such an inner racket, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed.

Note also that without options or alternatives, inward turmoil like this wouldn’t exist. After all, it’s not mere frustration that causes it. Rather, it’s feeling backed into a corner where you know you ought to make a choice, yet lack the confidence, courage, trust in yourself, or strength of will to assuredly do so.

To get more specific, here are some instances of the inner turbulence I’m describing. How many of them might you be able to relate to? Or, possibly, add to? As you review them, reflect upon what makes them similar: in short, their underlying dynamic. And consider, too, just what the fear of taking a chance—to pursue something new or escape from something you’ve come to dislike—might involve. Is it the fear of failure? rejection? suffering financial loss? the unknown (as in, “An evil known is better than an evil unknown”)? Or might it be the fear of embarrassment? shame? humiliation? guilt? forfeiting control? experiencing a blow to your self-image? or the risk of alienating others?

Here are the examples:

  • Staying or leaving a marriage that may be safe, secure, and comfortably predictable; yet that you know is unhealthy for you—whether because of mental or emotional abuse, neglect, constant arguing, infidelity, so-called “incompatible differences,” or simply because it’s become painfully dull or tedious;
  • Coming up with a creative idea for a business venture that seems to have vast potential, and that really excites you—but that’s pretty scary as well. For you’ve never attempted anything like this before and you realize that this is something you might not be able to successfully implement. And not only could you fail, but it could cause you to lose your life savings. And more, you might even be sued, or hurt your family, or end up feeling stupid and humiliated;
  • Deciding to marry someone without being able to feel entirely sure that he or she is really the right person for you—though you’re attracted to them, feel it’s time for you to get married, and this person is clearly willing to make a lifelong commitment to you. Still, though you can’t quite put your finger on it, you can’t get rid of nagging thoughts that you may be overlooking something and maybe shouldn't go ahead and propose to them;
  • Trying to decide whether to come out of the closet and tell others that you’re gay—even though it’s becoming more and more difficult for you to camouflage your true identity. It also feels like something you have to do if you’re going to adhere to your deepest principles and truly accept yourself for who you are. Yet, on the other hand, you can’t overcome your fears about how your parents and all your straight friends will react if you “come clean”—and also how it might affect your position at work;
  • Having a powerful desire to do something that evokes your greatest enthusiasm (river rafting, mountain climbing, taking an exotic trip to an area where there’s political unrest, etc.)—and even, tentatively, making plans to do it. Yet continually procrastinating because it involves certain hazards beyond your control that you just can't get comfortable with;
  • Having been accepted to a number of colleges that you’ve applied to, and eliminating all but three—but then finding that the pro’s and con’s of each one remaining seem in various ways to cancel each other out. Till now, you’ve never had to make a decision so instrumental to your future career or success, and so you’re scared that whatever choice you make could turn out to be wrong—and that, if so, you might never forgive yourself;
  • Having become almost totally disenchanted with your religion and feeling that to preserve your integrity you need to leave it. But also being saddled with worrisome thoughts that forsaking your faith could lead to alienation from your devout, tradition-bound parents—as well as the loss of friends who, too, are attached to a dogma and authority that no longer resonates with you;
  • Working at a job or professional position that totally fails to challenge you—you find it tedious, dreary, meaningless, and not in the least satisfying (frankly, at times it’s taken all your self-discipline to just, day after day, “show up”). And yet the job pays exceptionally well, enabling you to comfortably handle all your expenses, and even provide you with additional funds for things you find extremely gratifying and enjoyable. And, given the present state of the economy. . . .

Doubtless, we’ve all experienced some internal maelstrom in our lives or, just possibly, might be wrestling with one right now (!). So what, finally, do all these exasperatingly conflictual situations have in common? And why can they all cause such disturbing havoc inside you—a veritable pandemonium of warring emotions? For—despite their illustrating quite diverse instances of how your mental deliberations can be so unsettling—numerous elements unite them.

In each instance, you’re torn between two (and possibly more) alternatives, each of which represents something you value or are attached to. In different ways, each example represents a challenge you may feel you lack the personal resources, self-confidence, -trust, or strength of will to meet head-on: Should you “go for it”?—embark on changing your circumstances in a way that potentially could afford you new opportunities and much greater satisfaction? Or should you “play it safe” and stay on your present course—not putting at risk what may be frustrating but is still something you’re reasonably comfortable with (and certainly not threatened by).

Seriously contemplating a change from what’s not really working for you almost always triggers feelings of anxiety—and a disquieting sense of vulnerability. Part of you realizes that if you’re to move forward with your life, it’s long overdue to make a change, take a chance, and confront your doubts and fears. Still, another part of you can’t but obsess about the possibility that such a risk could end up in rejection, failure, or defeat. And regrettably, the negative contingencies tied to taking decisive action feel every bit as “real” to you as your more optimistic vision of the comparative advantages that such chance-taking could achieve.

Just consider the double (or triple!) meaning of the last word in the expression “go for broke” (!). Whether it’s asserting yourself, or exerting yourself, a favorable outcome to taking action can’t be guaranteed. For if it could, there’d be no need to anguish over the issue at all. In fact, it wouldn’t even be an issue.

As you already know, there are precious few guarantees in life. It’s almost always a matter of probabilities. And in many instances, where there are so many unknowns, trying to predict whether an action might be prudent—or foolhardy—is impossible. It’s something like the expression: “Life can only be understood backwards . . . but it has to be lived forwards.” Or, for that matter, “Hindsight is always 20/20.”

So, within life’s untidy framework, you’re frequently obliged to choose between what hasn’t been making you happy—or may even be making you miserable but, nonetheless, is safe and free from anxiety—and what might lead to far greater satisfaction and well-being, but is hardly a sure thing. In consequence, what you may have gotten used to, however frustrating and unfulfilling, must wage battle with what might be better for you, but isn’t without worrisome uncertainties. And given such circumstances, you’re pretty much doomed to procrastinate. There’s almost always some trepidation in stepping outside your comfort zone, so self-tormentedly vacillating between the alternatives before you is virtually inevitable.

All of this can be seen in terms of motivational ambivalence. Your desire to move forward is compromised by the knowledge that you’ll have to hold yourself responsible if the choice you make turns out to be a mistake. Which is precisely why some especially wary individuals stay on the fence indefinitely. Ironically, it feels as though putting off a decision is the choice least likely to lead to making the wrong one—though, of course, making no decision is a decision, too—and in retrospect could turn out to have been the worst decision of all, possibly causing you to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

To finally be decisive enough to act, you must be able to tell yourself that you’re capable of handling whatever eventuality might come up. And you must improve your ability to self-validate and self-soothe (and the links given here refer to a self-help post of mine that covers these two vital subjects). And also, to tell yourself that if the action you take doesn’t work out, you’ll still manage to survive.

For you really can’t be very happy unless you dare to pursue what you believe, potentially, will be more meaningful or fulfilling to you. Only when you can assure yourself of your resources and resilience—and so put an end to all your negative inner chatter—can your propel yourself forward.

I’ll close by including a couple of additional quotes, which summarize my own bias about how to handle such vexing situations:

“Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.” (Will Rogers)

And, lastly, the deservedly well-known expression: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Note 1: If you could relate to this post, and believe others might as well, please consider passing on its link.

Note 2: A post I’ve written that closely complements this one—and here’s the link—is “What If Your Ambivalence Can’t Be Resolved?”

Note 3: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve written for Psychology Today—on a broad variety of psychological subjects—click here.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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