Yin and yang. Transcendence of opposites. Integration. Balance. These are terms and phrases that, more or less, mean the same thing. They capture a central idea in addressing an inherently human challenge—inner conflict.
Sometimes it feels like we are being pulled in opposite directions. One week, we exercise, eat right, nurture important relationships, and seem fully committed to life projects. The next week, we’re lazy, eat and drink too much, brush aside important relationships, and resist taking on meaningful challenges. This cycle can become quite vicious, leaving us to wonder, “who am I?”
The ego wants clean categories to organize the self. I am this or that. Black or white. Good or bad. Always one way, not the other. The ego would like things to be simple and easily understood, reducing the need for cognitive effort. Simplicity has its place, but it is the wrong tool for this particular job.
We are a complicated species, which means inner conflicts are bound to unfold. We have a pleasure system and a nervous system that often struggle to connect with our conscious mind. You know, the part that feels like “me” or “I.”
Our conscious mind allows us to construct a higher self that’s built from our deepest values and intentions (who we want to be). Specifically, when we are discordant with our so-called higher self, we might say things like “I wasn’t being me.” Or, if the higher self has become significantly damaged, we might say “maybe I’m just a bad person after all.”
Again, this is a fragmented ego attempting to resolve the conflict by trapping one’s identity into simplistic categories. Not very helpful.
The best I can tell, most humans have a little bit of everything in them. Higher self and lower self, good and bad, masculine and feminine, intellect and emotion, strength and weakness. You name it, we got it. Like I said, we’re complicated, which is kind of cool because it makes us interesting.
But it can also be psychologically painful when we are at war with ourselves. As Edwin Starr might say: War, Huh! What is it good for?
Not much when it comes to mental health.
It also isn’t a good idea to resolve inner conflict by attempting to exercise tyrannical control over aspects of yourself that you might perceive as bad or ugly or less socially acceptable. The side you are trying to inhibit will inevitably rebel, and it will likely do so with immaturity and belligerence.
So, let’s return to the idea mentioned in the opening paragraph. Each of those concepts ultimately encourage us to call forward all dimensions of our personality structure and challenge us to make peace with them. This means we have to let certain parts of our psychology out of mental prison and begin an internal conversation that involves negotiation and compromise.
Easier said than done, right? Here’s an example of how the internal conversation might go. Feel free to alter the language to make it fit whatever inner conflict you might be struggling with.
So-called higher self: Look, I know I’ve been really hard on you before, and I want to say I’m sorry. If berating you was effective, it would have worked by now. I think we need some new strategies.
So-called lower self: Thanks for that. I know sometimes I take things too far, and the responsibility falls on you to clean everything up. I’m sorry too. How can we get along moving forward?
So-called higher self: I think the wisest way forward is some form of balance. What do you think?
So-called lower self: Agreed. How about we are more aware of each other and less disconnected? Let’s stay in touch more often. Maybe you can even help me honor certain needs/wants/desires without the self-destruction part?
So-called higher self: I definitely can do that. Honestly, it’d be nice for you to help me too. Sometimes, I try to control everything way too much. It’d be great to have you around for when I begin to slide too far in that direction…
I think you get the point. It might sound strange, but I have found that the tools of internal conversation, negotiation, and compromise help sooth inner conflicts so that we can work with, not against, contradictory aspects of ourselves. The goals are to honor the various dimensions of our personality structure, give them a voice, and to validate their presence within us. As a result, we can finally begin to set aside psychological resistance and cultivate a path towards (imperfect) inner peace.