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Karen Horney

Karen Horney explained how both sides of an inner conflict are things we do not want!

One of my favourite psychology books is Karen Horney’s, Our Inner Conflicts. No one explains psychological conflicts better than this German-American psychiatrist does. Horney makes the brilliant point that both sides of an inner conflict are not wanted – a real conflict that is, not just a bad case of indecision over two equally desirable alternatives. She believes a victim of conflict gets hung up on the two opposed “trends” and is thus unable to pursue the outcome they really desire.

Here is how this mechanism gets started.

The about-to-be conflicted individual represses what they truly want (for any number of reasons) and then goes looking for alternatives, all of which are, of course, less desirable than what has been pushed out of sight. The human mind being what it is, the moment we conceive one alternative its opposite immediately springs to mind. Several pairs of opposites may be generated in this way, but eventually one possibility, along with its inevitable opposite, will seem like the most probable choices.

However, neither possibility is really wanted; neither option is the forbidden first choice, although the victim of this exercise in futility remains unaware of the situation. The conflicted person has no choice but to thoroughly examine the two unwanted opposites. Unknowingly, the situation has boiled down to choosing the lesser of two evils. What should they do? Which undesired option should they choose?

A conflict is born.

The way out of the painful and frustrating trap lies in finding and releasing the repressed – yet desired – first choice. Horney says we can detect conflicts by looking for inconsistencies in our ideas, values, behaviour, and so on. This will reveal the two unwanted opposing trends, but how do you find the hidden first choice? The subject matter of the unwanted trends clearly points the way.

Let me clarify with an example. I once had a severe inner dispute that I labelled my go/stay conflict. I was living a simple but deeply troubled life as a manic-depressive hermit at the time.

Trend #1: An ambitious set of plans centred on selling my humble home beside a ten thousand acre tree farm (on the edge of the wilderness) and moving to some incredibly beautiful and remote place deep in the romanticized Canadian wilds. That is to say, I thought of making an anti-social move to banish myself altogether.

Trend #2: This was a more modest proposal to remain somewhat sociable and stay where I was, decidedly on the edge, yet only a twenty-minute drive from a small town where I had access to the usual benefits of civilization available in such places. (My life was not unlike that of Henry David Thoreau as he described it in Walden.)

The subject matter of the conflict is clearly lifestyle. Now, I am, and always have been, an intellectual. You can see that my illness had already landed me in an unsatisfactory situation for someone of that nature. So what was I repressing? A powerful desire to move to Vancouver where I could wildly indulge my passion for obscure books in the second-hand bookshops, avail myself of the services of the city’s huge new library, rent art films, enjoy classical music, and generally participate in the cultural life of a large city!

Why repress such a desire?

Lack of money and, of course, my crippling mental illness. By burying what seemed impossible, I suppose I was trying to spare myself a lot of fruitless anguish. It did not work, of course, but I was far less knowledgeable about these things when the repression took place.

It is worth noting that I recovered the repressed material by chance. I sat down one day and asked myself what I really loved, what I enjoyed doing, and what would best further my writing aspirations. With reading books, collecting books, a taste for art films, and listening to classical music at the top of the list it did not take long for the inner-city lifestyle to present itself.

Then the dam broke.

So powerful were the released feelings that I was left trembling. As a manic-depressive, I am naturally extremely emotional, but I spend most of my time feeling either depressed, anxious, angry, or irritable. I was not familiar with these newly unleashed emotions, yet their emergence vanquished the conflict.