When we are stuck making a decision, inner turmoil or conflict often arises, leading to both menal and physical health issues. Psychologist Stanislava Puač Jovanović explains the reasons for inner turmoil and the five steps you should take to move past it.
For most of my adolescence and adulthood, I felt conflicted about where to live. My mother is from one country, and my father was from another. When I was 14, they divorced. Suddenly, my family was scattered across Europe.
So, my inner turmoil started. Where – or rather with whom – to live was a burning question during the period of my parent’s divorce. The same issue arose when I had to pick a high school, then college — and after graduation when I was supposed to get a job. In fact, battling inner turmoil didn’t truly leave my side until recently. And I do not exclude the option of it becoming current again at some point in the future!
Inner turmoil is everyone’s known (and rather unpleasant) companion. It does not matter if you are picking a shirt or a spouse. Internal conflicts are usually inseparable from the decision-making process. Therefore, we have little choice but to accept their presence. We can, however, understand inner turmoils and learn how to resolve the chaos they tend to cause. In this article, I’ll explain:
- What inner turmoil is and what adversities may come with it
- What causes inner turmoil
- How to move past it
First, let us get to know inner turmoil and why it might be the wrong place for you to stay for too long.
What is inner turmoil and why is it bad?
Inner turmoil is not, strictly speaking, a phrase that psychologists would use. However, it describes the experience very well. The term that is used in academic psychology is inner or internal conflict.
Internal conflict is one of the prime notions of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud described conflicts as a consequence of the coexistence of two or more incompatible elements in a person’s psyche. These elements can be your needs, wants, beliefs, expectations, actions — conscious or unconscious. Simply put, two forces are clashing inside of you.
It could be that there are two (or more) options that seem alluring. This is the “easiest” of the conflicts. For example, you could be courted by two people who both attract you. However, by virtue of the situation, when you pick one, you lose the other. Adding to the ordeal is a common effect — the option you dismissed will start looking more appealing.
Double-avoidance conflict is a more difficult one because you must choose between two unfavourable options. For example, you might need to decide if you want to be unemployed and broke or accept a job you hate.
Approach-avoidance conflict is something you experience when one option has qualities that both attract and repel you. Moving to a city that you do not like but that offers a better professional outlook is a good example. Or dating someone who you are physically attracted to but whose personality you are unsure of. The problem with this sort of inner turmoil is that the more you approach the option, the more the anxiety grows. On the other hand, the more you move away from it, the more you start to desire it.
Why can inner turmoil be bad for you?
As I said before – inner turmoils are not something we can avoid. They are a part of our lives. However, staying in one for too long can be bad for you. Why?
When you are not at peace with yourself and do not understand your preferences, you will probably have a hard time getting along with others. Inner conflicts and ambivalent desires transfer to your close relationships.
“Moving past inner turmoil means making a move. Whether it is a psychological change or an enacted decision, something has to happen.”
Inner turmoil in which you are not clear about your role and identity, as a theoretical paper demonstrated, can make you underperform in negotiations in business. Any other sort of negotiations, it may be added, can be affected by your inability to decide which position and role you are taking.
When in internal conflict, you might find yourself unable to move forward. Research confirmed that when you are ambivalent, regardless of how much power in a situation you may have, you will probably remain inert and avoid action.
Furthermore, inner turmoil may lead to a range of emotional and physical disturbances. Irritable bowel syndrome, for example, has been found to be associated with internal conflicts. In particular, you may be at risk of the syndrome if you feel uneasy about being emotionally open and expressing your feelings.
What causes inner turmoil?
Remember my example from the beginning of the article?
As I was born and spent most of my life in my father’s homeland, I felt more at home there. On the other hand, it was wiser to move to my mother’s homeland as it has incomparably better living standards. Not to mention wanting to be with my little sister, who was four at that point. Understandably so, a long list of problems and issues (logistical and emotional) intertwined with the whole situation.
In short, it was a hot mess. And, my inner turmoil was equally as intense.
What caused it was too many elements of the situation that did not align with each other. Conflicting needs, beliefs, actions and expectations cause internal turmoil. According to the classic psychoanalytic theory, our Ego has to serve three masters. It has to find a way to reconcile the external world’s demands, instinctual needs and desires (Id), and the ethical and moral principles we acquired growing up (Super-Ego). Needless to say, there is rarely harmony between these masters.
Inner turmoil: our ego has to serve three masters shutterstock/Pixel4Images
So, inner turmoil arises. You simultaneously want and do not want something. Your longings might clash with your principles. You know that one option is rational, but your heart desires another. Many elements interweave, and you end up in a state of internal chaos. It is an entirely natural position, a part of being a human.
You could, for example, be in an utterly unhappy marriage. However, you were raised to consider a divorce something outright wrong. Your need to feel psychologically well and your ethical beliefs oppose each other.
You might long to do something creative in life and be an artist, but you feel pressured to meet your family’s hopes and find an office job. Your true desires and wish to please your loved ones’ expectations clash.
Or, you have needs that do not match social norms in your culture, like sexual orientation. The authentic You is not in line with society’s standards, and an inner turmoil is born.
“Once you have committed to leaving the state of turmoil, help yourself decide what you want and what you will do.”
You might find yourself falling for your friend or a coworker. You yearn to make a move, but it poses a risk of losing them and destroying the existing relationship. Your feelings conflict with your desire to maintain the safety of what you have now.
You may be torn between your roles of an individual, child, parent, friend, professional, spouse, and the desires and expectations that come with those roles.
How to move past inner turmoil
If you’re wondering how I resolved the conflict of where to live — I had to make a choice. I was compelled to do so when external circumstances called for it (the divorce, the schooling). But, the time came when I did not have to make a choice — I could merely succumb to inertia and avoid making any commitment. And I did for a while.
Nonetheless, I could not keep dodging a decision forever. Moving past inner turmoil means making a move. Whether it is a psychological change or an enacted decision, something has to happen. Otherwise, you remain stuck within the whirlpool of conflicting needs and perspectives.
Here’s what you can do to start dealing with internal conflict:
1. Understand the turmoil
Clinical practice shows that you need to explore the symptoms of the conflict — how is it manifested and in what situations do you notice it? What emotions and beliefs are keeping it alive? What rigidities in your mind are preventing you from leaving the conflict behind you? How do you usually try to cope with it? Knowing your most profound traits and desires (even the dark ones) is a must of authentic living and a prerequisite for resolving any inner conflict.
2. Make a decision
As I’ve explained, one of the adversities of inner turmoils is a tendency for inertness they may throw you into. Give yourself enough time to contemplate — but do not procrastinate. Bring yourself to make a move. Fear of change, dread of making a wrong choice, feeling lost in life, or undefined anxiety are perfectly understandable reactions. However, putting a decision off is a sort of self-sabotage. So, promise yourself you are going to move ahead — and do so.
Making a choice is essential to escape inner conflict shutterstock/ESB Professional
3. Facilitate the choice
Once you have committed to leaving the state of turmoil, help yourself decide what you want and what you will do. Talk to friends, a psychotherapist or a coach, make pros and cons lists — whatever works.
4. Stop feeding the conflict
When you have deciphered what has caused your inner turmoil and what you want to do about it, stop adding to the anxiety it causes. For example, if you want to get a divorce, stop evoking the thoughts of how “wrong” it is to do so that your parents or culture imposed on you.
5. Believe in yourself
We often feel hindered by self-doubt. You might want to apply for your dream job but are reluctant because you doubt you are good enough. Give yourself plenty of self-love and practise self-compassion. You can do it. Even if you make a wrong choice, you are capable of mending the damage.
Takeaway: inner turmoil can also be seen as a hint
Internal conflicts are anything but a pleasant experience. A quote from Søren Kierkegaard’s ‘Either/Or’ illustrates the anguishing nature of human lives:
“Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will also regret that; hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both.”
Now, Kierkegaard was a philosopher, hence the hanging. Yet, if you translate the idea to any other choice, the message is clear. Whatever we chose and do, we will probably end regretting it and up believing that the other option was better. However, it does not mean that we are doomed to despair about missed opportunities and errors we made.
Instead, approach your inner turmoil as a hint. Something is going on inside of you, and you need to figure it out. Embrace internal conflicts as a call from your unconscious mind to explore your soul. Use it as a beacon. Let it guide you towards knowing yourself — and making decisions that follow your authentic nature and needs. •
Main image: shutterstock/ArtFamily
Written by Stanislava Puač Jovanović
Stanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.