Thursday, December 11, 2008

On Inner Conflict

Conflict is an opposition between two or more entities.

Inner Conflict is the state of conflict in the mind. The entities here are thoughts, beliefs, feelings and emotions.

Recently, some of us were examining a particular incident of inner conflict. A friend recounted a lavish wedding party that he had just been to, and where he felt conflicting emotions of guilt, novelty, awe, embarrassment, etc. He, being aware of the ecological challenges facing the earth, and the stark economic disparities in the world, could not bring himself to fully enjoy the spectacle and the feast.

As we dissected the emotions involved, I was able to enunciate something which I thought would be worth publishing on my blog. It is a simple statement.

In essence: Facts do not create a conflict. Feelings about facts do.

To further expand: Facts do not contradict each other. Opinions about facts do, beliefs about facts do, feelings which are evoked by the cognition of those facts do.

Let's say a person knowledgeable about ecology and economy visits a lavish party in a five star hotel in a poor country. The facts are:
  • The professionalism on display, the great spectacle and the sensory enjoyments available.
  • The high ecological and economic costs of the affair.
Cognition of the first produces good feelings, because of the sensory enjoyment (unless of course one doesn't like that kind of thing) and appreciation of the skill of the chefs, the artists etc. Cogitation about the second produces bad feelings, due to various reasons.

The feelings are in opposition. The facts can exist together without any problem, the contrast of feelings, on the other hand, produces confusion and conflict.

Another example:

I want to fire a subordinate in my team due to poor performance. The facts are:
  • He will lose his job and probably have some hardship.
  • My team will gain in average productivity and I will be able to hire a new person.
The first fact produces bad feelings in me (due to empathy) and the second fact produces good feelings in me (due to my commitment to the success of my team). This conflict of feelings makes me uncomfortable when I am to communicate the decision to him.

Once an inner conflict starts happening, one usually follows one of the following paths:
  • Ignore one of the feelings (usually the bad ones). Push them aside, suppress them, etc.
  • Don't attend to the feelings at all and do what is to be done (usually the socially or professionally expected behavior). I.e. pretend to enjoy the party and stoically fire the employee.
  • Engage in denial of the fact producing the bad feeling. E.g. in the second case, the thinking might go like this: "What hardship? He will find a job soon enough, and anyway we are giving him a month's pay as severance."
I will not comment upon what a rational person is to do in tricky situations. E.g. in the party, whether the ecologically aware man should (at the risk of not being invited to further parties) point out the waste etc. to the host. Or whether the firing manager should try to improve the productivity of the employee in question.

One thing is clear however: reason and rationality are crippled by good as well as bad feelings. And an inner conflict is even more of a handicap than a simple feeling-state. Once out of their grip, an action can be thought about which will make the situation better.

Most of us, however, spend so much effort towards feeling better about a situation that actual efforts to change the state of affairs are conspicuous by their absence. What is required is to inquire into why certain feelings are associated with certain facts. This investigation will uncover our hidden agendas, our instinctual behavior patterns, our conditioning, beliefs and fervent wishes.

3 comments:

Amit Tandon said...

A very incisive article and I am in agreement with you when you say "reason and rationality are crippled by good as well as bad feelings. And an inner conflict is even more of a handicap than a simple feeling-state.". I am unsure of the extrapolation though "Once out of their grip, an action can be thought ....."


You suggest that thoughts (which are often essential for establishment of the facts) and feelings are not necessarily causally related to one-another and it is possible to be in an enhanced-thought state, while simultaneously being devoid of any feelings arising of being in this state. I doubt this represents the human condition at all - infact I think, as sensory inputs are processed, feeling state(s) may arise instantaneously and without any thought intervention at all (often from instinctual behaviour or from recollection of prior impressions in memory) and the feeling-thought-feeling or the thought-feeling-thought enmeshment is too tightly interlocked to unentangle for excluding out feelings (which cripple reason) while retaining-in thoughts (which promote reason / rationality).

Also, I think the feeling state(s) in the average human is not only attained mostly without any thought intervention
, but is often defaulted to by mere hormonal catalysis (flight-or-flee, teenage romance etc. are cases in point), which makes it all the more difficult to "come off the feeling grip" without transcending the very instinctual traits - which define us as humans.

-Amit

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Amit

"You suggest that thoughts (which are often essential for establishment of the facts) and feelings are not necessarily causally related to one-another"

# I suggest the opposite. They are associated with each other. Their relationship is what needs to be investigated by oneself, e.g. why one feels happy when seeing a particular person.

"and it is possible to be in an enhanced-thought state, while simultaneously being devoid of any feelings arising of being in this state."

# This is called being cool and calm and collected, etc. We all have experienced such states where we were not in the grip of emotions, while we were rationally evaluating some situation.

"I doubt this represents the human condition at all - infact I think, as sensory inputs are processed, feeling state(s) may arise instantaneously and without any thought intervention at all (often from instinctual behaviour or from recollection of prior impressions in memory)"

# Feeling states are usually involuntary and reactive, but with a growth in awareness, they can be investigated and minimized.

"feeling-thought-feeling or the thought-feeling-thought enmeshment is too tightly interlocked to unentangle for excluding out feelings (which cripple reason) while retaining-in thoughts (which promote reason / rationality)."

# It is possible. It is hard work in the beginning, and it is not easy for highly emotional people, but it is possible.

Harmanjit Singh said...

And feeling states do not arise instantaneously, but after a small pause.

You may find this instructive:

http://www.actualfreedom.com.au/library/topics/brainschemes.htm