People love a good story. But what makes great literature so compelling? Is it the setting, the plot, the characters — or the rich inner world created by all of these things together?
The stories that rise to the status of “classics” are the ones that paint a character’s internal struggles against a larger, external conflict. Katniss wants to save her sister, at the risk of her own life. Frodo wants to return to the Shire, but the fate of Middle-earth depends on him.
It’s good reading, for sure, and all of us hope that we’d be as noble and heroic when the time comes. But as the main character in our own great dramas, we’re painfully aware of the choices (big or small) in our own lives — and the answers don’t always seem as clear as they do on the page.
What is internal conflict?
Unlike external conflicts, which are forces that feel like they’re acting “on” us, internal conflicts are contradictions between a closely-held value and a course of action. If you find yourself pondering a decision, chances are, there’s some type of internal conflict at play.
Conflict in literature tends to be clear because we only know what the author tells us about a character. In fantasy literature (my favorite kind) there’s often tension between what a character wants and what the world needs them to be. The plot of the book hinges on a few, pivotal decisions that often have the ability to decide the fate of the world.
If we take fantasy novels as a metaphor for our own inner lives, we can see how seemingly-small choices feel like they have earth-shattering consequences. This inner turmoil is known as cognitive dissonance. Because the psychological discomfort of cognitive dissonance is so painful, we’ll go through some pretty impressive hoops to overcome it. We might think of it as our very own Mount Doom.
Sources of internal conflict in real life
We may not all be facing a life-or-death struggle in the chapters to come, but we all experience inner conflict. Looked at broadly, we can break internal conflict into three patterns of disconnect:
Individual internal conflict
With individual conflict, we find ourselves at war with — well, ourselves. We have a strong desire to do something that’s in conflict with our beliefs, values, or self-image. An example might be wanting to eat healthy foods, but stopping for fast food when tired. In this case, the two desires (eating a quick meal vs. eating a healthy one) are in conflict. Both choices require some degree of sacrifice, and you might be left feeling unsatisfied no matter what you choose to do.
Conflict when working with others
Sometimes our relationships with others can trigger internal conflict. For example, we may want to give a coworker feedback, but be concerned that they’ll resent us for doing so. Or someone we work with may get promoted, leaving us feeling insecure. This kind of insecurity can sometimes lurk at the root of workplace conflict. We may feel a lot of pressure in these situations to hide our feelings, which leaves us with a sense of unease.
Internal conflict within groups
Group dynamics, especially in families or workplaces, can be tricky. We may feel a lot of affinity as part of the group, even if their behavior conflicts with our beliefs or ideals. For example, we may not agree with the decisions made by our company’s executive board. If the organization’s core values are out of alignment with our own, we might experience growing distress if we try to keep silent on the matter.
Any of these patterns can have their roots in specific beliefs or values. And what makes them so challenging is that we identify strongly with each. Who we are at work, who we are at home, and who we believe ourselves to be — these are each key parts of our identity. There’s no way to compartmentalize these aspects of self into a “work you” and “home you” — there’s just you. In fact, trying to do this can cause a lot of inner turmoil and stress.
In literature, we can often see a character’s internal conflict clearly against the situation or circumstances they find themselves in. We don’t always see this for ourselves. Sometimes, the disconnect isn’t clear. At other times, we unintentionally muddy the lines by justifying or explaining away our behavior (or the behavior of others). Again, this is how we try to reduce cognitive dissonance.
In the original series of experiments on cognitive dissonance, researchers found that people would change their explanation of a situation to justify their behavior. For example, they would describe a dull task as being more enjoyable if they were asked to convince someone else it was interesting. In order to justify the lie, they “convinced themselves” that the experience wasn’t boring — since very few people relish thinking of themselves as liars.
Those researchers identified three main sources of cognitive dissonance: forced compliance, effort, and decision-making. These can be broken down further into specific misalignments in beliefs or values that trigger internal conflict:
If we hold a specific religious or spiritual belief, we can experience stress when something causes us to act against it. For example, we might believe in religious freedom, but work for an organization with closely held and publicized religious views.
Often, moral conflict arises when there are multiple, justifiable behaviors — or when a belief justifies behavior that wouldn’t ordinarily be condoned. Philosophical texts are full of these dilemmas. A famous one is the trolley problem, where students are asked if they would take one life to save many.
We may experience political conflict when our societal beliefs don’t align with the behavior of those in power. This could happen on a micro or macro level. For example, we may agree with a politician’s social and fiscal views, but distrust their approach to climate change.
Conflict between our behavior and our self-image may be the most common type of internal conflict. We might see ourselves as being trustworthy but lie about why we’re running late. Or we might think of ourselves as organized but have piles of clutter in our homes.
A type of internal conflict that occurs within a larger group, societal conflict leaves us at odds with common norms. For example, you may feel comfortable with diverse groups of people, but live in a community that is largely homogeneous or shows signs of implicit bias.
Existential conflict comes into play when we feel that our sense of meaning, choice, or agency is at risk. We might feel hopeless or discouraged. In truth, if we don’t look at our internal conflicts head-on, any of these misalignments can leave us feeling powerless to change them. But that’s a dangerous line of thinking. Adopting a victim mentality (as if someone were forcing you out of alignment with your beliefs) can trigger an existential crisis.
Resolving internal conflict
So what do the great protagonists do to resolve their own inner conflicts? Often, heroes reconcile the gap between their own goals and the bigger needs of their community. Part of character development (and personal development) is tying what we want to the external struggle or conflict.
Sounds heady? Think of it this way. When Frodo decides to take the Ring to Mordor, he’s not doing it because he suddenly doesn’t want to go home. In fact, he wants to go home more than ever. But he understands that the best way to get there is to ensure that home remains the safe, peaceful place that he loves. Destroy the Ring first, so that we can go home.
We may not have a magic ring, but we can find ways in which our goals and values overlap with our circumstances. And that doesn’t mean doing cognitive gymnastics to make it work. Often, resolving inner conflict is a combination of being thoughtful about our circumstances and doing the Inner Work® to understand the part we play in them.
1. Understand the “truth” of the matter
When we feel like our values or boundaries are at risk of being violated, we tend to want to act quickly to protect ourselves. But unlike the risks that the main character faces in a book, the risks in our lives aren’t a matter of “good” and “evil.”
In truth, we’re only able to see what’s happening in one character’s mind — but the world is full of main characters trying to make the right choices for their personal stories. Our tendency to explain our behavior based on circumstance and others’ behavior based on their character is known as the fundamental attribution error. In reality, others are just as subject to the effects of their circumstances as we are — and that means that they probably aren’t all bad.
2. Seek to understand the motivations of others
It’s hard to have understanding and compassion for others if we don’t first offer it to ourselves. Many of us grew up with an understanding of certain behaviors as “right” or “wrong.” This can leave us feeling painfully self-conscious and afraid as adults when we think we’ve stepped out of line in some way. And the desire to “feel better” can cause us to lash out at others, condemning their behavior and justifying our own.
As we grow, we start by looking inward — but eventually shift our focus outward to others. This ability to question our own thoughts, take perspective, and understand the motivation of others makes us better leaders. Understanding that we don’t have to work against the “character goals” of others can help us feel less defensive. Our values aren’t at risk. The discomfort we feel is simply alerting us to a source of misalignment.
3. Take an aligned step forward
Once you determine the disconnect between your behaviors, values, and circumstances, you can start to determine the right path forward. Here’s an example of internal conflict at work and how someone might resolve it:
You value spending time with your family, but your job demands a lot of your time. In an ideal world, you’d have ample time to do it all — excel at work, spend time with your loved ones, and take care of your personal needs. But it feels like there’s never enough hours in the day, and your family complains that they don’t see enough of you.
What do you do?
- Start looking for a new job.
- Quit the workforce altogether.
- Send your children to boarding school so you can focus.
- Explain to your family that you need the income for their financial security.
- Explain to your manager that you need to set boundaries around your work time.
If we kept going, we could quickly come up with dozens of potential solutions. There isn’t a right answer here — just many paths toward improving your work-life balance. But to set foot onto any of them, you need to let yourself off the hook for the way things are. Doing this requires quite a bit of reflection and Inner Work® — and in fact, the hardest part might be sitting with the distress long enough to determine the right action to take.
Working with a coach can be particularly valuable in identifying internal conflict and brainstorming solutions. In our example, it’s easy to see how someone could get stuck in their choices. They may feel like their family needs them, so they have to quit. Or they could feel that the job market is too uncertain to risk underperforming, so they “have to” sacrifice time at home. A coach provides an outside perspective, helping you weigh external forces against your values and goals.
As you grow and develop, you’ll naturally become more self-aware. In fact, after over one million coaching sessions, BetterUp has found that the first skill that coachees develop is the ability to self-reflect. But the more self-reflective you become, the more aware you’ll be of these types of internal conflict. Identifying and reconciling these misalignments is key to self-development.
Remember that you’re the hero in your story, and the choices you make — the fate of your world — is always in your hands. When opposing forces, choices, or circumstances feel like they’re taking you off course, you can always find a way to put yourself back on track and write the ending your story deserves.