Parts in Conflict

Internal conflict is a staple of human experience. In fact, it seems our mental dynamics oscillate between Flow and Conflict. Flow feels like a dissolution of self — of a critic or observer — and as immersion in an activity. In these moments, the experience of the act makes up our reality. We lose ourselves: in cooking, writing code, dancing, and daydreaming. The less immersive an activity, the more mental chatter is noticeable. We can describe mental chatter as Conflict. It feels like a dynamic of ideas proposed and discussed. There are sides. There are arguments and counterarguments. Proposals and counterproposals. Desires that appear at cross-purposes and plans which fight for shared resources.

There is an eery similarity between what goes on within minds and between them. Our internal dynamics feel analogous to what happens between people. By digging deeper here, I hope to transfer insight from one domain to another. Getting better at understanding intrapersonal issues may provide insight into group conflict management. Similarly, studying how to resolve group conflict may reveal ways to improve our private experience.

We know things about how to manage these internal dynamics. Mindfulness practices increase awareness of experience and can reduce mental chatter. Therapy practices like Focusing and Internal Family Systems provide tools to better understand individual parts of us. An overarching theme is one of curiosity and openness. Interest in and unconditional acceptance of whatever we find. The more we can empathize with a given part of our experience, the more it feels comfortable telling us what it wants. Parts say new things but only when you are open to the possibility that you don’t already know the whole story. This newness can dissolve conflict or help it shift into a “better” equilibrium.

The part of me that seeks distraction while I’m trying to work triggers annoyance. Sometimes that part begins to dominate my experience and I feel deep-seated frustration. Empathizing with it doesn’t come easily — it’s easier to label it as sabotaging, lazy, or childish. But stepping back to try to guess at what it’s trying to do from its perspective seems to generate insight. Is it skeptical of the value of what I’m working on? Is it distracted by other activities which it guesses are more pleasurable? Maybe it’s trying to get me something that I may be missing… Empathizing requires something like a suspension of disbelief (or reason!) as we guess at what a part’s worldview looks like and check it to see if it agrees. This is more difficult to the extent that a parts model feels crazier — less reasonable.

There are other ways internal conflicts can play out. Often, the default way of approaching conflict is through dialogue — mental chatter. This fails when parts have very different worldviews. The greater the difference between them, the greater the urge one will have to “interrupt” another. Statements made will seem wrong — unreasonable. It can be exceptionally difficult for a part to remain quiet in those situations. In theory, parts could reason dispassionately and identify ways to integrate their evidence. Uncoincidentally, the same hopes we have for people in disagreement. In practice, this is tough. It often devolves into the use of force — within the mind this is willpower. Specifically, the self identifies with one part and smothers another. Of course, to some extent this is unavoidable. Sometimes it takes “too much” energy to reach a stable agreement. There is a tradeoff between the energy required to force parts to act against their beliefs and the energy required to empathize with parts to develop internal coherence.

What can we learn from the techniques that allow us to better navigate this internal tradeoff? What can we learn from how the most effective people do so? And how can we transfer this insight to handle interpersonal conflicts?

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