Internal Conflict: How Do You Step Out of a Destructive Loop?

An endless cycle of churning thoughts can escalate into a sense of hopelessness. (Photo by Katie Moun on Unsplash)

Have you ever been stuck in a cycle of conflicting thoughts and feelings? It’s no fun. And it can be scary, or even dangerous.

Internal conflict might come about as a response to difficult circumstances or events, or it could be rooted in traumatic experiences from the past. Often a series of thoughts will develop that keep the painful pattern in place. They go something like this:

I feel bad.

I shouldn’t feel bad.

I need to feel good.

I can’t feel good.

There must be something wrong with

me that I can’t feel good.

I must be bad.

I feel bad. . .

You can see how this cycle of thoughts could escalate into a sense of hopelessness. You might end up thinking that you’ll never be able to feel good again or that you can’t do anything right.

At a certain point, this self-destructive loop may lead to clinical depression. And depression has become a significant problem in our country. According to the National Institutes of Health, over 16 million adults in the U.S. have suffered from an episode of major depression, and in 2016 alone over 10 million people were severely impaired by depression.

When you’re stuck in a pattern of conflicting thoughts and feelings, you are, in a sense, at war with yourself. Stopping the internal conflict becomes your first priority. Over the years I’ve found some useful tools that help put the brakes on this destructive cycle.

It’s totally okay to feel like this

What’s at the heart of this cycle of intensifying bad feelings? That it’s not okay to feel like this—and that leads to a fruitless struggle to overcome a feeling. Introducing the idea that it is okay to feel whatever comes up begins to take the power out of the negative cycle.

Even though I feel __, I totally love and accept myself exactly the way I am

This is a wonderful phrase taught to me by my colleague Cheryl Bailey. Fill in the blank with any feeling that is difficult for you.

Let the fear be true

Sometimes the ideas in our head that continue the conflict are basic fears like, “I’m a terrible person,” “I’m not safe,” or “I’m out of control.” Simply allowing these ideas to be there without arguing with them can be very powerful.

For example, you can ask yourself, “What if I am a terrible person?” And you can answer, “So what if I am!” Even though you’re not really a terrible person, if you stop fighting these feelings in your head and simply admit that they’re right, they let you go.

It’s possible for me to be happy/safe/okay

This type of thought is so important. If you lose all hope for improvement, you get stuck in a painful place. The beautiful thing about this kind of thought is that it requires no action; it only requires accepting the idea that things could get better. Maybe. Possibly. Consideration is all that’s needed.

This too shall pass

At times, life is just very difficult and painful. During these periods, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that I haven’t always felt this way and that there have been other times when I’ve felt really good about things.

Take action to make things better

Ultimately, it helps to take some kind of action to feel better. And if you’re feeling defeated, you probably won’t want to act! Remember that the action you take doesn’t have to be life changing. Simply making a to-do list, for example, is an action. And any action, however small, reminds us that we have the ability to move.

One useful action can be talking to others. Unfortunately, this often elicits a mountain of unwanted and unhelpful advice. The number-one least helpful response I’ve gotten when I’ve expressed depressive feelings is, “Have you tried taking a walk?” If you hear this kind of thing—don’t worry! It’s important to connect with others when you’re feeling down, but remember that you don’t have to take the advice offered.

Listen to your own inner sense

You will almost always know what small action to take that will make you feel a little better. Listen to that inner sense and empower it. It might be something silly like putting on your comfy pajamas, or something simple like watching a favorite TV show. The important thing is not to worry about whether the action will solve your entire issue. Its main purpose is to make an incremental improvement in how you’re feeling.

To those struggling with internal conflict, be of good courage! If any of these ideas are helpful, I encourage you to take a step and allow them in.

David Seagull, LISW, is a therapist in Fairfield. See