Once, a patient reported that despite frequent feelings of inadequacy at work, he still felt entitled to praise and recognition. He often found himself envious of coworkers who seemed to be really good at their jobs. He strove to recreate situations in which he had been praised in the past, and sometimes felt angry when people didn’t seem to take notice of even his minor accomplishments. He was perplexed by these apparent contradictions. If he wasn’t good at his job, why should he expect to be praised…and if he deserved praise, why should he feel insecure in the first place?
Paradoxes of thought and emotion like the one above can be sources of confusing impasse in our lives and relationships.
While we may strive for internal harmony, we are more often faced with internal contradiction. Perhaps we prize independence but harbor secret dependency longings; hold ourselves and others to unrealistic standards of perfection but secretly feel worthless; or avoid social contact while harboring intense desires to connect.
How can we make sense of these contradictions? Perhaps more importantly, what are we supposed to do about them?
We are all products of our developmental experiences – lessons learned through repeated interaction with caregivers and peers that taught us who we are, what the world is like, and how we should go about getting our needs met. These characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and relating form a construct that psychologists call personality. In fact, some theories place internal contradictions like the ones above at the very heart of personality organization (Johnson 1994).*
Healthy upbringing relies on children getting most of their needs met most of the time. No upbringing is perfect, and we are all occasionally left in a lurch. Sometimes, these experiences of mismatch between what we want or need and what we actually are able to get result in an enduring internal compromise – a makeshift solution to a problem that couldn’t be solved by our childhood selves with the resources at hand. It’s as if our childhood selves decided, “I can be this but not that. This feeling is okay but that one is not. I need to be like this in order to get what I need.” Over time, the original reason for the compromise may be forgotten, or the resulting contradiction may become so much a part of our adult personality that we aren’t even aware of it (although we may become quite familiar with its disruptive effect in our lives).
For every paradox in a person’s personality, there is an underlying adaptation – a makeshift solution to what was once an unsolvable problem. In this way, the contradictions that live inside each of us tell a story of resiliency.
As in most areas of mental health, flexibility is key. If we can roll with our own internal contradictions, they can form the basis for positive attributes like passion, drive, and humor. It is only when internal tensions are dramatically polarized and inflexible that they tend to cause problems – blocking off avenues to intimacy and self-esteem and occasionally requiring the use of reality distorting coping strategies to maintain the internal divide between contradictory thoughts and feelings.
Early adaptation leaves its mark on all of us. We all harbor internal contradictions. If you have noticed that there are paradoxes in your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior, try embracing them as a legacy of resiliency – a testament to your ability to make do even when the chips are down. If you would like some help understanding and resolving them, seeking a therapist trained in personality structure and organization can help.
*The Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (2006) includes a typology of personality styles frequently associated with various central conflicts. These include fear of closeness vs. longing for closeness (schizoid personality organization), attacking vs. being attacked by humiliating others (paranoid personality organization), manipulating vs. being manipulated (psychopathic personality organization), inflation vs. deflation of self-esteem (narcissistic personality organization), isolation vs. relatedness (depressive personality organization), and control vs. being controlled (obsessive-compulsive personality organization). Please note that personality style merely refers to the characteristic defenses and organizing tensions within a person’s personality. It does not necessarily indicate personality disorder. Within each personality style there is a spectrum of high to low functioning people. For instance, the patient described at the beginning of this article was struggling with conflicts typical of a high functioning narcissistic personality style.
Johnson, S. (1994). Character Styles. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
PDM Task Force. (2006). Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual. Silver Spring, MD: Alliance of Psychoanalytic Organizations.
I’ve always been drawn to tormented people full of contradictions.”
― Antonio Tabucchi