Dealing with the Internal Conflict – Splitting

The problem with internal conflict is that the child has no power, and often no knowledge, of how to resolve that conflict. Similar in a way to the double-bind of the fight or flight response, the child has to adopt a survival strategy, which is to create an internal split in the self. This may be expressed as a split into the child who loves the perpetrator and the part of self who hates and fears him/her, and/or a split into the child who presents to the world (and can even come to believe that part is real), and the part of self who holds the knowledge of the terrible secret. The destructiveness of this kind of split often leads to self-harming behaviours in adolescence.

Clients hold onto a belief in their inherent badness with an almost fanatical zeal. “I am bad” not only serves as a defence against feelings of powerlessness and loss of control; “I am bad” also protects against facing very painful truths. It protects against facing the pain of betrayal, abandonment, and hurt by the people who should have been there to love, care, nurture and protect them. Turning feelings of rage toward the parents for their abuse and neglect inward, and transforming them in to self-loathing and self-hate, protects their need to maintain attachment to the parents, for survival.

By shifting all the badness to inside themselves, children create the illusion that their parents are safe attachment figures. It is better to be a bad child with good parents, than a good child with bad parents. This child/parent relationship is often played out in the therapeutic relationship.

Most people entering therapy for childhood abuse do not have a clear understanding of the phenomenon of internal conflict, as it is disguised by dissociation and denial. The aware therapist will be able to spot this conflict in almost every facet of the therapy.

Examples include:

  • Stockholm Syndrome.  Whether as a child or an adult survivor of trauma and abuse, the victim has come to identify with the perpetrator, frequently forming a dependent relationship with him/her. In the case of children being abused by a parent figure, the child will need to maintain an apparently positive emotional connection in order to survive and be looked after. But beneath the surface relationship there will often be intense and split-off feelings of rage and hatred (locus of control shift).
  • Sexuality. Sexual experience can give rise to deep feelings of shame and guilt, which in turn colour a victim’s self identity, including their sexual identity. Children’s bodies respond to sexual stimulation, which can leave them with a lifelong internal conflict about sexual arousal and pleasure. However, the victim’s experience of their sexuality can be deformed as a result of not only sexual abuse, but also psychological abuse, depending on their relationship with the perpetrator and/or the gender of the perpetrator.
  • Feelings of self-blame. Children are often told that they ‘asked for it’ and are responsible for what happened to them. In this respect children are very easy to program, because the accusation feeds into their natural ego-centricity – they naturally believe that they are responsible for everything that happens to them and others around them. As adults they will question these assumptions, but may be confused by the remnants of these childish thought patterns. Clients who have adult-acquired PTSD may also be tormented by inner conflict related to the details of their traumatic experience/s – such as guilt, regret, and self-disgust.
  • Hatred of the ‘inner child’. Most survivors of childhood trauma and abuse are unaware of the highly conflictual relationship they have with their inner child. Most are not even aware of having a wounded inner child. The term ‘wounded inner child’ refers to the unresolved emotions and traumatic memory stored in the implicit memory system. These implicit memories continue to drive a host of emotional triggers and responses which seriously impair the quality of life in the present. Consequently, the self is conflicted, harbouring resentment and anger towards the part of self that continues to cause this suffering.

In helping the client to deal with issues of internal conflict, the therapist must employ techniques of psycho-education, constantly illuminating and explaining the internal processes within the client’s mind and emotions. Explanations will usually have to be repeated many times, until the client is able to hear and internalize the information.

Therapy strategies :

strategies will depend on the source of the conflict, the underlying issues. You may use creative work (whether 2D, 3D, movement, sandplay, etc.) to either help expose an unseen conflict, or to work with the source of the conflict once it has been identified.

‘Inner child work’ is very helpful during this phase of therapy, and this can be done through artwork, symbolic visualization (i.e., the adult self finds the inner child in an imaginative landscape and begins a dialogue, starts to form a caring relationship with the wounded self), or direct body work (emotional release work, psychodrama, movement therapy or other somatic techniques). If the therapist is proficient in using EMDR, this would also offer healing potential.

Conflict around sexuality is an often neglected part of the healing work, as sexual issues tend to be avoided in our society. But for a client who has been sexually abused in childhood, the opportunity to deal with the resulting sexual conflict is a hugely important task that should not be avoided. It is likely that the therapy setting may be the only place the survivor has to discuss and work through this issue. The actual ‘work’ of sexual healing will take place outside the therapy room, in various arenas of the survivor’s life, but it is preferable that it can be discussed openly in therapy. As with deep emotional work, if the therapist has unresolved personal issues around the subject of sex, then this barrier should be dealt with in her/his own therapy, to clear the way for successful client work.



Back to “Essential Issues”

3 thoughts on “Dealing with the Internal Conflict – Splitting”

    • Hi, are you interested in discussing this issue further? How to resolve the inability of the child parts to resolve conflict?


      • Apologies for not replying to your post in 2020. I think Covid overwhelmed everything. Internal conflict – difficult to resolve, yes. If you would still like to discuss, please reply and WordPress should notify me by email, and I will reply to you. Thanks, Hassanah


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