Why Do People Induce Inner Conflict in Others?

Part 2 in a review of psychoanalytic work on how we do what we do to each other.

In Part 1 of this two-part post, we looked at how psychoanalyst Harold Searles thought about how we drive each other crazy. On one hand, he describes many pathological reasons for doing so, in his focus on maladaptive parental and family dynamics. He notes there are other reasons people have difficulty maintaining a grip on reality and our own emotional states than how we are raised, but his focus is on developmental factors and how they play out in adulthood, and particularly in therapy.
In this follow-up piece, we review the reasons why — the motivations for — driving the other person crazy. They range from self-preservation to a need to escape from distress, to desires to become more healthy, to the pursuit of intense symbiotic gratification.

Motivations behind inducing inner conflict in others

An effort to get rid of the other person. Searles writes, “The effort to drive the other person crazy can consist, predominantly, in the psychological equivalent of murder; that is, it can represent primarily an endeavor to destroy him, to get rid of him as completely as if he were physically destroyed.” This may be the result of competition and envy, feeling threatened psychologically by the other person, or from the inability to deal effectively with what the other person stirs up in us. There’s no rule that says two people can’t be driving each other crazy, after all, though we can also bring each other a measure of sanity.

Out of a desire to get away from one’s own craziness. Driving the other person crazy can be a way to “externalize” or “get rid of” the threat of unresolved internal conflict. We can regulate our own emotional states by regulating — or in this case, dysregulating — others. By driving another person crazy, one may feel calmer, more stable by comparison. We project our internal state onto another person, who in turn internalizes that state unwittingly — assuming they don’t catch what is happening and make sense of it. While ultimately problematic because it prevents real connection, in the short run it may generate a fleeting feeling of inner safety — often settling into a chronic pattern to maintain that fragile stability.

To escape from intolerable interpersonal conflict or suspense. Driving the other person crazy often pushes them away. Either they actually move away from us, for example running to another room in a fit of tears or ending the relationship for good, or they psychologically get off our back, stopping whatever they were doing in order to deal with their own triggered conflict. The certainty of craziness is preferred over the unpredictability of ambivalent, ambiguous connection. This is a last-ditch effort born out of the inability for all involved to navigate conflict with reason, compassion, and mutuality.

To expose hidden secrets. Searles describes families in which one or both parents had serious problems, but who were nevertheless able to maintain the mask of sanity for the outside world. Leading to a kind of gaslighting, people might remark on how wonderful the parents are, and perhaps how ungrateful the children. By driving the parent crazy, the secret is revealed, the parents are seen for who they are, and the children relieved of the solitary burden. This is seen in families with hidden problems like child abuse and addictions, as well as more subtle forms of emotional and psychological maltreatment. We see it in adulthood in many relationships, personal and professional — with domestic violence and workplace harassment, as well as in less obvious ways.

To “find a soulmate to assuage unbearable loneliness.” To be crazy, in the sense that Searles describes, is to be isolated and lonely. Beyond the old saw that misery loves company, we also seek companionship in feeling that the world, and other people, simply don’t make sense. Finding a kindred spirit, someone who can empathize and understand, alleviates the isolation. Bringing someone into one’s way of seeing the world by evoking emotional conflict within them, and then alleviating the distress by joining them, is one way to find connection. It often backfires, however, it can be challenging to maintain the bubble. Loyalty gives way to betrayal, and often perceived abandonment, when reality intrudes.

From “a conscious or unconscious desire to encourage the other person into healthier closeness, a better integration” with both others and oneself, interpersonally and intrapersonally. Unlike the other motives, the goal — implicit or explicit — is to assist the other person into discovery of lost aspects of themselves and develop self-integration. Unlike the other motives, the goal is not to drive the other person crazy by overwhelming them with emotional conflict, but to usher in growing awareness of disavowed aspects of personality, fostering the ego strength required to make sense of confusing inner states.

“[I]t seems to me that the essence of loving relatedness entails a responding to the wholeness of the other person — including often a responding in such fashion to the other person when he himself is not aware of his own wholeness, finding and responding to a larger person in him then he himself is aware of being.”

To achieve a symbiotic mode of relatedness in which both people are merged. This is per Searles the most powerful and complex motive, a way to get to a shared “crazy” connection which is intensely gratifying on many levels. This may relate to fantasies of perfect romantic love, a wish to return to infantile merger with the mother, a way to avoid the trials and travails of adult responsibility, a way to hold on to the “sick role” in order to receive care, and perhaps a way to fend off fears of death and impermanence through identification and immersion in visions of immortality and eternal union.

Making sense of the nonsensical, putting crazy to work

This is all very high-minded and theoretical. At the same time, it is down-and-dirty. Who can’t relate to wondering if others are safe and trustworthy, how to decide to open up and relax around another person, whether we can be authentic, and to what extent — or whether we are wary, inclined to hold back parts of ourselves without necessarily quite knowing why.

For folks with a coherent, consistent sense of self, the task is easier, as trust assessment becomes second nature, not so confused by inner tumult. Others may be left on guard, not knowing whether others around us are sincere, off-kilter, or up to no good. Understanding the means and motives behind “crazy-making” positions folks to better understand not just others’ behavior, but also our own — the first step on learning to make your crazy work for you.

References

Searles HF (1965). The effort to drive the other person crazy — an element in the aetiology and psychotherapy of schizophrenia. In Collected Papers on Schizophrenia Related Subjects, p. 254–283, London: Karnac.

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Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Advocate

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