As we navigate life’s choices, we usually reach a decision by a combination of checking inside ourselves, researching options, asking others for advice, and flipping a coin. Sometimes none of that works and we find ourselves deadlocked, unable to settle on a resolution.
An inner deadlock can be an intense battle, with constant internal arguments, or shut down and numb, when we want to do something but it is simply not happening. In that case, some part is silently resisting rather than arguing.
Our Inner Critic is often a big player in deadlocks, telling us we “should” be decisive and clear, and at the same time telling us our reasons are not good enough when we reach a tentative conclusion. When our trust in our internal perceptions and assessments has been undermined, we lose our foundation for making decisions that work well for us.
For example, Mali (who uses they/them pronouns) is trying to decide whether to take an evening class they have been eyeing for a long time. They feel pushed to take the class now, and overwhelmed by the extra time and work involved. They keep thinking about it and talking it over with friends, and neither answer feels right.
Add time and space
When we realize we have an internal deadlock, it helps to add more time and space, to decrease the urgency and intensity of the conflict. If there is an immediate emergency, then take emergency action. Otherwise, take some time to notice your current environment and current safety. Invite your body to come out of Emergency Mode. You will find a way through the dilemma, one way or another.
Is there a way to make the looming decision smaller in scope, or reduce time pressure? Most opportunities will come around again, and might be a better fit in the future. Perhaps you can try out a decision for a limited time, and get more information about what does and does not work for you. Check for exits and off ramps, ways to change your mind if needed.
You can create a Decision-Free Zone to listen to all of yourself with a clear boundary that action is off the table. As you learn more, you might discover that there are more than two conflicting parts involved, or that two conflicting parts have the same agenda or concern underneath.
If parts are too busy contradicting each other to explore why they feel the way they do, try separating them. Assign each part a separate place in the room, still included, but at a small distance. You get space in the center to sense how you feel when you get a break from conflict.
Mali puts the pressure to take the class on one side, and the feeling of being overwhelmed on the other. They pause to enjoy relief from the constant internal struggle. When they turn toward the feeling of overwhelm, they remember that they have been fighting off a cold for a couple of weeks and feel tired all the time. No wonder taking a class sounds like too much work. They also touch into a deeper need for rest and open time.
When Mali turns toward the sense of pressure, they realize they are still hearing their mother’s voice saying, “You do nothing but sit at home. You have to get out and do things and meet people!” Mali has always needed more quiet alone time than their extroverted mother, and their mother does not acknowledge the difference in their needs.
While it can be helpful to consider a variety of opinions, other people do not necessarily know what is right for us. It can ease a deadlock to separate your own voice from other people’s present and past opinions.
If you feel required to find a perfect answer that pleases everyone, spend some time with the part that feels that way. Listen for what that part is worried will happen if your choice is not exactly right. Let the part know you hear it, and let it rest into your support and warmth. If parts come up that want to argue, correct, or reassure, let them know you hear them, too.
As we try to predict what will work for us in the future, we are often concerned about making mistakes. When we have plenty of resources and resilience, making mistakes feels natural and recoverable. Past abuse primes us to believe that mistakes lead to terribly painful outcomes, even though it was not our mistakes that caused the abuse.
Limits and needs
Healing from trauma can increase our resilience, giving us a wider range of tools and skills and experiences. Trauma also erodes our inner resources, narrowing our window of tolerance for stress and mistakes. An irritated nervous system needs protection and care. Like other injuries, illnesses, and disabilities, PTSD imposes limits that can be frustrating. We might strongly want to move forward, and also strongly need to rest.
When we interrogate the validity of each internal opinion and need, we intensify the deadlock. When we can deeply listen to each voice, we can loosen the knot rather than tightening it. Rather than investigating whether a response comes out of the past or the present, fully acknowledge that you hear it. Give yourself room to be affected by the past.
Rather than scolding a terrified inner child, give them a container for their terror, with the calm adult presence they have been waiting for. Rather than shaming a part that longs for for safe touch, let it know you hear it. Let the scolding and shaming parts know you hear them too. Look for experiences of calm containment in your past and your present to support you.
Bring some curiosity to the deadlock itself. Perhaps the deadlock is part of a recurring pattern. It is hard to decide what to do because every option feels like part of the pattern. As you learn about all the different parts that contribute to the pattern, you can gradually find a wider perspective that leads to both/and solutions rather than either/or choices.
As Mali sits with their parts, they find more compassion for their need for rest and quiet. They also notice an underlying goal to connect more positively with their mother. Rather than taking the class, Mali tentatively reaches out. If their mother pushes them to do more, they lightly push back, change the subject, or leave the conversation. Fortunately, their mother gets the point quickly, and their relationship improves.
The surface issue of a deadlock might seem easy to resolve by “just” deciding one way or the other. As we explore more deeply, we see the full complexity of parts and tensions between them. We can loosen those tensions by giving each part room to express its needs and fears. Inclusive solutions gradually emerge as we gain understanding of the whole situation.
- Lindsay Gibson’s book Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents has good information on how to establish better relationships with emotionally immature parents as an adult, if the parents are not dangerous to be around.
- This article is informed by Ann Weiser Cornell’s and Barbara McGavin’s Untangling and Treasure Maps of the Soul work.