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The role of personality: inner conflicts as burnout boosters?

Personality is not a product of chance. It is not a random bundle of characteristics that differentiates us from one another. Whether introverted or extraverted, whether spirited or balanced: we have all developed a personality which, according to Allport (1959), can be described, in addition to genetic aspects, as a “unique adaptation” to our individual environmental conditions. From a psychoanalytical point of view, the foundation of this adaptation is laid in early years and manifests itself as so-called “inner conflicts”. In this context, inner conflicts are defined as “inner-mind clashes of opposing motives” which lead to “long-lasting, fixed patterns of experience and behavior ” (working group OPD, 2011). 

In the psychodynamic diagnostic system, the OPD, 7 internal conflicts are distinguished

1. Individuation versus dependence (K1)
2. Submission versus control (K2)
3. Care versus autarky (K3)
4. Self-worth conflict (K4)
5. Conflict of guilt (K5)
6. Oedipal conflict (K6)
7. Identity conflict (K7)

In the submission versus control conflict (K2), for example, the inner motive to submit is opposed to the motivation to exercise power and control over others. If these opposing motives cannot be combined well or a balance cannot be found between them, this leads to an inner conflict. The attempt to manage this conflict can be done in an active or passive way. Depending on whether the inner conflict is managed in an active or passive mode, specific patterns manifest themselves which determine the experience and thus the behavior of a person. In the case of the submission versus control conflict (K2), submission is the passive and control is the active mode of coping.    These unconscious, inner conflicts do not necessarily have to be classified as pathogenic. However, changing environmental conditions, such as separation from one’s life partner, loss of job or conflicts at the workplace can lead to the mechanisms that help us to deal with these inner conflicts being overridden. This can then lead to the development of symptoms. Burnout, for example.

But which inner conflicts are associated with burnout?      
We investigated this question within the framework of a representative cross-sectional study with 545 employees and managers aged between 20 and 64 years. In addition, we asked ourselves what inner conflicts are associated with commitment and satisfaction at work. The results of the study showed that the passive management of inner conflicts can be classified as a vulnerability factor for the development of burnout: in particular, persons who described themselves as dependent (K1), submissive (K2), self-devaluing (K4) or prone to excessive assumption of guilt (K5) had a higher degree of burnout.
The opposite was shown for the active management of the conflicts: Particularly low burnout values were found in persons who had a tendency to self-valorization and denial of guilt. These study participants also showed higher work satisfaction and work commitment values.

Why do precisely these conflicts lead to burnout?  
The passive form of coping is characterized by the so-called object-relatedness. People who tend to dependency, submission, self-devaluation or excessive assumption of guilt are largely related to their social environment in their experience and behavior patterns. Thus, dependent and submissive persons need a counterpart on whom they can be dependent or to whom they can submit. In the case of burnout as a work-related mental disorder, the social environment at work. If this changes due to job loss or conflicts with superiors or colleagues, this mechanism can be put out of action: vulnerability becomes a disorder.
The situation is different with active coping: although people who are inclined to self-valorization and to deny their feelings of guilt are very self-centered, they too are dependent on other people. Thus, those who are always self-valorizing need the other person to be confirmed and admired. And those who deny their own feelings of guilt need a counterpart to whom they can blame. But in contrast to the passive coping, the counterpart seems to be more exchangeable here. This means that even changes in the workplace do not immediately lead to the development of symptoms – as long as a new counterpart can be found. Furthermore, these people are less inclined to admit to weaknesses such as exhaustion or low work commitment, and therefore report these less often in questionnaire surveys.

What do these results mean for you as a manager and your employees?     
The passive management of inner conflicts seems to be the greater vulnerability for the development of burnout. However, active forms of coping can also lead to the development of symptoms in the event of major changes in the workplace. The investigation of inner conflicts using the diagnostic instrument of OPD allows the targeted handling of problematic intrapsychic as well as interpersonal personality aspects within the framework of an individual coaching process. In concrete terms, this may involve identifying recurring conflict situations and developing one’s own emotional regulation skills.

Developing one’s own emotional regulation skills

There is also the possibility of looking at conflict constellations of the members of a team in the context of group coaching. Problematic team dynamics can thus be identified and dealt with. For example, people who tend to submit often look for colleagues with a strong will to power in order to be able to orientate themselves towards them. This can lead to the development of blind spots: the assessments of the submissive colleagues often go under, even if they have more expertise and would thus possibly make better decisions. This conflict dynamic then on the one hand hinders the individual development of the employee who tends to submit and on the other hand jeopardize the success of the company.

One thing is particularly crucial here: inner conflicts should not be seen as a deficiency or weakness, but rather as a creative, unique mechanism of adaptation of the psyche to the individual environmental conditions of early childhood. Mechanisms that have made us viable. And whether burnout boosters or not, these mechanisms make up what we call personality.


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Psychologist (B.Sc., M.Sc.) Leonie Derwahl
Psychologist (B.Sc., M.Sc.) Hannes Gisch