Life Lesson – Conflict
Some time ago, along the path of intense self-discovery, I realized that I’m not good at conflict, neither the confrontation, nor the resolution. Ironic, for a litigator, yes? (You’d be surprised how many lawyers have a problem with conflict). But conflict happens in every relationship, and if you don’t know how to handle conflict in a healthy constructive way, you’re in real trouble.
What I mean, in a practical sense, is that when my feelings are hurt; when I am mistreated in some way; when a friend or loved one oversteps a boundary – I don’t say anything. I just pretend it didn’t happen. I ignore it. I shove it down, deeper and deeper. I will push it down as far as possible, and will let it rot in the depths of my psyche. I always assumed this was normal, and called it “forgiveness.” Boy, was I wrong!
Here’s how this dance goes: My friend, Jennifer, says something to me that I perceive as hurtful. It’s not malicious. It’s not intentionally hurtful. It’s just some casual comment. I feel a slight inner pang, an unpleasant but familiar twinge of something. I brush it off without saying anything. Later I replay the comment over and over in my mind. “Why did she say that? How could she think that? etc. etc.“
But I never say anything about it, and because of that, Jennifer has no idea that her comment affected me. The next time we speak she makes a similar comment. And again, that unpleasant feeling bubbles up in me. Then another comment, another comment, and pretty soon I’m in resentment-land. That’s when I become passive aggressive. It’s not fun (for me, or for Jennifer). If Jennifer has the guts to ask me if something’s wrong, I will be annoyed that she doesn’t intuitively get why I’m upset. “How could she not get it?” I think to myself. And so I punish her by saying “nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.” Let her suffer in guilt and confusion, I decide.
Sexy, right? Don’t all line up at once to be my friend!
Ultimately, Jennifer will do some innocuous thing, (which I perceive as “the final straw,”) and I lash out, in self-righteous rage, and sever the relationship entirely.
When I looked at why this happens, I realized it’s because I’m afraid to verbalize my hurt feelings when they first arise. I don’t want to appear petty. I don’t want to create drama. I don’t want unpleasantness between us. But at the heart of it, if I’m being really honest, I’m afraid that my feelings don’t matter. I’m afraid that this person doesn’t really care that they’ve upset me. It is, of course, a deep seated sense of unworthiness.
On the other side, what ends up happening, is that I don’t actually bond with people in a vulnerable way. I don’t ever allow myself to be seen, authentically. The friendship always stays at the surface level, because I don’t want to invest emotionally when I know it’s going to end in separation. I keep my distance, because I know they will just end up doing a series of hurtful things (which I won’t bring up or resolve), and I want to stay away from that drama and discomfort.
And so when I first realized this, I became embarrassed. I thought “Oh god. I’ve been acting like a complete childish jerk for so long!” (More self-judgment, which I promptly turned around). And I decided to make a note of all the places I do this – places where I don’t voice my feelings; where I don’t speak up for myself; where I am afraid of being vulnerable; where I am afraid of showing the side of me that is sensitive and scared; where I put the feelings and potential negative judgments of other people above my own. The list just grew and grew and grew.
That’s when I made the decision to stop compromising myself. I decided that I’m going to face my fears. I am going to find a way to communicate my feelings without drama, without anger, without blame, and without judgment. (This is an art-form that takes a lot of courage and practice). From now on, I am going to be honest and authentic. I am going to start valuing my own feelings. I’m going to care about my own heart. I am going to let people know when something has made me uncomfortable, and they can then value my feelings or not, that’s their business.
In my budding coaching practice, I’m starting to see that actually lots of people struggle with this. Most people are terrified of speaking honestly and vulnerably about their feelings. Their coping strategies vary, but at the root is the very same fear that their feelings aren’t valid, worthwhile, or important. Here’s the upshot: they are! Honor your feelings. Speak up for yourself in a kind, loving, and compassionate way. Be true to how you feel. If you see that you can take care of your own feelings, you will be able to bond intimately with people. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world when you allow yourself to be seen. Your heart will thank you!