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 healthy interpersonal conflict resolution.).
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. I was in real trouble!
What I mean when I say that I’m not good at conflict, 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 avoid confronting them about it like its the plague.
I don’t say anything. Avoid avoid avoid.
I just pretend it didn’t happen. I ignore it. I shove it down, deeper and deeper, as though that will make it just disappear out of existence. I will push it down as far as possible, and I will let it rot in the depths of my psyche forever. 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, I assume. It’s not intentionally hurtful. It’s just some casual comment, to which I am extremely sensitive. I feel a slight inner pang, an unpleasant but familiar twinge of something. I brush it off without saying anything.
Inevitably, later when I am at home by myself, I am haunted by the replay of the comment over and over in my mind. “Why did she say that? How could she think that? etc. etc.” I start having pretend conversations with her, trying to crawl into her mind and figure out what she meant or whether my worst assumptions are true.
But I never actually say anything about it to Jennifer, and because of that, she has absolutely 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. Again, I ignore it. Then some time later, another comment, and another comment, and pretty soon I’m in resentment-land. I start having anxiety at the thought of seeing Jennifer again. That’s when I become passive aggressive. It’s not fun (for me, or for Jennifer).
(While this post is about me and my personal flaws and failings, I should also tell you that my track record of Jennifers almost always skews narcissistic. So this isn’t entirely my fault all the time, but this post isn’t about bashing the Jennifers or blaming them. This one is about owning my end of the problem.).
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. Somehow in my mind, withholding the truth of how I feel has turned into a weapon, which I’m using to hurt her? I don’t know. It doesn’t make a lot of sense when I say it out loud, but that’s the truth of what I do.
Sexy, right? Don’t all line up at once to be my friend! I’m pretty sure that I acquired this pattern of relating when I was four years old.
Ultimately, Jennifer will do some innocuous mildly offensive 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. I don’t know how to address it, and I don’t know how to begin to manage that interaction. Mostly, I feel guilty that my feelings are hurt to begin with. 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, and if I bring it up they will just invalidate my hurt feelings or dismiss me. Or worse yet, they will explode in reactionary anger. This is, of course, my deep-seated sense of unworthiness, some traumatic stuff, and a whole bunch of dysfunctional relating patterns.
On the other side, what ends up happening, is that I don’t actually connect 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.
So, 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. Alternatively, I will tell them my feelings are hurt, they will invalidate or dismiss them or get angry, and that will just make everything worse.
The world I live in is so fun!!
And so when I first realized this, and learned that there was an entire set of healthy relationship dynamics that don’t operate on destruction, and that there are human beings in the world who carefully and conscientiously practice healthy conflict, I became really 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).
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. It wanted to fix it, but it was like a toxic fungus everywhere. It was very sad.
That’s when I made the decision to stop compromising myself entirely. It was going to require a complete revolution inside. I would have to re-align my loyalty with my own heart, rather than with the feelings of other people around me. I would have to actually care about my own feelings, and give them value, without waiting for someone else to do that for me. I decided that I’m going to stop being a coward, stop betraying myself, and face my fears (and scary destructive relationships) head-on. 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. (If they don’t value my feelings, that’s usually a great relationship red flag.).
I found a ton of books and methods that helped me find a way to communicate my feelings without escalating drama, without anger, without blame, and without judgment. (This is an art-form that takes a lot of courage and practice).
As I started sharing my personal revolution with others, it turns out that actually lots of people struggle with this. Most people are terrified of speaking honestly and vulnerably about their feelings. Good, kind, decent people also avoid conflict like the plague!! I am not alone. 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, if you haven’t figured it out by now, your feelings are really really important! Honor your feelings. Speak up for yourself in a kind, loving, and compassionate way. Be true to how you feel by allowing it to be expressed. If you see that you can take care of your own feelings, you will be better able to bond intimately and more deeply with other emotionally safe people. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world when you find the courage to allow yourself to be really seen. Your heart will thank you!