When faced with a conflict, do you suffer from the Triple As: apologizing, agreeing, and accommodating? Under pressure, are you more likely to compromise or hide your true feelings behind a tense smile or nervous laugh? Afterward, do you find yourself ruminating or losing sleep over the situation?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, conflicts in relationships trigger anxiety in you. When faced with the slightest disagreement, you may blank out, feel panic, or victimized. Until you learn to work through difficult feelings and accept that disagreements are healthy in relationships, true intimacy will remain elusive. (See How "Wanting To Be Liked" Gets You Rejected.)
What makes conflicts so upsetting? They're messy, stir up unwanted feelings, and reawaken old fears and anxieties. For example, when faced with a conflict, your heart may start to race, you may start to tremble or sweat. These bodily reactions often spring from trauma from your past; a dynamic that can make even the smallest conflicts feel paralyzing.
How You Became Conflict-Avoidant
To understand how you became conflict-avoidant, let’s take a peek into your past and examine the causes and conditions that foster conflict-avoidant behaviors:
When parents are too strict, short-tempered, or practice excessive punishing, they inundate kids with unmanageable anxiety which leaves emotional scars that don’t heal. As adults, conflicts with others reawaken this childhood trauma and can trigger panic reactions such as sweating, shaking, or heart palpitations.
Rather than confront troubling difficulties in your relationships, you turn to childhood defenses such as denial, repression, or depersonalization. To protect yourself, you may remain emotionally distant from others, end relationships abruptly, or abandon friendships without warning. Another extreme reaction is to victimize or demonize others to justify your fears. (See Healing Emotional Pain: How to Recover When Life Crushes You.)
Aggressive Peers or Siblings
Antagonistic siblings or peers easily overwhelm vulnerable children. Without an adult to step in and set boundaries, repetitive attacks from siblings or peers cause profound damage to a child’s fragile sense of self. As a result, you’re more likely to flee from conflict or overreact to it. As a child, you were never given the skills to learn to work through conflict with others positively. Consequently, as an adult, you have few tools at your disposal when relationships get rocky.
An Absent Caretaker
When a loving parent or caretaker isn’t available to soothe and calm an anxious child, that child struggles with intimacy and trust. As an adult, when a conflict arises, you’re more likely to isolate or retreat. You may appear cold, uncaring, or unreachable, but deep down you struggle with feelings of emptiness and worthlessness. Few people know the real you because you keep yourself hidden from others.
Working Through Conflicts
Every relationship is bound to hit a few snags. Here are three ways that avoiding conflict causes more conflict in relationships:
- You hide your true feelings.
- You store up frustration.
- You neglect your own needs.
Learning to work through conflict stabilizes your sense of self and boosts your confidence. Most importantly, it brings you closer to others. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Commit yourself to speaking up when confronted with a conflict or disagreement. Venting to friends via e-mail or posting comments online won’t do. You may feel momentary relief but these options offer little-to-no growth and often come off as passive-aggressive. If you feel frightened or anxious about confronting someone, bring along a friend or co-worker. It’s vital to do everything you can to address the conflict with the person directly.
Make Friends With Conflict
Avoiding conflict cuts off honest communication. Many stress-related illnesses spring from suppressed feelings and bottled-up frustrations. Accept that conflicts and disagreements are inevitable. Be assertive; instead of running from conflicts, run toward them—strive to resolve them in real-time, face to face, rather than ruminating. The more you address conflicts openly with the folks that are frustrating you, the less likely you'll struggle with bouts of depression or loneliness.
Join a Therapy Group
Therapy groups are a great place to improve your interpersonal skills, foster greater intimacy with others, and learn to resolve conflicts productively. When it comes to social anxiety or resolving conflict-avoidant tendencies, you can’t beat the power of a group. (See How Group Helps.)
From Conflict-Avoidant to Conflict-Resilient
The world is a mess because human beings don’t know how to work through conflicts peacefully. Unlike destructive impulses which seem to come naturally, the ability to resolve conflicts without resorting to emotional warfare has to be cultivated. Like any skill, it takes work. Learning to talk through conflicts takes courage, but the payoff is worth it: You'll discover new pathways in communication, closeness, and intimacy.
For additional articles or to book a workshop, visit Sean Grover's website.