We spend our lives trying to keep everyone happy, trying to be nice, trying to conform and fit in, trying to pacify everyone and trying not to rock the boat. The result is, we are secretly deeply unhappy. We spend our lives trying to avoid what we don’t want to have happen, instead of living according to our own sense of what we do want and the individual values we do hold. We lose our integrity in the name of trying to keep other people happy. The result of losing integrity is that our self worth plummets. We can’t live out of alignment with our own personal sense of integrity and feel good about ourselves at the same time. To not feel good about ourselves is a problem when we have to live inside our own skin everyday.
How does this fear of conflict begin? Like everything… It begins in our earliest years on the planet. In the ideal family, each member of the family is loved and accepted for who he or she uniquely is. To use a metaphor, the family is regarded like an Indian curry dish. Each unique flavor that goes into the dish is thought to enhance the dish. So the coriander does not want to convince the pepper to become coriander and the ginger does not want to convince the cumin to become ginger because it is the differences between the flavors that when combined, makes for the beauty of the dish. In this kind of household, differences are acceptable. In many families however, especially in families where parents seek to be validated through their children, difference is not acceptable. When a child in this kind of home tries to express his or her differences, they are shamed, criticized, withdrawn from or likewise punished. They are met with disapproval instead of acceptance and thus the child stands to lose love as a result of being different. These families usually revolve around one dominant or even narcissistic adult, an adult who makes his or her happiness or lack thereof the direct responsibility of everyone else. If this kind of family was an Indian curry dish, the most dominant flavor in the dish, say ginger, would be trying to turn every other flavor into ginger and there would be consequences to not becoming ginger. Consequences like shaming and even getting kicked out of the dish completely. So if we grew up in this kind of household we develop a fear of opposition of any kind. We have learned there are serious consequences for non-conformity. We experience a traumatic reaction any time there is conflict of any kind.
In relationships, if we have a conflict, this is considered a rupture in the relationship. And when we find a way to come back together and heal the rupture after it happens, that is called repair. Ruptures are inevitable in relationships. There are going to be those times in any relationship when we just don’t see eye to eye or we mistakenly say something that upsets the other person. What really matters in relationships is not our ability to avoid rupture, it is our ability to create repair once rupture has happened. This is what gives us a sense of relationship security. If we fear conflict, we have had limited experience with relationship repair. Most often what we see is that one parent in our childhood or both, were unconcerned with creating repair in the relationship. When a rupture occurred, they did not seek to solve it with us. Love was a power struggle and so they expected us to be the ones to yield and create the repair we so desperately needed by conforming to something they were wanting from us. So we had no relationship security. We spend our lives trying to avoid the rupture in all of our relationships because we feel no security that if there is rupture, there will be repair. The security of the relationship and therefore our emotional safety was entirely at the mercy of our ability to never upset this parent. In adulthood, we panic whenever a conflict arises because we’re convinced there will be no repair to the relationship. So we begin to scurry around doing anything we can to pacify all parties involved. We think we are doing this for their benefit, when in fact; we are just doing this so we can guarantee our own emotional safety, inner peace and security.
If we are truly afraid of conflict, we will avoid 2 types of situations…
1. Conflict that involves people being upset at us specifically. This is scary because of the consequences we think are going to come as a result of it. Things like permanently losing connection, feeling bad about ourselves, losing love, or being emotionally or physically punished. Most of us who fear conflict are afraid that if someone disagrees with us, especially if they challenge us, it means they don’t like, love or approve of us. And since we are a social species that registers as a threat to our survival. 2. Conflict that doesn’t directly involve you but is between other people. This is scary because we feel we are being forced to side. And by doing so, put ourselves at risk of someone being upset at us specifically and thus experiencing the consequences we are afraid of if someone is upset with us specifically. This makes us feel emotionally unsafe whenever people are upset. And we cope by trying to avoid or escape the situation.
Conflict is inevitable in life. We are all living our lives through individual perspectives and so we experience differences in opinions, experiences, preferences and ways to deal with situations. So, what we find is that we cannot avoid conflict and in fact whenever we try to avoid it, we end up deeper in it. We attract people into our lives who seem to stir up conflict. This is of course the universe’s way trying to get us to face and heal our issue with conflict so we can live a more fulfilling life. But when we are tiptoeing around in life, trying to avoid conflict and can’t, we set ourselves up for failure. We cannot live a life of authenticity and integrity and we cannot experience relationships that are healthy. We lose all self-respect. We also lose the respect of others. We are ironically hurting ourselves for the sake of trying to stay emotionally safe. Also, a little known fact is that we are hurting other people by avoiding conflict. There are so many ways that we hurt other people by avoiding conflict, but I’m going to list just a few of the ways for you here. First, we are setting them up to be unhappy with us by misrepresenting ourselves. If our prerogative is to express who we genuinely are and what we genuinely think instead of to tell people what they want to hear, we will end up surrounded by the people who love us for who we are and who are happy being around us. If however, our prerogative is to tell people what they want to hear, we run the risk of people who love a façade and when we can’t keep up the façade, we will have deceived them potentially into being in relationships they would not have gotten into if they would have known our true preferences and opinions and feelings. When we avoid conflict, we avoid being real in relationships and so real love is not possible. We also fall prey to being very passive aggressive and there is hardly anything worse for people that to be with someone who is passive aggressive. Also, when we avoid conflict, we often make people feel abandoned. We leave them to deal with problems alone. We are like the person who runs the minute that war is declared, leaving them on the battlefield alone. We cannot remain present with the people in our lives. This is hardly loving behavior. There is also a little known pattern that we fall into with the people we love if we are afraid of conflict. It is the classic story of the ‘turn coat’. We sacrifice the people we love for the sake of avoiding conflict. Here’s how it goes… If we have someone in our life that we have been with long enough to experience a lot of rupture and repair, we now have a sense of emotional security with them. We know we run less of a risk of losing our connection with them. So, if that person in our life gets into a conflict with someone else, we will side with the opposition and throw our loved one under the bus so to speak because the opposition is the one we cannot guarantee that we are emotionally safe from yet. Yikes!! Our loved one that we do have emotional security with becomes a pawn we use to avoid consequences from others we don’t have emotional security with.
So, now that you understand what creates a fear of conflict, what are you supposed to do about it?
1. If you fear conflict, you have got to make a serious practice of developing healthy boundaries. Your boundaries are too weak. For this reason, I want you to watch my video titled: “How To Develop Healthy Boundaries”.
2. You’ve got to see that you are going to be emotionally uncomfortable no matter if you face the conflict or avoid it. This enables us to make the decision that is the most self-loving. There are serious costs to avoiding conflict that we are not making ourselves aware of yet. We need to see that by avoiding conflict we may be temporarily escaping the discomfort of being opposed to someone we want to be in coherence with and we will avoid our fears. But if we avoid the conflict, we will most likely end up in a situation that feels less than desired by us. We will spend our time complaining, feeling resentful, ruminating on what happened, and feeling bad about ourselves because we have abandoned ourselves or others and thus are aware that we are not living authentically and with integrity. So the question to ask ourselves is… “If there is going to be discomfort either way, is avoiding the conflict worth it?” 3. You need to begin to see conflict as an opportunity instead of as a disaster. Conflict is an opportunity to become clear about yourself and your values and beliefs and desires. Conflict is the perfect breeding ground for authenticity. Every time a conflict arises, we can see it as an alarm bell that tells us… Here is an opportunity to really know yourself. Contrast (which is really all conflict is) is the only way that we can gain clarity about anything. Without the comparative experience, we would have no understanding at all. Opposition or polarity enables us to gain understanding. When conflict arises, you need to use those conflicts to ask yourself… What do I really believe? What do I really want? Why did I really do this thing or say this thing? What do I really think in this situation? And beyond the understanding, it is also an opportunity to take action to line up with your integrity and by doing so, to give yourself the message “I am going to stand by my own personal truth”. Get ready for a boost of self-confidence and self-esteem because doing this greatly deepens and improves the relationship you have with yourself. It will lead to self-trust. On that note, because self-trust is such a struggle for those of us who have a fear of conflict, I want you to watch my YouTube video titled: “How To Trust Yourself”.
4. When you experience conflict, use the immediate fear or resistance you feel in your body as an alarm bell to alert you that you have been triggered. And now, you need to really become aware of what it is exactly that you are afraid of. The most obvious thing to ask yourself about fear of conflict in general is: “What would be so bad about upsetting someone?” You also need to become aware of what it is you are afraid of in the specific conflict and directly express that fear instead of running away from the conflict. For example, if someone tells you that you have to come with them to something you don’t want to go to and you are feeling the fear come up and are tempted to say yes just to avoid the conflict, ask to have a minute to decide. Then, use that minute to decide what you are afraid of about saying No. You might discover that the fear you feel is that if you say no, they will become disappointed and withdraw from you so you lose the connection. Then challenge yourself to express that truth directly. Like this: “I really don’t want to go, but I’m afraid that if I don’t go, you will be disappointed and withdraw from me.” This is an authentic expression so you are in a space of integrity and if the friend is worth having, they will respond to that honesty with something that will reassure you of the connection. They will not require you to abandon yourself for the sake of the relationship. The more reassured you are that the conflict will not lead to permanent rupture, the easier it will be to dive right in when conflict arises. And yes, I’m asking you to be brave enough to be vulnerable like that. 5. Develop empathy for people. We need to deliberately look for the vulnerabilities and fears of other people and see their pain in order for us to not take peoples reactions personally. If we avoid conflict, we tend to take everything personally. So when conflict arises, ask yourself, “How is this person hurting?” And meditate on that long enough to see below the surface of the conflict that is arising. 6. To get in touch with what is active in your subconscious mind, you can do a practice when you feel the fear of conflict arise, where you write a letter from your child self to your adult self. But the hand you dominantly write with is wired to your adult conscious mind. So you must use the hand you do not write with. Invite your inner child to arise within you and to hold the pen and to say what he or she needs to say. If you want, you can ask your inner child questions and the inner child can answer them. For example, if I ask “Why are you feeling so scared right now”? The inner child might say, “Because if they are mad at me, I will be put in my room all alone”. Becoming conscious of these suppressed fears can really enable us to be willing to consciously face conflict and see that we are being ruled by childhood fears that are irrational in our adulthood.
7. The avoidance of conflict is all about feeling emotionally unsafe. Instead of running around manipulating other people into be happy so you can feel emotionally safe; be brave enough to take the direct route to emotional safety. Repeat after me: It’s ok to want to be emotionally safe. So ask yourself “What would make me feel emotionally safe.” Survey your life and think of all the things that make you feel emotionally safe. Maybe it’s the reassurance that you’re not going to lose someone if you voice your opinion. Maybe it’s a comfort item you have around the house. Maybe it is being touched by someone. The point is that sometimes the very thing we need in order to be able to face conflict instead of to avoid it, is to ask ourselves or to have someone else ask us “What do I need in order to feel emotionally safe enough to face this conflict instead of avoid it? And repeat after me: I am not emotionally safe with myself if I keep sacrificing myself and compromising myself to keep other people feeling happy and pacified.
8. Get in touch with your feelings. If you struggle with conflict, you are not in touch with your emotions and honestly have not learned how to deal with emotions when they arise. This is especially true relative to conflict because your emotions were not dealt with adequately by the adults in your childhood experience. You do not yet understand that conflict does not have to be the frightening, destructive, explosive or aggressive situation you are picturing in your head. Your early social training was not supportive, it was punitive. For this reason, when you become emotional, you have no idea what to do with it and when other people become emotional, you have no idea what to do with it. In order to learn what to do with your own emotions and what to do with the emotions of others, I want you to watch two of my YouTube videos. 1. How To Heal The Emotional Body. 2. Emotional Wakeup Call. 9. Develop your communication skills. The easiest way to resolve conflict and to become confident about conflict is to become confident about your ability to communicate with others. Perhaps in the future I will do an episode on how to communicate. But until then, a simple tip is to ask as many questions as you can. Questions often result in quick resolution. Questions imply openness and so they do not inspire defense. Especially focus on questions that narrow down expectations. Many conflicts arise as a result of unmet expectations, differing needs or needs that were not met. If we can identify the needs that we have that were not met, we instantly have the opportunity to find resolution; we just have to figure out how to best meet those unmet needs. Now is the time to end the cycle of sabotaging yourself and others by spending your life in avoidance mode. When it comes to conflicts, time will not make it better. Sleeping on it will not make it better. Conflicts will not go away; in fact they will only fester. The more you face conflict, the less afraid you will feel of it. You will experience the good that comes as a result of it. You will experience relationship repair. Also, the better you will feel about yourself and the better your relationships will be because you will be learning how to be completely present with yourself and with others. By becoming comfortable with conflict, you will finally be able to stand by your own personal truth squarely enough that your life will reflect your authentic self and your life experience will become one that you really want to show up for every day. And it is more than possible, it is in fact how it is supposed to be, that instead of causing us to lose our connection with others, conflict can cause our connection with others to deepen and become even more secure.