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How I Overcame (And Am Still Overcoming) A Lifelong Fear Of Conflict

“Defense is the first act of war.” ~ Byron Katie

Talk about a provocative statement.

In fact, it’s a statement that might anger you. It sure did anger some of my friends on Facebook…and so I deleted it because, at the time, I didn’t know how to handle the conflict I felt inside.

My goal in sharing it here isn’t to start a debate about whether or not it’s appropriate or true, but rather to share how this statement is part of a profound change/shift I am making.

But first, some back story:

I used to be terrified of conflict. I didn’t know how to handle it. It never felt good, even if I “won.” And if I “lost” it would affect me for days. Intensely sometimes.

Like the time my stepdaughter (about 15 years ago) lied to me about something and I told my husband that I would handle it. She immediately dug her heels in, denied it, and then had what I thought was the incredible nerve to tell me she was taking her father out for lunch on Father’s Day.

My reaction (which she never knew about, thank God) was enormous. I was like a volcano spewing deep, hot, intense anger. And the tears. I cried long and hard…inconsolably.

It was so not about her lie.

Come to think of it, back then I tended to have over-the-top reactions to relatively insignificant situations.

As well, I was envious of those who were/are seemingly able to express strong opinion without fearing what others would think or say in response.

Because mostly? I was afraid that if someone disagreed with me, especially if they challenged me, it meant they didn’t like (love) or approve of me.

(Why did I even care? The answer to that is complicated.)

I thought I was weak, stupid, and undisciplined because I crumbled in the face of conflict, disagreement, or even healthy debate. I’d feel stung, chastised…like a “bad girl.” I took it oh-so-personally (even though I read The Four Agreements years ago and made a point to practice them).

If I chose to defend myself or my position, it never ended well…and if I didn’t, I felt pathetic. Because in my mind it was an either/or proposition with two choices, neither of which felt good to me.

And so I stopped sharing and engaging as much, especially in specific conversations about specific topics and with specific people, unless I felt there was NO risk, which of course, there always is.

Now, there’s more to this change than just that one provocative statement. This is a shift that has been years in the making. But that statement got me thinking about my role in conflict.

Yes…my role.

I see now that there have been times when I chose to stay in conflict (which usually showed up as me defending myself) because I wanted approval/validation/acknowledgement/apology.

I thought I was avoiding conflict when in fact, all I had done was adopted a defensive position. Because I feared it. It was something “out there” that could happen “to” me.

And then one day, fairly recently, I had an opportunity to disengage from conflict without being defensive. All it took was two words: “I understand.”

In this particular situation, I was invited (for lack of a better word) into conflict. I felt myself tense. I felt myself wanting to go for it. I had my defense all lined up and ready to go.

And in that moment I decided I didn’t need to defend myself. I didn’t need to be right. I didn’t need to explain or prove myself. I didn’t need approval or love. I saw that my defense, in this particular situation, would be the “first act of war” (war can’t exist without one party being on the defensive side).

This goes a lot deeper than “I just don’t care what people think anymore.” It has empowered me to know that I can speak my truth without having to defend myself for any reason, unless that is what I choose to do.

Now for the “how to…”

1. Practice disagreeing with someone safe.

This was for key for me. My husband is safe, as are some of my friends. I’m not suggesting that you pretend to disagree or that you do it debate-style, but rather find a subject on which you and your safe person truly do disagree and talk about it. Notice how you feel in your body. Notice what comes up in terms of your motivation. Are you trying to be right? Or aiming to be liked/loved/approved of no matter what?

2. Notice when you feel like defending yourself and ask yourself why and if it’s worth it (and sometimes it will be…and that’s okay if you’re aware that it is, indeed, your choice).

There are many invitations to be in conflict. Some are obvious and some aren’t. Some with people you know well and some with people you don’t know at all (for example, in the “comments” section of an online article). Knowing that you have the choice to accept or decline, as well as your reasons for either choice, is empowering!

3. If it’s not worth it, practice NOT defending yourself.

But what does that even look like? I can tell you what it doesn’t look like. If you find yourself wanting to respond in any of these ways – “I am not…” or “No I didn’t…” or “I never said/did…” or “I only did it because…” or “I didn’t mean to…” or “I was just trying to…” – then you’re in defense mode. And when you use responses like these, you put the other person in the authority position and give him or her more power.

The key here is to figure out what you want and then respond accordingly. What you want will depend, of course, on the nature of your relationship with the other person. Rather than going into detail, I will provide links to some good resources on the subject:

Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill

Responding to Criticism Non-Defensively: Conversation Can Have Different Rules than War

Powerful Non-Defensive Communication

I’d love to hear about your experiences with conflict…

23 Comments

  • Posted February 9, 2014 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    OMG I love this so much. I love this SO MUCH. It sounds just like me. I love your suggestions and I’m probably going to read this 20 or so more times.

    • Karen
      Posted February 9, 2014 at 12:52 am | Permalink

      Thank you Michelle…thank you! I am probably going to read it just as many times or more, because this is still such a work in progress for me.

  • Janis
    Posted February 9, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I have a somewhat controversial response, and I really don’t want it to be … but it’s something I’ve noticed and experienced myself.

    People who want to avoid conflict generally simply aim their anger downwards or at least laterally. For women, this all too often translates as swallowing their anger toward their husband or another man, and then letting loose at a woman or a child. They fear punishment from a male authority figure, but eventually it all has to boil over somehow, and it will do so at what they deem a “safe” target: another woman, or a little kid.

    This is part of what’s dangerous about this attitude of “I hate conflict.” It generally just results in sh*t rolling downhill, because of course the anger can’t just be endlessly swallowed. Eventually, it will come out, and it will never be aimed upward by someone who “hates conflict,” meaning someone who fears punishment for expressing themselves. :-( It’s a shame how complicated this can get.

    • Karen
      Posted February 9, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      Not controversial at all Janis…and I really appreciate your comments. I tended to aim my anger inward. There were times when I pointed it at others and, in a couple of cases I became well-aware of what I was doing an apologized. I am learning to not hate or fear conflict and I am proud of myself for how far I have come!

  • Posted February 10, 2014 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    I struggle with conflict (including conflict between others around me). Like you, it’s my reaction that’s the problem.

    I used to think that fighting or arguing with someone meant that the relationship was over and there was no going back from it. That’s changed a little but I still avoid conflict at all costs.

    I do get defensive, but I also become self-deprecating to force myself into a retreat. Even if I think I’m right. Of course I then stew over things and act out internally. I occasionally take it out on others (as suggested by Janis) but mostly I take it out on myself.

    I’ve noticed I rant about things in my blogs now more than I once used to when I played it very safe. I do get scared about the consequences but like that I’m more prepared to put forward my position.

    Just over a week or so ago I wrote a post in my blog which I knew was controversial. It was about the culling of sharks. I knew what the politically correct response was and NONE of my friends supported the act, but I felt this bizarre obligation to confess that I had no problem with it. In my blog post I said I kinda KNEW the cull was wrong, but…. I didn’t care. I only had one quite negative comment and I did feel sick for a while after reading it… but… I felt like I’d already gone to step 3. I (tried anyway) to explain my position but not defend it.

    Deb

    • Karen
      Posted February 10, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes…I get it about conflict between others. And I get taking it out on oneself.

      Something I didn’t say in writing this post is that I’d like to stretch myself a little more and write about more controversial subjects…so thank you for being a role model :-)

  • Posted February 10, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    for some reason lately IVE LOST MY DAMN MIND…and my fear of the conflict (!).
    it’s great and…not so :-)

    • Karen
      Posted February 10, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Hahahaha….

  • Kim Neville
    Posted February 10, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    This was EXCATLY what I needed this morning… thank you so much!

    • Karen
      Posted February 10, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad it resonated!

  • jules
    Posted February 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    This reminds we of a visual I was given a couple of years ago…Playing tug-o-war with another. You pull harder, yet you also get pulled into their direction. It causes struggle and draining energy. An often not thought of resolution. Drop the rope!
    It works well when the conflict within my thoughts occur. Sometimes, whatever is adding to the conflict needs to be dropped, even if for a little while to get quiet and back in touch with our own voice.

  • Posted February 10, 2014 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Wow. This is so me. Although I’ve gotten better over time, I still struggle with conflict. Thanks for helping me remember that i’m not alone.

    • Karen
      Posted February 10, 2014 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      We’re never alone Kathy…

  • Posted February 10, 2014 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Man I get this!! I think more cause some of the tough subjects like politics & religion – many of my friends have different views than me so.. I get to the point of just not discussing… other things, yes, I do get this whole post! The pulling back a lot. Great read as always Karen!

    • Karen
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 1:12 am | Permalink

      Thanks Jody…and I think that the older we get, the less tolerance we have for conflict. Well…at least some of us!

  • Posted February 12, 2014 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    When I started reading this article I was certain I had a problem with conflict but, maybe it isn’t so bad. I have a couple people that I have no chose but to deal with that are always looking for an argument with me and never hear me when I say my piece. I let it really bother me that I can not get my message through and so I ignore them and actually I’m not the only person that does that. I have been feeling like I was weak and failing at this because I decided not to fight back. These people actually do listen to a few other people so I figured I am doing this wrong. I showed some weakness early on and as a result I can never have my opinion listened to.

    • Karen
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 1:15 am | Permalink

      Exactly Cindy…I used to think that getting my message through was important…that it would somehow make everything okay, but then I realized that it really didn’t matter any more. There’s freedom in that!

  • Georgia
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    Great post! divine timing. Confrontation is a huge risk at times. Will you lose respect,and the appreciation of others if you flat out disagree. I am in a process of realizing that no most often, it is better to agree to disagree on certain subjects. And also the last word does not have to be mine. When I feel pushed into a confrontation I know there is usually more at work than the issue at hand.
    Georgia

    • Karen
      Posted February 23, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      “The last word does not have to be mine.” Yes. And thank you for this…it provides and additional layer of understanding to the whole thing for me.

  • Posted February 23, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m a little late as I almost sent you a rambling email on the subject but then I know you know I totally understand on this as we are so similar in this regard. I will be seeing my best friend next week and I’m really keeping in mind that I love her and I also have really been focusing on “I want what you want for you” with everyone in my life as this leaves me not in conflict with anyone since we all do want different things for ourselves. It’s also helping me to let go of friendships or put them on hold without feeling hurt. It’s made me really look at friendships in a whole new way and what emotions and feelings I’ve put on some friendships that don’t belong there. Your posts always make me think and make me question parts of myself that need work. I’m hopeful when I see my girlfriend that I will have just love in my heart and not have any conflict with her.

    We need to skype soon :) would be wonderful to have a good heart to heart with you dear friend. Hard to believe we are where we are now isn’t it? You are a master at what you do though Karen and I’m so proud of you and you really do help so many with your words. You know it’s been 12 yrs of friendship for us, I can’t believe how the years have flown by. *hugs*

    • Karen
      Posted February 23, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Wow…thank your take on this. I am going to keep those words (“I want what you want for you”) in mind. Because it’s true, we can’t assume that others want what we want and I’ve been guilty of making that assumption, for sure!

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