Conflict Kicked Me In The Teeth
Hey, friends. It’s been a rough few days over here. The combination of pandemic stress, amplified by raising kids in multiple households who are getting pulled in and out of virtual school and quarantines seemingly minute-by-minute, the inevitable cabin fever of winter, the full moon, and probably Mercury Retrograde, that Trickster bastard, folks are on edge over here.
I’ve been directly involved, or in proximity to, an unusual amount of interpersonal conflict. Over the years I’ve learned a few things about myself and conflict. One, I have a hot and fast temper, so I have to be careful when I’m getting amped lest I hurt people, because it can happen in an instant. Standing in the middle of my own capacity for emotional carnage when the anger fades is much worse than the work I have to do to prevent my berserker-tendencies from coming out to play.
Two, when I can manage myself and just dive right into whatever is going on I can go from super-pissed to apologetic and forgiving pretty quickly. In fact, going through the entire process, from anger to resolution, tends to leave me feeling more connected and more powerful at the same time. Given the chance to discharge my anger constructively, I don’t tend to stew on things. I really hate stewing on things— harboring anger, resentment, or sadness that feels like it doesn’t have anywhere to go.
I also really hate being around people who stew on things habitually rather than addressing them calmly head-on. It makes me incredibly anxious. I never feel like I know what’s really happening. I fear that I am “in trouble” constantly, and that eventually there’s going to be an eruption, so I always have to be on my guard. That pretty much describes my former marriage, and a good chunk of my childhood. Luckily, I have some control over this, and have learned who I can, and can’t, maintain long-term relationships with.
The final thing, which became abundantly clear in the last few days, is that being in proximity to conflict, especially explosive conflict that doesn’t really have anything to do with me so I can’t step in and resolve it without making things worse, totally activates my PTSD. I can’t control it in the present, so it rockets me right back to the past.
When I first learned that there was a third trauma response— fight, flight, or freeze— so many of my emotional habits started to make sense. I have spent a tremendous amount of my life in freeze-mode. It’s not depression. I don’t feel grey, or lifeless. I feel cornered and trapped.
I’ve learned to fight— constructively, respectfully, non-violently— but when fight is not an option for me you will find me frozen in the corner of the couch, binge-watching tv, eating way too many carbs, in an emotional fetal position, waiting for it to be over. Which pretty much describes this past weekend. Fun!
It’s really hard to feel like you’re in your integrity when the thought of accomplishing simple tasks, which would involve unfreezing, is overwhelming. Or at least it is for me. For me, integrity is powerful because it emerges from wholeness. When I’m in my integrity, my trauma, my PTSD, and all of my resulting coping mechanisms, as unconstructive as they may be, are part of the picture, but they’re not the whole picture. Also in the picture is love, connection, self-confidence, and all of the work that I have done to learn how to show up in the world no matter what happens. In my integrity, I never feel stuck.
It would be so great if it were possible to only be in relationship with people who handle conflict exactly how I like to handle conflict, but the Universe has patently ignored my repeated memos on this proposal. I suspect It thinks this is a good learning strategy, to leave me with no other option but to figure out how to be connected to other people without losing myself, and thus my integrity, in the process. Bastard.
So, given the seemingly paradoxical reality that I want to love people intimately and they keep insisting on not being exactly how I want them to be so that I can feel safe and secure at all times, I’ve been reading up on conflict (in between tv binges). Specifically, I’ve been reading up on cultural differences and conflict resolution.
We all have individual temperaments that we bring to the table around how we approach conflict, as well as personal history and any resulting emotional baggage. We also have cultural backgrounds, which are often very unconscious. One of the things that culture can dictate is communication style. Communication style is a balance of the valuing of the self and the other, but it is also a balance of valuing of the individual and the community. My own tendency to prefer direct communication mirrors my cultures’ valuing of the individual more than the group. People and cultures who are more group-oriented can emphasize and encourage more roundabout ways of addressing conflict, believing that relationship and context are more important than individual needs.
Different cultures can also have different relationships to time, rules, and venue. Do we believe a specific conflict can be dealt with separate from past history or future ramifications? Do we value rules and order over feelings and relationship? How do we feel about conflict occurring in public or in private? Do we have expectations of ritual or formality around conflict? What about third-parties? Are they always a part of conflict, or never invited to the table? Culture can even dictate whether we perceive there is a conflict at all.
There’s also, always, a question of power. Who has it? Who doesn’t? Do we share power, or is there a power hierarchy that one individual or group wants to be maintained at all costs? Are there consistent consequences for initiating conflict, or for retaliation? Are consequences equitably meted out?
For me, telescoping out from the individual to the cultural when thinking about integrity and conflict helps me not to take the whole thing so personally, as if someone doing things differently from me is an intentional attempt to upset my apple cart. It also helps me remember that trying to get everyone around me to approach conflict the way I want them to doesn’t allow them to be in their integrity, which matters to me. They have their own temperament, history, and culture, their own wholeness.
I do believe, however, that there are some universal guidelines that we all have to follow if we want to maintain our integrity in conflict. First, you have to think about how you approach conflict, and why. Understanding yourself in conflict then allows you to have open conversations with the people you are in relationship with about conflict when you are not in the midst of it. No one is a mind-reader. You have to talk about it. Discussing needs, expectations, and possible pitfalls before emotions are high gives you some agreements or common understanding to call you back to each other.
Conflict is upsetting because it feels separative, like we each retreat to our respective hurt and anger and there may not be a way back together, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Conflict can be connective, and creative. We can learn things, contemplate options, that we might never have considered from a place of comfort or stasis. We can expand ourselves and deepen our respect for each other.
Conflict can stimulate positive change if we accept that it is an inevitable piece of being in relationship and make an open, conscious space for it.
Still feeling kind of tender over here, but better. Sending you all love for your tender parts.
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