Written by Clinical Resident Houston Hough
I hate conflict. Everything about it. It feels unsettling, frustrating, embarrassing, shameful, and awkward, at least in my opinion. I have had plenty of conflict in my life and most of the time, I default to rolling over, playing dead, ensuring the other person gets what they want so that we can just move forward, in some form or fashion of peace. Yet, to be completely honest here, I don’t like that I do that because I feel like I run over and disrespect myself. This leads then to an internal conflict in which I beat myself up for not standing up for myself. Sound familiar?
What is conflict?
According to the American Psychological Association, conflict is defined as, “the occurrences of mutually antagonistic or opposing forces, including events, behaviors, desires, attitudes, and emotions.” That is a mouthful, so let’s digest it. On the most basic level, conflict is when two people don’t agree, don’t see eye-to-eye, etc, yes, you get the point. Conflict can be so small and simple (think: we don’t agree which to get, Peanut M&M’s or Peanut Butter M&M’s) to very complex conflict that can last sometimes longer than when you want (think: marital conflicts that ultimately result in divorce) and then there is everything in between.
A personal story of conflict:
I want to share two personal stories of conflict that taught me about what conflict is, and how I act in the presence of it.
First, I lived with my best friend at the time, Sam (not their real name). We lived together for 2.5 years and due to a snowball of issues (I mean we are talking about a boulder size of issues), toward the end of the 2.5 years, Sam and I had conversations about our friendship and why it was failing. I let him blame me for what happened, entirely. I mean I did what I normally did – roll over, play dead, allow him to win, and boom! Conflict over. Well kind of. We finally got to a place where I decided to move out and part ways. That was 8 years ago and we have barely contacted each other since. Healthy conflict did not exist and looking back, I realize I had no clue how to respectfully stand up for myself and advocate for me. Part of that means owning up to what I did wrong too.
Second, just a few years ago, I was in conflict again with my now best friend. There had been a series of events (yes, another snowball but not nearly as large as the first time) that escalated into some heavy conflict. When such instances arise, I often shut down, get extremely anxious, and freeze. And that’s exactly what happened. Well, until one day, my best friend asked if we could meet with two friends about 10 years older than us. I agreed, quaking in my boots as I did, thinking, “Here we go, this is the end and I can’t seem to maintain deep friendships especially when conflict arises.” I will never forget that night; it was after all the night before my birthday. Anyways, the four of us sat down for 3 hours during which my best friend and I aired out fears and pain each caused the other. The other two friends mediated. Was it hard? 100%. Was it fruitful? 1000%. This was healthy conflict to me—we aired out our dirty laundry, but we were willing to look at it, and then figured out how to wash it. That set our friendship up for tremendous success.
So then, how can we engage in healthy conflict?
I wonder about this all the time. Be reminded, I am no expert on this, but I will never forget what a friend told me once—you can never argue with an “I feel” statement. Whenever I do find myself in conflict, I always resort to this. I realize that we can argue ad nauseum about who is right/who is wrong, but no one can argue with me about how I feel.
I also have to remember this mindset when in the midst of conflict: Conflict breeds intimacy. You may have heard that, maybe not. But regardless, it’s gold. Whenever I hurt someone or vice-versa, I remind myself that this is a window to learn more about them and myself albeit ugly and painful sometimes. At least in my experience, conflict sometimes reveals the ugly parts of me that I don’t like and reject; the parts of me I think others will despise as well. Yet, here is an opportunity to love myself, accept myself—all parts of me.
What happens after conflict?
This is a good question and one that I think has to remain open-ended. How do I reconcile? How do I heal? How do I recover? Will I recover? What are my next steps?
More than anything, hold hope—hope that you will come out a stronger and better version of yourself even when you don’t feel or see it. Be patient with yourself. Learning how to deal with conflict in a healthy manner, well, takes time and practice. Lastly, please don’t run away from conflict because honestly, you will only make it worse. Face it head-on. You will thank yourself.
In wrapping this up, I leave you with this quote from Dorothy Thompson, an American Journalist: “Peace is not about the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict—alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.”
If you are wrestling with conflict, any therapist on our staff would be grateful to aid you along this journey. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Optimum Joy today!