Ever since I was a kid, I have been conflict-avoidant. Conflict didn’t feel safe, because my emotions were unwelcome and my boundaries were nonexistent. I never saw my parents modeling conflict in a healthy way, and I learned to keep my mood neutral to positive and to avoid adults when they were angry.
This is not actually how it’s supposed to be.
As children, we’re supposed to learn how to express our emotions – all of them. Even the ones we think are “bad,” like sadness, anger, and pain. And our parents, guardians, and other adults in our lives are supposed to model how to deal with those emotions in a healthy way.
But as is the case with generational trauma, a lot of our parents didn’t have it modeled for them, and so on, until you’ve got a millennial armed with therapy, self-help books, and a willingness to dive deep into their wounded history to find another way.
I truly can’t remember my parents ever having a disagreement until their very contentious divorce. I do remember that conflict resolution between my sister and I looked like forced apologies and sharing, and one time after they colored my Barbie coloring book, our mother allowed me to take one of their toys as my own.
In a healthier scenario, my hurt feelings and anger would have been validated, and my sister could have been included in a discussion to make amends. Giving me license to steal a Beanie Baby was not the move, nor did it teach me anything valuable about conflict, other than if someone hurts me I get to hurt them back.
This upbringing also made us terrified of mistakes, because those weren’t modeled either. When my sister broke a toy I got for Christmas, they hid it under my bed rather than own up to it, again because we didn’t know how to handle conflict or mistakes positively and with compassion.
If you’re reading this, you probably have a story that feels similar.
Not knowing how to handle conflict leads to people pleasing, because the easiest way to avoid conflict is to never let it happen. So you anticipate others’ needs and wants, overdeliver on them, always say yes when someone needs a favor, and fall on your own sword when someone criticizes you.
Not knowing how to handle conflict leads to toxic relationships and friendships, because you don’t know how to enforce your boundaries and you don’t communicate your own needs. When you’re avoiding conflict, bringing up something that hurt your feelings feels like risking your entire friendship or relationship and you’re more likely to stuff those feelings down and build up resentment until you hit a breaking point. This isn’t fair to either person in this scenario.
Not knowing how to handle conflict leads to self-doubt, because if you were as good a person as you tried to be, no one would ever have a problem with you. You are hypervigilant so that no one can ever find a weak spot in anything you say. You self-censor to avoid the risk of being wrong. But our growth comes from existing as our full, authentic selves and the process of learning new concepts. You cannot play small and fulfill your deepest dreams. Confidence comes from messing up and continuing anyway.
Conflict is Trust
I would love for you to get to a place where you view conflict as an opportunity to build trust and experience the depth and breadth of your relationships. Let me explain what I mean.
I had a best friend a few years ago, she had been with me through the hardest years of my life as I left an abusive marriage and recalibrated to a healthier normal. We talked every day, and we loved each other. To me, it was a deep and lifelong relationship that we both committed to.
And one day, she hurt my feelings really badly. I told her so within about 12 hours, and she apologized, we talked about where the conflict arose from, and I thought we were good to go.
But within a week or so, she started pulling away and not talking to me. I wondered what was going on but thought she was either processing our conflict or might be depressed or dealing with something personal she wasn’t ready to talk about yet. We usually talked so much, and I had just modeled healthy conflict resolution, that I did not assume it was anything I had done. I continued to reach out to her, let her know I loved her and was thinking of her, but one day I was blocked and we never spoke again.
It bothered me for years, and finally I asked a mutual friend to find out what happened. What she reported back astounded me.
I had hurt my friend’s feelings one day (unrelated to the conflict I discussed with her). And she pulled back in the hopes that I would ask what was wrong and we could discuss it. When I didn’t lead the conflict resolution, she decided our friendship had run its course.
Finding this out was devastating.
How could someone be in a committed friendship one moment and decide it was over the next, without ever talking about their hurt feelings?
In this experience, I learned that bringing a conflict up is actually an act of deep trust.
When my friend hurt my feelings, I knew that her love for me meant that she would want to know she hurt me. I told her I was hurt, with the hope and belief that we would talk about it and get back to our normal. Because when you are in relationship, conflict is not Person A vs. Person B. It’s both people vs. the conflict. We were on the same team.
But when I hurt her feelings, she didn’t feel safe bringing the conflict to me. And that hurt us both and ended our friendship. I would have apologized and made amends and done everything I could to make it right. But that conflict needed to be brought up in order for our trust to be rebuilt.
Healthy conflict is an act of trust. If you don’t trust someone to receive your hurt feelings and open a conflict, examine that. Have they modeled that they are untrustworthy of those emotions, or are you people pleasing and stuffing your emotions to a point of resentment?
Conflict is Clarity
Conflict can also provide an opportunity for clarity. Often, conflicts arise due to a mismatch in expectations. One partner says, “We need to wash the sheets,” and the other agrees, but no one takes action. Who is in the wrong? No one. This conflict is an opportunity for clarity and boundary setting.
Everyone comes from their own unique background and baggage around household chores, workplace priorities, social plans, and more.
As an autistic and disabled person, I tend to ask a lot of questions about a social engagement before committing. Who will be there? When and where is it? What is the parking like? I ask these questions because I need to know how much mental energy it’s going to take me to get there, let alone participate in the activity. But many would think my questions are rude or inappropriate. This creates a conflict, but talking about it provides clarity and can even reduce conflict in the future.
I’ve had conflicts in the workplace around my time, workload, and boundaries. It’s a big reason I am now self-employed, because I hate having to justify my ‘no.’ For example, I was Content Manager for a small creative team, co-led by our Creative Manager. The two of us onboarded three new employees in early 2020, entirely remote, at the start of the COVID pandemic.
To encourage teambuilding, we started hosting Friday afternoon team calls to do fun activities and build team rapport. Soon, this meeting caught the attention of our department manager, who wanted us to turn it into a full department meeting including the VP. I told him that if it was a full department meeting, it should be run by him. I was told, “If I want to hijack your meeting I can hijack your meeting.” This conflict did not end with clarity, it ended with the fun meeting dying a sad boring death because it was usurped. Had my manager listened to my explanation of what the meeting’s purpose was and why it worked, he would have understood why the changes he requested weren’t going to scale.
How can you use healthy conflict to bring clarity to a situation where there is a misunderstanding?
Listen in to learn more
This blog post was inspired by my recent discussion on Run Like Hell Toward Happy with Petra Vega of Create More Possibilities! Listen and subscribe to get our full conversation about why conflict can be so positive, plus way more (including how to spot jerks on Tinder).