I hate conflict and I’ll do almost anything to avoid it.
I hate the way conflict feels while it’s going on, but what upsets me even more is the way it makes me feel afterward. Something in my body associates conflict with the way I felt as a child when my father would get angry with me and scream with a kind of rage that scared me.
When he was yelling, I never knew if would suddenly decide to spank me with his belt or to punish me in some other way. I never knew if his anger would cause him to stop speaking to me for a couple of weeks, which happened sometimes over absurdly tiny things. And I was in constant fear that he would start pushing or shoving me, something which rarely happened, but which always made me fear he was going to finally hurt me.
So when conflict happens today, my body goes on alert. I become aggressive in my response to the conflict. If someone is going to verbally push me, I’m going to push back — as hard as I can.
And when it’s over, I feel like a child in trouble. I’m depressed. I feel as though I’ve been a “bad boy.”
I had a brief conflict today on the phone with someone I work with. It’s not something that will matter in the long term. The details of the problem don’t matter. I don’t think I caused the problem; I’m sure he thinks he did nothing wrong, too.
It wasn’t a pleasant interaction, but it’s no different from tiny conflicts that happen between people in work situations every day. He pushed me on something and I pushed back. He didn’t like it and complained, so I pushed back again. And then it was over.
But it wasn’t over for me.
That was six hours ago, but my body is still in fight-or-flight mode. I feel tense. I feel anger, fear, guilt, shame. It’s a bizarre mix of emotions, but my body feels exactly the way I felt when I faced my father when I was in trouble.
I’m currently reading “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. We had traditionally believed that the long-term effects of abuse or trauma of any sort were all in the mind, but his research shows that such trauma causes changes in our biology. The damage stays in our bodies.
This is why people who have dealt with all sorts of trauma keep having the equivalent of flashbacks — sometimes vivid memories and sometimes simply body states such as the way I feel during conflict. It’s possible to heal this damage, but he says we have to retrain our bodies to react to the current circumstances of our lives — instead of continuing to be pulled back to a past which is long dead.
When we’re young, it’s hard for us to understand the things we need to fix in ourselves. We have no frame of reference for what’s healthy and what’s not. Whatever we’ve experienced feels normal to us, so it takes a long time to realize which things we need to fix and which things are perfectly normal.
I’ve been working for a long time — increasingly over the last 10 or 15 years — on figuring out enough about myself and my past to know what needs to change. It sometimes seems as though the process will never end, but when I look at where I started, I remember how far I’ve come.
Over the years of my adult life, I’ve dealt with conflict by avoiding it if I possibly could. When conflict was inevitable, I felt like a caged animal who was under attack. Even the mildest attack felt like extreme danger to me, so I have lashed out in aggressive ways when I felt attacked. Not physically, of course, but just verbally. And I was quite capable of hurting someone verbally when I felt attacked.
Inside, I’ve felt like the attacked child I was decades ago. Outside, I looked like a capable adult who was in complete control. So the effect was that of a scared and attacked child who had the verbal tools of a mature and confident man. That has resulted in me verbally pushing back hard against even the mildest attack — because every minor attack felt very serious to me.
I’ve learned one positive workaround, at least in one part of my life. If I love someone, I have to have a way to deal with such potential conflict. I learned very early in my life that I can’t allow myself to have that sort of conflict with someone I love. So in every relationship I’ve had that mattered to me, I’ve developed tools and strategies to defuse conflicts before they can turn into something ugly.
I simply can’t allow myself to have that sort of conflict with the person whose love I need and count upon.
The strategies have varied from one relationship to another, depending on the woman’s personality and depth of emotional understanding. But if she hasn’t been willing to understand and help deal with conflict in healthy ways, the relationship couldn’t work.
I still remember the moment when I learned that I could consciously take control of such a conflict. I was in my mid 20s and it was in a very important early relationship. I have no idea what the issue was, but something came up that made me feel attacked and I could tell she felt attacked, too. I knew we were about to have a big fight, something which had never happened with us.
It was as though time slowed down in that moment. I remember exactly where we were and what I saw around me. I remember thinking, “I can either let this turn into a fight or I can defuse it right now, depending on what I say.”
I wanted to lash out in anger about something. Instead, I interrupted the conflict and pointed out that we needed to change how we were handling this. We each climbed down from the angry place onto which we had climbed for battle — and then we worked it out as adults.
For the rest of the time we were together, we did exactly the same thing. We agreed that we would deal with conflicts before they turned into fights — and we never had what other people would consider an argument.
I haven’t learned to transfer that pattern to other relationships, probably because it works only when I trust someone completely. If I love someone and trust her — and if I feel the same love and trust from her — I can deal with conflict peacefully if she’s emotionally mature enough to do the same.
When I do have verbal confrontations with people — such as the minor one I had earlier today — I want nothing so much as to run away from everybody. I just want to be alone (or with someone I trust) in order to deal with the terrible way I’m feeling inside. Right now, there’s no one in my life who I can love and trust in that way, so I just have to withdraw and deal with the feelings alone — or maybe write about them, as is the case tonight.
I don’t know whether I’ll ever be completely over the trauma of childhood. I suspect that a lot of people are suffering from the effects of hidden childhood trauma and just haven’t admitted it to themselves yet. I’m sometimes frustrated that I haven’t healed all the damage, but I should be grateful that I’ve already spent so many years moving down the road toward healing.
I’ll never like conflict. I’ll probably always feel anxious about it. But I have to face it head-on — and learn how to handle it well — because there will always be people who clash with me about something.