How I Overcame (And Am Still Overcoming) A Lifelong Fear Of Conflict
Posted Feb 08 2014 2:49pm
“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.
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: