I developed an intense fear of conflict when I was young, and it has hung around with me for a long time. The fear evolved as a series of things led to each other: I used to find the fights between my parents very frightening as a kid, and never experienced any of their conflicts actually being resolved. Conflict was scary, and never seemed to have a positive outcome. My parent's anger during conflict always felt out of control and destructive to me, so I decided that anger was a bad emotion to be suppressed at all costs. Plus my religion taught me to “turn the other cheek” rather than to stand up for myself when I was being treated in ways that I didn't like. As an awkward, sensitive boy I was bullied mercilessly at my sport-oriented all-boys high school.
So the message I internalised was that conflict was scary and often led to me getting hurt. I developed an intense fear of conflict: Any time I was under threat or being criticised, I would collapse into sadness or be overwhelmed with fear. I didn't know how to utilise my anger to stand up for myself in times of conflict, nor had I been taught the communication skills to resolve conflict in a win/win manner that left me feeling empowered.
Once we've internalised negative experiences of conflict in our nervous systems, our default programming around conflict can be to run away from it, and it can be a challenge to reprogram our brain and nervous system to step up in the face of conflict, instead of fleeing from it.
Standing up for ourselves in the face of conflict is how we overcome the fear of it.
Recently I began doing volunteer work for a charity that provides music and yoga for disadvantaged people. I now have a regular weekly gig playing guitar for a group of adolescents with Downs Syndrome. It's usually a lot of fun because the young people really love getting up and dancing to the music, and it's a great environment for me to overcome my nerves about playing in front of an audience.
A say “usually” because it doesn't always go the way I would like. At a recent gig one of the leaders of the organisation that runs the centre was joking around in a silly voice and making comments that didn't feel good for me. Our intention is that the music sessions be fun and informal so it wasn't the joking around that bothered me, but the specific things that he was saying were triggering for me. In between songs this guy, let's call him John, would make remarks that I found off-putting; and I found my energy collapse. Suddenly I was back being bullied in high school again.
After a few songs I felt like I'd rather have stayed in bed instead of putting the effort in to play music for these guys. “Why am I even bothering? I didn't come here to be treated like this!”, I thought. I started to feel angry and upset. I didn't know what to say at the time, so I just kept playing with the other musicians, hoping that it would all end soon.
At the end of the session, I faced a key choice: do I go home (or rather, go to the next gig, since we had another scheduled that afternoon) feeling resentful and upset, or do I go up to John and say something to him about how his behaviour was impacting me. I felt nervous about confronting John, but I also felt terrible about the idea of just letting this slide.
I definitely didn't want to have to go through it again next week, and I figured that since I coach other people about being assertive in situations like this, I really needed to walk my talk and stand up for myself. Being a confidence coach has taught me that the times when we're triggered by other people in the present moment are opportunities to heal the damage that's been done to us in the past.
Before deciding what to do, I ran the question “Is it safe?” through my head. Conflict has never felt safe to me, so I could accept that I might feel nervous about confronting John. But I thought “Well, this organisation is set up to care for people, so it's supposed to be a safe, caring environment. John doesn't know what my particular sensitivities are, so if I give him the benefit of the doubt, I'd have to assume that he's a caring person and is likely to respond in a reasonable manner if I tell him how I feel. I'm not actually back in high school here, even if my nervous system can't tell the difference. And if the interaction with John were to go badly, both the organisations we're working for probably have some kind of grievance procedure that could help us resolve the problem if the worst came to the worst. This is about as safe a real-world environment as I'm ever likely to get to overcome my fear of conflict.”
So although I felt nervous, when the session was over I pulled John aside and said “Can I have a quick word with you?”
“Sure”, he said.
My heart started racing about this point.
“I'm being triggered by some of the things that you're saying during the session.", I said as calmly as I could, "I know that your intention is to play and have fun, but the words you're using are not landing well with me. I really want to play and have fun with you too, but we need to find a way to do that which feels good for both of us. I'm not entirely sure how to make that happen.”
John was clearly concerned and had no idea how his behaviour had been impacting me. He replied sounding concerned: “Well we could start by having me apologise. What was it that I said that bothered you?”
“It was several things, but the comment about mental illness felt particularly bad to me”, I replied.
By this point my body was shaking, as the fear of past trauma around conflict came up for me.
“I am so sorry”, John said earnestly, “That was really insensitive of me and I'm very sorry. I'm really... just so sorry.”
“I notice my body shaking”, I said, expressing what I was experiencing without judgement, “I think my fear of conflict is coming up.”
“Oh man, I'm really sorry!”, John said.
John clearly felt really guilty, and then I started to feel guilty about upsetting him. That classic old people-pleasing behaviour is just part of my old programming going off. I reminded myself “I'm not responsible for John's feelings about this. It's probably quite appropriate for him to feel guilty about what he's said. His feelings are his responsibility. This is an opportunity for both of us to deal with our own feelings; I don't need to fix it for him.”
I could see he was sincere and replied “Well, I really appreciate your apology,”
"I won't do it again, I'll be more sensitive next time", he concluded.
We ended with a quick hug, and I headed to the car for my next gig.
As I got in the car to drive away, I took some time to take a deep breath and let my nervous system process the feelings that were still running. I found myself crying as more grief and trauma about conflict and bullying came up for me. I kept taking deep breaths as the waves of sadness, anger and grief passed through me. Even though John wasn't deliberately trying to put me down or bully me, he had hit a raw nerve and exposed some trauma. While it might be tempting to think badly of him for doing so, his compassionate response when confronted allowed more of the trauma to surface and be healed.
After a few minutes of deep breathing and sobbing, the tears stopped and I felt calm enough to drive to the next gig and perform again. I later talked the incident over with a psychologist, and released even more bullying trauma that I'd been carrying for a long time.
A couple of weeks later I was back at the same venue playing guitar on stage, and since my musician colleague was running late, John picked up a guitar and joined me. I felt no resentment towards him and could enjoy being silly and mucking around with him, because I now knew on a deep level that I am safe around him. I've had the experience of resolving a problem with him, I feel more capable of facing conflict with other people generally, and I knew he wasn't going to say the sort of things that used to trigger me any more.
As a result, I felt more relaxed and free playing music at the venue than ever before. I could really throw myself into the experience knowing that I was safe; the audience responded in kind and we had the most enjoyable gig I'd ever experienced.
Standing up for myself in the face of conflict and getting a good outcome had left me feeling more confident, and my nervous system now knew that I really was in a safe place. I'd put that to the test.
This is a great example of how present-day interactions with people which don't initially seem to go so well can be opportunities to heal old wounds. We don't necessarily have to go over and over what happened in the past during therapy, because present-day experiences can trigger buried trauma and bring it to the surface to be healed. The key is to have a safe environment where we know that the outcome is going to be positive for everyone; since this is what was missing from my experience of conflict when I was very young.
A vital part of establishing that safe environment for me has been doing therapy with practitioners that I felt safe around and knew that I could trust with my feelings of anger, sadness, shame and grief; that's what gave me the confidence to step up and implement what I had learned in therapy, in the real world. Feeling safe in therapy to express feelings like anger constructively was a stepping stone towards overcoming the fear of standing up for myself in the real world.
That all-important safe environment is exactly what I now provide my clients as a confidence coach. Conflict is a part of life, and it's not ever going away; but we can fundamentally change the way we feel about it. So if you have a fear of conflict that you'd like to overcome, please drop me a line so we can line up a Skype session to leave you feeling assertively empowered in situations where conflict arises.