12/12/14: Dealing with Conflict

If there’s one thing you should know about me in interpersonal situations, it should be this: I hate conflict.

That is, I hate personal conflict. I could argue any scientific or political argument into the ground; I derive too much pleasure from academic debates and being right in those situations. However, when it becomes an issue of personal conflict and turns emotional, I cannot do it. My typical response to any conflict that looks like it’s turning emotional is:

“I’m sorry, you’re right, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s MY fault.”

Truth be told, it’s almost never my fault. I tend to be a very gentle and loving person who will only bring up issues if they are seriously affecting my well-being. Instead of fighting people on grey issues, I make the mistake over and over of internalizing the problem. I turn every issue I have with a person into my own fault.

I was recently conflicted with my long-distance partner, because he has procrastination issues. He would tell me we could talk in half an hour, and continue to say just a few minutes more until hours had passed and he was too tired to talk anymore. I was hurt and felt unloved, and I brought it up with him. However, instead of telling him that his behavior hurt me, I broke down and began to blame myself. If I weren’t so needy and insecure, I wouldn’t care. I told him I was sorry for being so sensitive and ridiculous and annoying.

He stopped me in my tracks, absolutely incredulous at my self-blame. Not only did he apologize profusely, but encouraged me to tell him that he was in the wrong. He wanted to be blamed; it killed him to see me hurting myself and hating on myself for issues he had caused. Discussing the problem with him and focusing on him, it turned out, made me feel infinitely better. The weight of self-blame was lifted from my chest. I wondered aloud, “Why do I blame myself? It just hurts me more. It does nothing for me; doesn’t solve the conflict, and makes me angry and depressed at myself”.

Then, weeks later, I discussed my tendency with one of my closest friends. Turns out, she does the exact same thing. We realized together why we blame ourselves for external conflicts: because we can only trust ourselves to change. I am comfortable with hurting myself, blaming myself, disciplining myself, and fixing myself. I know that I can depend on myself to make things better and to act in my own interest.

The problem is, as soon as I place blame on someone else, I lose control of the situation. I cannot dictate how another person will respond to my criticism, and I cannot make them change. If they were to remain unchanged after talking to them, I would be crushed. By not changing, it would show me that they didn’t love me. So, instead of making myself vulnerable to loneliness and losing love in my life, I internalized.

While the solution is reasonable, it was incredibly unhealthy. Every time I apologized to my partner or friends about faults I made up to explain conflict that they created, I felt a weight settle on my chest. I cried and made myself miserable. I would even bite my fingers and scratch myself, as if to prove that I was in the wrong and needed punishment. Moreover, since I wasn’t addressing the actual problem at hand, the other person, the problems could never be resolved. Everything snowballed, as unsolved problems tend to do, and I couldn’t handle it.

I now realize that by trying to save myself from vulnerability, I was guaranteeing that I would suffer from self-blame. I now know that it is better to take the chance at losing some love and rebuilding it than hating yourself. Love itself is about vulnerability; the two are inseparable. It is still not easy for me to confront people about problems I have with their behavior; I still need encouragement from my partner to be able to open up about our issues. But as I slowly learn to accept conflict, my relationships are becoming deeper and more fulfilling for everyone.

Confronting someone is not a bad thing, and does not have to lead to a fight. Conflict is necessary, even, in building healthy relationships with anyone, from family to intimate relationships. You must make yourself and your problems heard, and only then can they be solved. Only then can real love and understanding happen.

I still hate conflict, but I am on my way to incorporating it into my life. It takes practice and diligence. Right now, the most important thing for me is to state my feelings, and not apologizing. If you can eradicate “I’m sorry for my faults” from your conflict vocabulary (unless it truly is your fault), that is the first step in progress.

Here’s to healthy conflict, everyone.

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