A Therapist’s Guide to Finally Conquering Your Fear of Conflict
As a therapist, I am good at managing emotions. Well, more precisely, I’m good at helping my clients learn to manage emotions. I’m much less successful with some of my own — especially when my emotions interact with another person’s.
I am deeply terrified of conflict. Throughout my life, I’ve done everything in my power to hide from it: I’d avoid friends or family members for days, hoping whatever issue we were dealing with would just fizzle away. And then I fell in love with someone who does not share these tendencies — at all.
Scenarios between my partner and I often play out like this: Something upsets him. He approaches me to discuss it, but as soon as I sense conflict looming, I freeze, unable to speak. He interprets my reaction as disinterest or manipulation, which leaves him feeling unheard and frustrated. I see this and become even more afraid and thus even more silent. The harder he tries to communicate how upset he is, the more aggressed upon I feel and the more panicked and frozen I become. Eventually, I escape, sometimes by literally fleeing the apartment.
Our differences likely stem from our upbringings: My partner grew up in a household where conflict was seen as a natural part of life while I came from a family where voices were only raised when someone was about to be punished. Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong, but the difference between them means that conflict now, in adulthood, feels comfortable to him and like a crisis to me.
We knew that in order to make our relationship work, we’d have to address this issue head-on. I needed to learn the skill of facing conflict, and my partner needed to learn the skill of supporting me. And so, combining my background in psychology with his love of logistics, I built a five-step plan for myself and for us. You can try it with any relationship, not just a romantic one, as long as the other person is supportive.
Why does conflict feel scary? Because it creates an involuntary biological response in our brains known as “fight or flight.” At the first sign of danger, our survival instincts take control, which is why we might immediately try to fight back, run away, or freeze in place. While human conflict has evolved — we can now fight with words instead of fists — the wiring in our brains hasn’t caught up. (Note: If you do engage in physical conflict, it’s abuse, and you should seek support.)
In psychology, when a response is not dictated by logic, reason, or common sense, it is called an irrational response. So how do we stop it? By creating a rational response. This means tapping into the slower but smarter part of the brain to understand that though you feel threatened, you are safe.
It isn’t easy. Our animal brain is much louder than our human one, and it takes time and practice to hear our rational thoughts.
Say you are facing a frightened dog. How would you calm it down? By lunging at it, screaming at it, or trying to wrestle it under control? Of course not — the animal would bite or run. Instead, you’d approach gently with relaxed body language and a quiet voice, slowly coaxing the frightened animal into believing it’s safe. This is how you should approach your fear response as well. If fight or flight is your inner terrified animal, your human brain must calmly convince it that everything is okay.
To do this, first address your physical responses. Identify what happens in your body during conflict. Do you experience an increased heart rate? Dry mouth? Tightened muscles? Does your voice become softer or louder? Learn your body’s reactions. I found that during conflict, I feel like my intestines are twisting and gravity is pushing me into the ground. And I cry.
Now consider ways to show your body that you are safe with “de-escalators.” It often helps to address the physical symptom directly. For example, if your heart rate is high, use long exhales to lower it. If your words are becoming louder and faster, lower your voice and start speaking more slowly. Your brain will begin to listen to the message it’s receiving from the body: If my symptoms are lessening, then maybe the threat is gone. The brain-to-body connection is a two-way street.
Addressing the emotional fight-or-flight response is harder, but luckily, language can act as a mental bridge between fear and rationalization. You can use mantras to directly address irrational reactions.
Begin by identifying the things you feel or think during a conflict. Are you scared? Angry? Do you feel like you’re in trouble? Write it all down. Now look at the list and consider what thoughts would make these feelings less overwhelming. One way to do this is by modifying each irrational thought so it reflects an opposite, positive one. For example, “I’m in trouble,” can become “I am not in trouble.” Or “I am not in trouble. I am an adult. This is a discussion between two equals.”
Consider the following formula: “I am [insert irrational physical reaction] because I feel [insert irrational emotional reaction]. This is okay, but [insert rational thought].” With this, a finished mantra would look like this: “I am crying because I am scared. This is okay, but there is nothing to be afraid of.” My mantras are: “Everything is okay,” and “This fear is not a stopping point but a starting point for growth.” Use language that feels like you.
The next step is to rewire your brain the way that one would program a computer: When a fear response happens, launch into de-escalation and mantras. Note that you are not trying to eliminate the fear response from occurring. You are allowing it to happen, then honing the ability to rationalize it.
Recall a past conflict. Take time visualizing the details, especially the difficult moments. As you do so, notice if your fear response starts to turn on. It won’t feel as strong as it does during a real conflict. Don’t worry, this is part of the plan.
As you continue to relive the conflict, begin to practice the physical de-escalation cues you chose. Notice what happens in your body.
When you feel ready, begin reciting one of your mantras. (You can speak it out loud or think it, whichever you prefer.) Focus on how true the words feel. Continue reciting them through the memory like a narrator telling a story. When I practice this step, I often imagine the words as a banner of soft white light, wrapping around me like a blanket. I picture it settling against me and seeping in, making my skin glow with its truth. It’s a little cheesy, but it works.
Notice how your mantra affects your fear response. Does your mind feel clearer? Do you feel more “solid,” more able to hear yourself? Does your “frightened animal” feel less cornered? That’s your rational human brain working its magic.
Take a break and repeat the exercise. Over the next several days, weeks, or months, continue visualizing, using any conflicts that come to mind. Adjust your de-escalators or mantras as necessary — the more you practice, the finer you can tune them.
Now it’s time to apply your new skills. This is tricky because you are asking your partner to have the self-discipline to pause during conflict and allow you to engage with your mantras. Be patient.
Begin by creating conflict rules together. How should you communicate if you feel unable to control your fear or if they feel unable to control their responses? Consider telling your mantras to your partner so that if you’re struggling, they can remind you of them.
My partner and I chose a hand signal for when I feel my response rising, allowing him the option to speak more calmly. We decided that before tabling a conflict for the next day, we first clearly summarize what has been talked about and our stances on the topic (this stops me from spiraling).
I’ve learned that sometimes he needs to pause a conflict and spend some time allowing himself to be angry. (Him leaving angry used to send me into a full fear response. Now I work with the mantra, “It’s okay for someone to be angry at you. You don’t need to fix it.”) And though it may seem silly, when one of us recognizes the other is working hard, we tell them, “You’re doing great.” Ultimately, even when we’re fighting, we have the same end goal: to disagree in a way that’s healthy, productive, and leads us to a resolution.
After each conflict is finished, take time to reflect. What worked? What didn’t? What was your partner’s experience? Gather data and adjust your approach.
Over time, even if your fear response still kicks in (and it might not ever completely disappear), it will feel easier to access your rational brain. Change is not a straight trajectory. You might step forward on some days and backward on others. Consider keeping a record (maybe a spreadsheet or a journal) to monitor your development.
I always tell my clients to enter into new experiences with curiosity — don’t expect to know what something will feel like until you feel it. Trust your ability to step into the uncomfortable. It’s the only way to grow.