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…