Learning to Live as a Conflict Avoidant 

It came as no great surprise to me recently when my therapists (that’s right, PLURAL) told me that I am ‘conflict avoidant’. If you need a crash course on conflict styles, google it and catch up because I’m going to jump straight to the point: I do not like conflict. If I’m being honest, conflict feels like a creature with a thousand claws is scratching down my shoulders and squeezing my neck until I choke. But thankfully, through therapy and a hefty tool box of mental exercises, I’ve (kinda) tamed that creature and have made it (somewhat) my bitch.

Like all conflict styles, being Conflict Avoidant (CA) is no better or worse than the others. Every human being has a different manner in which they deal with conflict, and all manners have pros and cons. However it seems that humans get really frustrated when different styles of conflict are confronted by one another. I know this because I maintain close relationships, and each person has a different conflict style than myself. Some are easier to manage, while others often get tangled up in a mess. It’s a work in progress learning how to dance with each style.

I can only speak from my own experience being CA, so I try to be understanding of all other conflict types. I feel that as a CA, I’m far easier intimidated and am more susceptible to pressure and persuasion. I have often found that when I’m in situations of conflict in which the person I’m arguing with has a stronger personality and (perhaps) thicker skin, I often give up or give in. It’s rarely because I agree with the other person’s argument or I’ve changed my mind; it’s always because I can’t stand the pressure of conflict, I always feel like I’m about to suffocate and/or cry. 

This is really hard for me to write about, as it’s really my biggest fault. Standing up for myself is a huge overwhelming effort, one that I can pull off once in a blue moon but leaves me drained for weeks. More often than not when faced with conflict, I back down and walk away because I don’t want the negativity to germinate in my chest and take over. It’s just always been easier that way.

I think the reason I’m writing about my biggest weakness is because I’ve been examining self-esteem lately. My therapist has been asking me for ages, ‘where does your self-esteem come from?’ And I’ve never had a really good answer. Every answer I gave was half-hearted or desperate guesses, I’ve never really been sure where it came from. After recently going through some rough patches and putting my frustrations under a microscope, I had the answer: Solitude.

Two years ago, I moved into my own apartment. I had never lived alone before, after high school I went to college where I had a string of roommates then moved back in with my parents post-undergrad. Living with my parents for a year in my twenties was both a blessing and a HUGE pain in the rear. Sure, I was in my twenties and I was an adult. I had finally quit my soul-sucking job selling shoes at Macy’s to work for a school district that paid me better and didn’t make me hate humanity. But I still had that awkward need to ‘ask’ my parents permission before going out late, and when I got into a serious relationship that meant ‘sleepovers’ I was ready to leave the nest. I was ready to be on my own to fly.

I am very blessed to have been living alone for two years in my apartment now. My true introverted self flourished in my solitude, and there I finally met my true self and called her friend. I still live close to my family and have sleepovers with my boyfriend, but being alone has really allowed me to find myself and where my true strengths lie. I’ve set up an etsy business that I’m slowly (because I’m absolutely terrified) branching out into farmers markets, I’ve embraced my desire to make art, and I’ve learned how to clean the toilet (are you proud of me yet, Mum?).

I imagine you can see how my self-esteem is now so well matched with my weakness. They often hold hands as they skip through the minefield of emotions I experience on a daily basis. In my solitude I can find clarity and thought in any issue I’m presented with, but being CA often means I take longer to respond to an issue than others. When immediately confronted with conflict, I’ll often back down and give in to find some immediate peace, only to later examine the situation in solitude and find thoughts that I wish I’d shared earlier. My need to sit on any issue to mull over in solitude has cost me many relationships with impatient individuals; ones that were more open to conflict than myself, but I ultimately wouldn’t miss. 

I’ve gathered some tools lately to help me bear out being CA. First is the word “safe”, there is more power in that word than any superpower found in the Marvel Universe. I telling someone “I don’t feel safe in this conversation…” or “I don’t feel safe when…” automatically stops the other person. Unless they’re a real asshole, no person wants to be told that they make someone feel unsafe. It’s a terrible feeling! Because if someone doesn’t feel safe talking to you, that means you are not a safe person. Unless you’re a psychopath (in which cast, stop reading my blog and go get some help), no one wants to make people feel unsafe. I know that if I tell someone, “I don’t feel safe right now,” they cannot tell me I’m wrong. They are my feelings, and they are 100% valid. Anyone who tries to invalidate someone’s safety is an asshole.

My second tool comes on the heels of the first, and that is using statements that start with “I feel…” I have found that in using statements such as “that makes me feel…” or “When you did this, it made me feel…” you have already blamed the other person for whatever it is they’ve done. In stating “I feel…” You are taking ownership of your feelings and where you stand in any given situation.

The thirst tool is time.  This can be both a healing balm, or a slow poisonous death. Taking time to step back from a conflict to think and gain insight can present better solutions, but if the wait is too long the other person may grow impatient. Not all conflict can be dealt in the heat of the moment, but neither can they be left on the back burner forever. There is a mastery to asking for time to examine the conflict, the returning to it later enough that insight has been gained but the battle hasn’t been abandoned. This tool is one I’m still training, as being CA often means letting conflicts drop and pretending they don’t exist anymore. 

I’m still learning how not to see being CA as a weakness, but the setbacks tend to be debilitating. I am learning how to turn conflict into conversation; choosing to share feelings and ideas with others rather than engage in a battle of words that leave me with wounds more painful than the victory itself. This doesn’t always work, especially when the other person isn’t open to receiving feelings and thoughts with respect and mindfulness. However it can be a start to giving myself some inner peace in trying to resolve conflict in a non-hostile manner.
That’s not to say I’m now perfect; I’m still the queen of passive aggressive anger. I will cold-shoulder the hell out of you if you so much as think about hurting a loved one or stealing my food. I also make poor judgement calls, and I don’t think I’ll ever have any volume control. But I am trying to do the best I can with the tools I have to make daily conflicts more bearable to deal with. I’m learning how to embrace being CA without beating myself up over the setbacks. It has been, by far, the hardest task I’ve yet to face, but not one I’m willing to give up on. 
Follow on twitter @JoyPearson

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