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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Graduation

My therapist and I sat in silence. The silences don’t normally last long, I always find something to fill it with; an observation about a film I’d just saw, a complaint about the tone of voice a coworker used, something or other got under my skin, whatever. 

This silence lasted longer. I couldn’t think of what else to say. I talked about all I had that was on my mind, most of it I was able to solve myself within the same amount of time it took for me to describe the ailment. So I fidgeted in anxious silence, and she leaned forward, “So, shall we talk about our work here?”

I felt the air in my lungs grow still; I knew that one day this was going to happen, but it always felt too soon. The thing about therapy is that it becomes a security blanket. Whenever something awful happened or a panic attack sent me into isolation, I knew that come Wednesday I would be seeing my therapist to dig and work through the problem like a cleaning out a fresh scrape on the knee: it stings and it’s painful, but it’s bandaged up in the end to begin healing. 

Now, my wounds have long scabbed over and healed; some of them left scars behind, but they’re nothing that I can’t sooth with some Louis Armstrong and a long hot bath. The nicks and cuts I get here and there I find myself treating with my box of tools I’ve been searching and gathering for in therapy. 

The smile in her eyes told me she knew I was ready, but still fear and anxiety clawed up from my chest and into my throat. She tells me clients normally slow down to an appointment once every two weeks before termination. I nod in agreement, though my chest and throat are chocking on anxious smoke. ‘Termination’ makes it sound like I’m being prepared for euthanasia.

I leave her office 20 minutes early in a stupor. I can hear my anxiety smoking nearby and calling out, “She doesn’t want to see you anymore. She’s terminating you!” but her smoke is far out of my air space so it doesn’t effect me. 

I recognize this is a good thing. I came into her broken, now I’m healed and taking care of myself once again. But like a security blanket, I don’t want to let her go in case I start to fall. 

I’m at the start of a new journey; I have two weeks from now to go out on my own and handle my baggage alone. When the baggage first arrived, I wasn’t given an instructional guide or a map. I was being told to move, but I had no idea where or how to move. So I went to therapy and gradually got a tool box and filled it up. Now, I have a rough idea of where I’m going and how I’m going to get there, and I’ve got the tools with me to fix any problem that comes my way. 

For all I know, next week something will happen and I’ll revert back to my weekly sessions. But for now, I’m going to be painfully optimistic and set out to take on my mental/emotional health battles with my toolbox at hand. 

Emotional balloon

You ever have a day where you can only describe the way you feel as deflated? It’s the only word I can think to describe how depression effects me. At one point, I had a (metaphorical) balloon; it was full and light and floated up towards the sky happily. Some people have never had their balloons deflate, they’ve remained afloat their entire lives. For me, depression makes mine deflate.

At some point, small holes were poked into my balloon that began slowly releasing air. About two years ago, my balloon was deflated completely and I had to carry it in my hands instead. Before you tell me to just throw out the deflated thing, you have to know that it is a part of me, it’s what holds my motivations, hopes, dreams. I can’t throw those away without losing a huge part of myself.

For months I had been performing CPR on my balloon, blowing it up futilely to only have it float sadly to the ground after a few hours. Fast forward two years, my balloon is patched up and covered in bandages, floating happily beside me most days. However, inevitably there are days were it springs a leak and deflates again.

Today was one of those days I was deflated, my balloon sprung a leak in the morning and by early afternoon I was lagging. I’m an expert at this point at reinflating my balloon at this point, I’ve cultivated an excellent set of tools to patch up the holes.

For starters, I visited my therapist. I’ve been in therapy weekly for the past 2 years. Therapy ROCKS!! I won’t go into details of what I say in therapy (That is my private time to struggle and work out mind traps I fall into) but I am always happy to encourage people to seek therapy when struggling with mental/emotional disorders.

Meeting with my therapist helped me work out my emotions and frustrations, but I still felt absolutely drained afterwards. So what did I do? I took a ‘me’ day. I cancelled my plans to go out in the evening and made myself comfortable in my apartment, relaxing and doing things that made me happy. Lately I’ve found watching the british show, Miranda, helps inflate my balloon so I’m at least floating off the ground. I watched the Ultimate Edition of Batman Vs. Superman (It’s three. fucking. hours.) and spent hours afterwards shouting, “I WANT MY LIFE BACK”, blowing a bit of hot air that lifted my balloon yet higher off the ground.

When I see people struggling with depression, I want to encourage them to seek help in order to patch the holes in their balloons. I know how easy it sounds to just cut the tie and throw the rubber away, but that wouldn’t do any good in the end. Get the tools you need to fix the balloon and learn what to do to keep it floating. Tools are going to be different for everyone, but in the end, they’ll get that balloon off the ground.

If you’re struggling with depression and/or other disorders, ask around for a referral for a psychotherapist who you feel comfortable working with. Comfort is the key, make sure you’re comfortable letting them handle your metaphorical balloon and help you learn to cover the holes.

For now I’ll enjoy The Lizzie Bennet Diaries with my buds, Ben and Jerry, and my patched up emotional balloon.