“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?”
The Cost of Conflict Avoidance
When I look back at my life I can see that many of my people-pleasing behaviors derived from a fear of confrontation, conflict, and criticism. Most of my decisions, responses, behaviors, and actions were carefully planned out in order to dodge any potential conflict. I mistakenly thought that getting along with everyone made me a “better,” more likeable person. I didn’t fight, argue, or upset other people, and on the rare occasion that conflict did come knocking at my door, I always blamed myself. I’d twist myself into a pretzel in order to apologize and do whatever was necessary to make things right. Whenever I experienced confrontation, I interpreted it as there being something wrong with me—that I couldn’t “properly” manage my relationships without having conflict. I simply believed I wasn’t “nice” enough.
I held the faulty belief, for many years, that all conflict is destructive; I thought it was my responsibility to “fix” whatever problems arose in my relationships. If you’re a people pleaser, the idea that confrontation may actually be beneficial to you and your relationships probably seems totally outlandish. I get it. That’s exactly what I thought, too. You may think that conflict or confrontation are the worst possible outcomes in any given situation and should always be avoided. But what if I told you that conflict can actually be better for your relationships? What if I said that avoiding conflict can actually take a toll on your health, relationships, and ability to be happy?
If you, like me, want to no longer fear and avoid confrontation, you must first change your perception of it. If handled properly and constructively, conflict can actually be good for you and your relationships. The trick is in learning how to distinguish between constructive and destructive conflict. Conflict and differences are unavoidable in any close relationship. For closeness and intimacy to be formed and maintained, it’s important for both people to be able to speak up and express their authentic feelings. People who fear confrontation often keep from telling others what bothers them, so they can wind up feeling alone, helpless, and unheard. As psychotherapist Dr. Harriet B. Braiker says, “Happy couples handle conflict constructively to advance the goals and needs of the relationship.” People pleasers just avoid it at all costs, which keeps their relationships from reaching a deeper level.
“If you won’t acknowledge or engage in any conflict, your issues and problems have very little chance of getting solved.”
–Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that if handled correctly, conflict can be very healing and beneficial. When we don’t express ourselves, we internalize our feelings, which negatively affects our bodies, minds, and energy levels. Avoiding conflict keeps us from releasing what’s bothering us, so it starts to eat away at us. For me, suppressing my feelings meant suffering from anxiety attacks, muscle inflammation, migraines, and chronic fatigue. It takes a lot out of a person to hold onto unpleasant feelings instead of expressing them.
Fear of anger, disappointment, or confrontation tends to result in debilitating consequences—all because of an attempt to make everyone else happy. Saying “yes” when you want to say “no” and seeking approval from others is actually harmful to your health and your relationships—the same relationships you were originally working hard to protect.
When you learn how to have conflict constructively, you benefit from feeling better, because you finally experience being heard and having your feelings taken into account. This will help advance mutual understanding in your relationships and may lead to fewer problems in the future. When expressing yourself constructively, it’s helpful if you concentrate more on how you feel and think about the situation than on blaming or attacking the other person. This will help minimize the escalation of anger and create a safer environment for you to discuss your differing opinions. It’s important to remember that healthy conflict is a way to learn from your experiences in order to reduce future issues. It isn’t a new means of placing blame on yourself or the other person.
Destructive conflict is an upsetting and draining experience, so if you’ve been attempting to ignore it, that’s perfectly logical. Some people in your life may get very defensive when you bring up your concerns, making you fearful about sharing them. This will make it very difficult for you to effectively address your issues and fix what needs fixing. Below are some tips for learning to overcome this fear and share your concerns, even with defensive people.
4 Things to Remember When Overcoming Your Fear of Confrontation
1. Don’t Bury Your Feelings: Start seeing your inclination to avoid confrontation as the main indication of relationship trouble. Don’t be scared to argue constructively, and remember that it can actually be good for your relationship.
2. Conflict is Inevitable: Don’t judge yourself or think your relationship is “bad” if a conflict occurs. A certain amount of conflict is typical in any relationship. It isn’t possible to keep all your relationships conflict-free. Instead of trying to avoid conflict, you can learn how to face situations constructively, without allowing things to escalate into destructive arguments. Until they’re addressed, the same issues will keep arising.
3. Don’t Be Afraid: Your experiences have taught you to be afraid of anger, conflict, and confrontation. But you don’t need to be fearful. Instead, find effective and helpful ways to communicate how you feel when anger and conflict come up.
4. You Overestimate the Anger of Others: Your fear of confrontation causes you to overestimate how angry others will get when you express yourself to them. Some people may very well get upset; but usually, your imagination is exaggerating how angry they’ll become. Your only responsibility is to bring up, in a rational, clear manner, how you feel about a situation. How the other person responds is out of your control.
If you aren’t able to make clear what you want and express how you feel in your relationships, those relationships—and you—will suffer. They’ll lose their authenticity, honesty, and intimacy—necessary ingredients for healthy human connection. If you’re caught up in worrying about other people’s feelings, you won’t be able to express your own feelings and let people know when you’re angry, hurt, or feel violated. You’ll begin to resent other people, which will keep your relationships from flourishing. Remember, conflict isn’t a bad thing that must be avoided. When done productively, it’s an important aspect of any relationship that allows us to make meaningful connections.
Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier