Why Am I So Afraid of Conflict?
Updated: Mar 21
Do you cringe whenever you hear the words conflict or confront? I know I do! I've never been great at dealing with conflict, but I have a few people in my life who are fantastic at confronting people or issues, and they are able to do it kindly and gently, with love but also with confidence. It's always left me wondering, "how are people able to do this...and why do I fear it?"
Conflict is inevitable in life. It's part of the human experience. It helps us grow, it can enhance our relationships with others, and it proves the complexity of humans and our emotions. It can give us the opportunity to express our emotional experiences and the impact people have on us. It can challenge our relationships to grow, as well as help us become better people to others.
So, the question becomes...
why are some people comfortable with confrontation,
and why do others fear it?
A lot of this has to do with how our parents shaped our worldview about conflict and confrontation, and how that worldview has followed us into adulthood. Let's dive in!
In families, healthy conflict looks different, but it has the same base: the ability to communicate effectively/respectfully how a person's choices, decisions, and behaviors made you feel. Caregivers who encourage healthy conflict within their family unit are in tune with their own emotions and are able to express those emotions to their children in healthy ways, like using words to verbalize how they feel (i.e. "You know, if I take the time to check in with myself right now, I'm feeling really angry.") This helps their children learn two things: 1. everyone feels emotions, even their own parents and 2. it's good and normal to talk about feelings.
Our caregivers are the ones who teach us how to communicate what we're feeling, so teaching verbal expression of feelings is a really big deal! However, in order to teach this to their children, caregivers have to be in tune with their own emotions and have already developed emotional intelligence within themselves.
Caregivers who teach their children how to effectively communicate their feelings are also teaching their children that conflict isn't something to be scared of. In these families, when confrontation occurs, the caregivers are not allowing their anger to escalate to a level that is inappropriate, nor are they dismissing the feelings of the people in their family. They appropriately express how they feel while also acknowledging the validity of how their children feel. Everyone in the family unit is safe to talk about their feelings without judgement, punishment, or reprimand. Children in these families grow up to learn that confronting another person does not mean you are at risk of being emotionally or physically abandoned by that person, rather confrontation is a normal part of human existence, and it serves a beautiful purpose in relationships when done well.
Caregivers who are unable to express their own emotions in healthy ways to their children and the people around them are setting their children up to view conflict as scary and something to be avoided. An example of this is when two parents are fighting. Fighting is inevitable in relationships, but it's how we fight that makes all the difference. If two parents are fighting in front of their children and calling each other names, screaming, and using constant verbal pushdowns, children are seeing a visual representation that making your needs and emotions known to another person when they've hurt you is scary. These children become adults who choose to keep the peace rather than confront someone who's hurt them, and they fear confrontation because it means potential abandonment, physically or emotionally. They also tend to avoid vocalizing when someone's behavior makes them uncomfortable or is inappropriate because they fear it will lead to a confrontation that makes the other person uncomfortable, and they've been shown as a child that if they confront someone, they make them uncomfortable, and making someone uncomfortable has very negative consequences for them. It's a rather sad paradox.
If two parents who are fighting in front of their children are able to respectfully tell the other how they feel about something while also affirming the feelings of their partner, children learn that communicating hard feelings is healthy and is met with love and validation. These children become adults who understand that confrontation can be challenging, but it isn't something to be scared. They've seen that conflict can actually enhance their relationships with others.
How Do I Become Someone That Doesn't Fear Conflict Anymore?
To learn that conflict isn't something to be feared, being in safe relationships with other people is the winning ticket to overcome that fear. Safe relationships teach us that emotions are healthy and normal, we can learn to express our emotions in healthy ways, and communicating with someone when they've hurt us does not equal emotional or physical abandonment.
Is there a friend in your life who you've watched handle conflict really well? If there is, I would encourage you to practice confronting a situation with them. It can be a completely made up situation! Practicing with a safe person can help you learn that conflict isn't something to be afraid of, because the person you're confronting is, at their core, safe, loving, and kind. They love you and want to validate you. Since they're able to handle conflict well and aren't afraid of it, they are great people for you to learn how to communicate hard feelings and emotions with!
Obviously, there are people in our lives we have to confront who are not safe, loving and kind. Confronting these types of people takes a lot inner work within ourselves first, because we have to get to a place where we understand that the reactions of others are not our responsibility. This is challenging for people who grew up in families that promoted dysfunctional conflict, because they were taught that they are responsible for the reactions of others.
The great news is you have the power to change the trajectory of your family. You can choose to move in a different direction. Your children can grow up learning that expressing emotions and how someone makes you feel is healthy and normal, and can be received with love and validation.
No matter where you are in life, you always have the choice to heal.
At Root Counseling, we help clients create a safe space where they can learn to express their emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.