9 min read

On The Roots of Conflict

In these moments, I find myself feeling more and more grateful that we're getting good at having a bad time together, without letting it tear us down or turn us into enemies.
On The Roots of Conflict
Photo by Steven Coffey / Unsplash

Recently I missed a close friend's birthday, and got a good lesson on guilt and shame in the process.

Watch the video version below:

She was planning a cabin trip, but I'd just moved out of state and had a lot on my plate.

Long story short, the timing was terrible and it was nobody's fault.

Before her trip, she'd made it very clear how important it was to her to spend her birthday with people she cared about. And she'd made it very clear that I was one of the people she hoped would show.

I told her that as much as I wanted to be there, I wasn't hopeful that I'd be able to make it. Don't have high hopes for that.

She took this with grace.

After her birthday we were on the phone catching up about how the trip went.

In explaining the ups & downs of it, she admitted that one of the downs was how disappointed she felt that I couldn't be there.

She wasn't guilt-tripping. She was sharing a feeling. There is a difference.

My first impulse was to get defensive anyway, because I'm used to being guilt-tripped (or worse) in these moments. I almost let the words leave my body:

I mean, I'm sorry, but I told you I wasn't hopeful I would make it. Why would you still expect me to show?

But I caught the words before they left my mouth, and I caught the feeling that drove them.

I tucked them away (with a bookmark for later), took a breath, and re-attuned to what she'd just shared with me.

Instead of defending myself, I surrendered to a wild idea...

How about I just tell her the truth.

"I know. I'm disappointed, too. I'm sorry."

We shared the next few seconds in a present-sort-of-silence before moving on to have a perfectly normal, engaged rest of the conversation.

No love lost.

Later I spent some time reflecting on the defensiveness that initially came up for me.

I realized that I wasn't about to defend myself from her.

She was just sharing a feeling, and her feelings aren't an attack on me.

What I was defending myself from was having to feel my own guilt about her feeling.

But here's the thing:

My feelings aren't an attack on me either. I'm allowed to feel them. And I'm safe to, just like she is.

These feelings just needed space to safely exist, and so did hers.

So we gave them that space. Together. And it took a whopping 5 seconds for those feelings to move through and onward.

I'm glad we landed where we did in that few seconds of silence, but I'd be lying if I said I was always so quick to catch myself like this.

This is a work in progress. A practice.

Often enough, I do still let my defensiveness out.

And often enough, I find myself coming back after the fact to apologize, and give the other person's experience the acknowledgement and presence it deserved from the beginning.

This is okay with me. I don't expect perfection from myself on this any more than I expect it from anyone else. We're going to feel defensive sometimes.

What I do expect from myself - and everyone I surround myself with at this point - is a commitment to being aware and able to reflect on these moments.

I expect us to be committed to spending less time dying on the hill of our right to dismiss everyone for not having comfortable feelings for us. And more time learning to hold space for each others feelings whether they're comfortable for us or not.

Before ever reflecting on this, I often felt like I was defending myself from being misunderstood. A common trigger. And a big one for me.

Like, that's how I initially thought of my friend saying she was disappointed.

Why? Didn't you understand when I said I wasn't hopeful I'd make it?

But now I wonder how often I misunderstood something myself.

How often I wasn't willing to understand the (emotional) impact of my actions because I didn't have the capacity to hold my own guilt and shame concerning it.

Because that's what we're defending ourselves from when we try to defend our way out of our loved ones feeling "badly" about something we've done or not done.

Guilt and shame.

Doing the wrong thing.

Being the bad person.

This kind of defensiveness is really common for those of us who experienced shaming and other harsh punishments for making mistakes growing up.

"Mistakes = danger" is etched into a lot of our bones. And guilt and shame are the warning signs that the danger is approaching.

These feelings, guilt and shame, show up in the most inconspicuous ways. They're natural, healthy, and they're not going anywhere.

But how we react to them isn't always healthy. And it makes a lot of our relational conflicts worse than they ever needed to be.

Opportunities for accountability and holding space take a sharp left turn when we're not able to catch these moments.

In our past we were threatened, so it makes sense. But it's important to tune back into the conversation with the person in front of us, where we might realize they're not threatening us at all.

When we can't do this, the closeness we want to experience with our people withers away as a result.

Without being able to receive the other person's experience with compassion, both parties involved stop feeling emotionally safe enough to share and address their experiences - including how we experience each other.

And how we experience each other will not always be sunshine and rainbows. We need to be equipped to handle this in ways that reinforces closeness instead of turning us into enemies.

Defensiveness is also natural and forgivable.

But dying on a hill of "I disagree with how you feel, therefore I reject it" when someone's feelings aren't comfortable for us corrodes what could be a potentially fulfilling, healthy, closer, happier relationship.

At best, we land ourselves in dishonest, conflict-avoidant relationships instead.

And if this is present in all of the dynamics we're surrounded by, we end up feeling lonely and misunderstood in a room full of people we're "supposed" to feel close to.

Because nobody feels safe to really talk to us. And we, them.

When someone expresses their feelings to us, it's important to realize when we're not being threatened.

We're being shared with and confided in. Yes. Even if the "bad" feelings are about us. They're confiding in us because they trust us and want us to care.

It's a reach for closeness. Not a hit to our ego.

When we see it this way, it helps us hold space for these moments.

Seeing it the other way doesn't bode well.

For example, if I'd defended myself in that moment for the sake of principle...

Defending how my choices "made sense" and how I gave her a heads up...

For the sake of the narrative painting me as innocent in a fight that nobody was picking with me to begin with...

My friend would've likely felt dismissed in how she felt.

I've been on the receiving end of that one too. It feels like trash.

I also know that she already understood the principle of the matter. She knew why I couldn't make it and she knew my reasons were valid. She never rejected that.

The simple truth is that understanding the other side doesn't save us from experiencing our human emotions about our side. Because our side still exists.

Many of our feelings don't give a lot of fucks about understanding somebody else's reasons for doing whatever they did that made us feel some type of way.

That's not the feeling's job. The feelings' job is to tell the person embodying them what their own needs are.

As in, my friend needed her people to show up. She expressed that. And I didn't do it.

It's appropriate and makes complete sense for her to feel sad about her need not being met.

That's the math.

This is one of the most crucial lessons I've learned and am reminded of every time I interact with humans beings.

And yes, 2+2 remains 4 even though it was also appropriate for me to focus on my own needs at the time.

There's no shame in that for either of us.

But if I'd gotten defensive?

Well, that could've quickly spiraled into me handing out shame and more "bad" feelings like candy.

She may have questioned her right to feel disappointed (as if feelings ever needed anyone's permission to exist).

Or she may have questioned her judgment in trusting me to be a safe person to share her feelings with.

And I might've questioned whether I was a "good friend" who deserved her friendship.

Or perhaps her ability to be an understanding friend to me.

None of that is resolution. And none of it has to be true.

But holding space for her sadness and mine, and my own guilt, does give us more opportunity to resolve and move forward without anyone feeling dismissed or anyone's experience being belittled.

Which is, ultimately, what happened.

And these moments are good reminders for me to continue the practice. It's serving me well.

Now I hand it to you.

The Practice

Something I say to my clients often is that, platonic or otherwise, relationships are containers.

The goal is to create a container big enough to hold space for the fullest experience of both of the people in it.

This includes holding space for all of our feelings.

Feelings that don't really give a shit about context and don't ask anyone else's permission to enter the room.

Feelings that aren't here to hurt anyone, and that are simply here to help the person who's embodying them address their needs. Plain and simple.

How we go about creating dynamics that support this is up to the people involved. And it can be really hard.

But in my experience, it's also really worth it. If you want to feel safe and close with your people, emotionally and otherwise, this is the work.

These are the practices that have helped me. Choose one to start with, then come back for more when you're ready:

  • Practice pausing when you feel defensive.
  • Practice noticing the difference between someone attacking you and someone confiding and confessing an uncomfortable feeling to you.
  • Practice remembering how vulnerable that feels.
  • Practice remembering their feelings aren't an attack on you.
  • Practice empathizing with the other person's feelings, and letting the details of the situation go for a moment. That's not the topic of conversation. The topic is how they feel, and their feelings are about their needs. Not your narrative.
  • Practice holding space for your own guilt & shame instead of projecting it onto the person who triggered it to push their feelings back and away from you.
  • Practice letting it be okay that you're not going to be perfect at this. None of us are, and we all need grace for that.
  • Practice using those missed opportunities for accountability. Take the initiative to bring it back up later and let the other person know that you've been reflecting on it, feel differently now, and acknowledge what they were actually trying to say to you. Tell them that you understand now and are working on getting better at this. Try not to have people chasing you around for accountability.

I tend to surround myself with people I have a good time with. I've always been grateful for that.

But in these moments, I find myself feeling more and more grateful that we're getting good at having a bad time together, too, without letting it tear us down or turn us into enemies.


P.S. In my last article I announced that I'd be building an online community with courses and other resources. A membership program where I'd work closely with the group.

Within that will be education on conflict resolution, and how to hold space for our own guilt and shame so we can regulate it better in conflict, among other things.

I'll have more details coming soon, but you can sign up for the waitlist now.

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