Conflict panics me. Okay? There…I said it. I am the first to run for cover at the smell of conflict. Why? Because childhood trauma taught me to confuse the two. To me, having a conflict with someone means trauma. And so…avoiding conflict becomes the goal for survival.
What is the difference between conflict and trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to an intense event that threatens or causes harm.
Conflict means to clash with someone or something. An example of conflict is to disagree with someone over opposite opinions.
I joined a silver jewelry crafting club near where I live. Because I am disabled, I have to use a wheelchair. The club is not configured for wheelchairs. In fact, I was forced to park the chair next to the door to gain access to certain parts of the room. Instead of helping me, other club members complained. The wheelchair blocked their access to the door (even though there were double doors.) I drove the wheelchair too fast. I wasn’t careful backing up. I was in the way of the machines. And on and on and on. Some of these things were said to my face, others reached me second-hand. Feeling deeply betrayed, instead of embracing the conflict, going to the club president, and figuring out a solution, I fled. The truth was, some of the complaints were selfish. But some were simple logistics. I interpreted them all through the lens of trauma.
Conflict is an inevitable part of life. Trauma is not. You can have conflict without creating trauma. The terrible past lessons drive many survivors to give up and live in isolation. It makes sense. We have been hurt by the people closest to us—family. It stands to reason we would be suspicious of friendships. The church has hurt us. The institution that if operating correctly, should most closely mimic a healthy family. Over and over our experience has taught us that the thing that is supposed to offer the most protection, has been the source of our worst betrayal. How do we stop isolating and find the courage to reach for healing relationships? The following three tips may help.
1. Accept that conflict is normal
The goal of friendship is not to avoid conflict. The goal of true friendship is to avoid dysfunction and manage conflict.
2. Practice managing your own triggers and emotions
When there is conflict, survivors will be tempted to go immediately to the dark side. Self-hatred, terror, fight or flight. This leads to one of two places. Enmeshment or abandonment. Managing triggers and emotions with a clear head is a learned skill. It takes time and practice.
3. Learn how to be honest
Our families taught us that safety was found in lies. Go along to get along. Appease the narcissist in charge. That is not friendship. We have to learn how to separate human frailty from narcissism. Being honest with a narcissist will get you nowhere except more pain. Being honest with a friend deepens the relationship
The last suggestion sums up all the others. Know when to walk away. Both from yourself and from other people. Words have tremendous power and despite apologies, are the one thing you can never take back. If you feel yourself, going to the “dark side,” triggers and emotions are running the show. STOP. Take a break and let the situation breathe. Remember, every time you take a step towards healing, no matter how small, you defy trauma and embrace joy.
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Rebekah Brown, a native of the south, now resides in the Great American West. Surviving a complicated and abusive family system makes her unique writing style insightful as well as uplifting. Rebekah is the proud mother of two and grandmother of four.