For the past year, I have been speaking with other introverted people to find out, on a deeper level, what is going well and what is not going so well.
When I asked the question: “Do you have a hard time with conflict?”, 100% of the time the answer was YES! And this is also true for me.
This has been my favorite question to ask because it opened up this door, the secret door of the internal way we deal with conflict. So let’s walk through this a bit to help bring more clarity to the introverted experience of dealing with (or maybe running away from) conflict.
Take a minute to pull up a time that you were struggling with someone for how they treated you.
Maybe they ignored you, told you what to do without listening to your thoughts, made assumptions that you would help them without being asked, made negative comments to you about yourself.
Now imagine being face to face with this person and are about to tell them you are mad at them. Notice what happens in your body.
As I’m writing this, I imagine a certain family member that has caused me grief. When I imagine facing her and telling her my frustration with her actions, my heart starts to beat faster, my palms are sweaty, and the self-doubt comes in.
And this is only from the thought of confronting her!
So why do we have this reaction even before we speak up?
My working theory is that the thought is a stimulus. As introverts, we have a stronger reaction to stimulus.
Therefore it doesn’t take much to be activated. The bigger the emotion we feel, the more difficult it is to think clearly.
I’m guessing that you have had the experience of knowing exactly what you needed to say before the conversation started. But when you were telling the person the issue you were having, they told you that they disagreed with you and then you found yourself doubting your feelings, found it hard to stay clear with your thoughts, and then the conversation ended where you both agreed to do what the other person wanted.
I’ve been there so many times. Afterwards, I walk away feeling more frustrated with myself than the other person. And sometimes it has taken me a few days or even a few weeks to realize that I actually didn’t agree with them.
I will go back to the big emotion that we feel when we have to deal with conflict. The emotion – sadness, anger, frustration, fear, worry – is so big that it interferes with our thoughts. It is a really uncomfortable place to be.
The job of our brain is to protect us from discomfort so it finds a way out of this painful experience. I believe the quickest way to lessen the strong feeling is to agree with the person. When the person sees that things will go their way, they usually start to calm down. As they calm down, there is less stimulus to deal with.
The brain at some level connects being agreeable to reducing discomfort. And this can be really frustrating. I have spoken to many people who identified that they end up helping people when they actually didn’t want to. But it stopped a tense conversation. It worked short term but in the long run is more harmful.
Possible Reasons conflict is difficult
- Some of us really do like to help people. We like being able to be there when things are not going well. I know this is true for me, a large part of why I am a therapist. We don’t like to cause discomfort to others; it actually hurts us a little bit when we do this. So sometimes (or a lot of times) we sacrifice ourselves for others.
- Another reason conflict is difficult is we may have certain beliefs about who is more important. If I have needs, and you have needs, do I believe that both needs are just as valid, or do I believe that what I need is never as important as what you need? For example, your friend invites you to a festival. You have had a busy week and know that being in large group of people after the week will be too much. Your friend really wants to go with you. Ask yourself if you would say no and take care of yourself and suggest another day, or do you just plough through, ignoring your inside voice that is saying “no”?
- A common way that we each deal with conflict is by mimicking what we saw our own family do. Were people able to handle conflict respectfully? Listen to each other? Compromise? Or did they avoid and pretend that the issue isn’t happening? Or maybe one person was always allowed to be right and one person always gave in?
Some tips moving forward
- Check in with yourself on what your beliefs are about conflict (it’s helpful, it never solves anything, someone always gets hurt, I’m never listened to). Our unhelpful beliefs (if we have them) will always interfere.
- Check in with yourself to see if you want to change these beliefs. If so, sometimes change can happen because our awareness has changed. Sometimes we need to speak to a therapist to help with this if the beliefs are really strong and not helpful.
- When you are faced with conflict, beforehand, let yourself know you do have skills to deal with it. Remind yourself that you have the right to have your opinion.
- A suggestion I often make to my clients is to work on increasing their tolerance to better handle it when the person doesn’t agree with them.
Conflict is a tricky one for the more introverted, but conflict is sometimes necessary. I know in my life, some relationships did not survive because I was too agreeable, which ended up with my being resentful.
If this is an area that you struggle with, feel free to reach out to me for a complimentary call.
Tracy, a fellow introvert and therapist, helps introverted people manage anxiety, find success in the workplace, and build better relationships.