Is your fear of conflict getting in the way of living a fulfilling life?
What is fear of conflict/conflict anxiety?
A conflict is a situation in which there is an active disagreement between people. This may occur when people express incompatible or opposing opinions or principles, or as a result of having to make a decision about something.
When someone has conflict anxiety their fear of and reaction to conflict is elevated. They may see conflict as being innately ‘bad’ and imagine that getting involved in a conflict would mean getting into arguments, opposition, resistance or even fighting. They may also associate conflict with negative emotions such as anger, resentment, upset and disappointment. People often assume they know what the other person is going to say, so in order to avoid this, they are more likely to postpone having any conversation which they think might lead to conflict.
What are the symptoms and consequences for people?
If you fear conflict you may feel worried about saying something that others won’t agree with or fear acting in a way that you think will annoy people.
Here are some signs that you have a fear of conflict:
There’s something on your mind and it feels like there’s never a good time to bring it up.
You feel resentful towards others
You are scared of others’ disapproval
You feel disconnected from people
You find yourself withdrawing from others
You feel like you’ve been wronged
You feel anxious when you think about addressing a particular issue with someone
You are concerned about being judged and rejected by others
You are worried you might “get in trouble” with someone
You find yourself apologizing, agreeing and accommodating rather than expressing your true thoughts and feelings
So, what is it that makes conflicts so distressing? They're often complicated, unpredictable and they stir up difficult feelings. They may reawaken past fears and anxieties. You may also experience unpleasant physical sensations such as: racing heart, trembling and sweating.
Avoiding conflict actually makes things more difficult for you in the long run. It may affect the quality of your relationships both personally and professionally. Here are several ways that avoiding conflict can lead to more conflict in relationships:
You hide your true feelings
You store pent-up frustration
You neglect your own needs and don’t get them met
What are the underlying causes of conflict anxiety?
There are a variety of reasons why people avoid conflict. It may partly be a feeling that you don’t know what to say, or that you are trying to avoid offending or hurting others. You may not feel confident in expressing yourself or challenging others.
Another reason why people avoid conflict is to reduce the emotional impact of actually expressing their needs. However, it often takes more energy to avoid conflict than to articulate what it is that you want.
Childhood experiences also shape us, and there are particular factors which contribute to developing a fear of conflict:
Experience of overly strict or harsh parenting styles
Having siblings who were antagonistic
The absence of a loving caring care taker
These experiences could have conditioned you to believe that disagreeing or arguing about anything is dangerous or harmful. You may think it makes you vulnerable, or exposes you to the potential disappointment and negative reactions or feelings of others. These kind of childhood experiences are more likely to leave you lacking in the skills needed to work through conflict with others, as well as less able to manage your emotions, deal with difficult situations and calm your anxieties.
Although avoiding conflict reduces anxiety in the short term, in the long term it perpetuates your fear that you can't handle situations which involve conflict.
So, the first step in addressing conflict avoidance is to recognize the fact that you’re avoiding it. Try to recognize some of the feelings that you experience in your relationships and interactions with others when you begin to sense a conflict...Do you become irritable or anxious? Do you withdraw from people or situations? What other thoughts and feelings do you have?
Now consider what the consequences of not engaging in a particular conversation are... Write down the problems you experience when you avoid confrontation. Perhaps you go home from work feeling stressed out. Or maybe your relationship with someone close to you becomes more and more difficult to navigate, especially if that person often behaves in a way that hurts your feelings, and this goes un-challenged.
Using “I” statements is more effective in communicating your thoughts, needs and feelings as it helps you take ownership of what you are saying instead of sounding like you are blaming or criticising the other person... So, rather than saying to someone, “You come across as arrogant in meetings and it doesn’t look good that you turn up late,” say, “I have some concerns about the way you address certain issues, and I find it difficult when you arrive late.”
Avoid being overly accusatory; the aim is to be assertive, not aggressive.
Therapy can help you to find the underlying cause of your conflict anxiety and provide you with a set of skills and techniques which you can use to build confidence in facing your fears. As with any other skill, it takes time and hard work. One way to overcome your fear of conflict is to gradually start to face the situations that have been avoiding. It involves starting out with situations that cause you the least anxiety and eventually working up to what causes you the most fear. This process is known as exposure therapy and has its roots in a cognitive-behavioral approach.
Conflicts are an inevitable part of life as social beings, so the more you seek to address conflicts in an open and honest way, the less likely you'll be to feel depressed, anxious and loneliness. Learning to talk through conflicts takes courage, but the benefit is you can find new and more effective ways to communicate and problem solve, as well as fostering closeness and intimacy in your relationships.