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Why Trauma Makes Me Avoid Conflict at All Costs

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

Disclaimer: If you are experiencing physical, emotional, verbal or sexual abuse of any kind, please seek help. Verbal abuse may include but is not limited to gaslighting, threats and intimidation, or undermining and trivialization. For a definition of the difference between conflict and verbal abuse, see the Gottman Institute.

• What is PTSD?

Let’s be honest; nobody enjoys conflict. It makes most of us uncomfortable and is often a test of any relationship. Fortunately, with good communication and emotional intelligence, most relationships can easily survive conflict and thrive through it. But… that’s not always the case. For survivors of trauma, conflict can often be so deregulating and triggering that we will avoid it at all costs. This can not only be detrimental to our own mental health, but can cause long-term damage to our relationships.

I am one of those individuals who will avoid conflict at all costs. If I sense someone getting angry or frustrated, or I hear someone’s voice getting louder, my hypervigilance kicks in. I immediately freeze and then quickly go into fawn mode to try to assuage the other person. I literally begin to feel panicked and so overwhelmed that I will do anything to make it stop. The sense of terror that sets in is almost unbearable and it immediately transforms me back into the little girl who needed to be perfect to feel loved.

But why? I’d argue that for those who have experienced trauma, the biggest factor is the feeling of loss of control. Trauma generally involves a feeling of helplessness, a sense that we no longer have any agency over our lives. This feeling can manifest in different ways, such as self-loathing, fear of abandonment and loss of trust. These are hallmark symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and when you already live in a heightened state of anxiety, the disruption of any semblance of normalcy that comes with conflict can feel absolutely chaotic. 

When I was asked by my therapist what happens in my body and what I feel when faced with conflict, I had trouble identifying it. She asked me to recall the first time I felt this way. As I tapped into the memories, I recognized a common theme. My earliest memory — I think I was around 3 years old — was of my parents fighting, screaming at one another and an image of my dad grabbing my mom’s arm violently. The next thing I knew, he was gone. Then I recalled my grandmother screaming at me when I was about 5 years old because I wasn’t taking good enough care of my pet bunnies. The next day when I got home from school, my bunnies were gone. She gave them away without telling me. I was devastated. Later, I recall my mother screaming and throwing things, my grandmother panicking and screaming back at her. As my mother raged, she physically harmed herself. My 8 or 9-year-old child-self was terrified that she’d hurt herself and while I wanted to hide, I grabbed her arm and tore the tool she was using away from her to keep her from further injuring herself. In that moment my mother was unrecognizable, a stranger, a scary monster.

The primary thing that runs through each of these examples is loss, isolation and ultimately abandonment (and a bunch of grown-ups who were not capable of handling conflict in a healthy way themselves) In my childhood, I grew to associate any conflict with being abandoned. When my therapist asked me what I was feeling inside of me in the here and now, it was this debilitating fear of abandonment. If I make someone angry or upset them in any way, I’m certain I’m going to lose them or something I love.

Knowing that the terror I feel is actually an old wound is useful, but doesn’t make it any easier to tolerate conflict. Figuring out how to disentangle that inner child from the capable adult that I am is key. But it’s so much easier said than done. As a child, being abandoned was a real and present threat of possible annihilation. But as an adult, even if I am abandoned, I will survive, even if it doesn’t feel good.

If you are a trauma survivor who fears conflict, know that you are not alone. Healing trauma is a monumental undertaking and not something that happens overnight. Often the last things to change are the ways in which we respond to others in the moment. When your trauma occurs in connection to others, the anecdote is healing through connection with others, which will inevitably involve some conflict.

Navigating the impulse to regress into our inner children is key. There are three techniques that I’ve been instructed to focus on with my therapist to help manage my conflict aversion: 

1. Grounding.

Reminding yourself that you are an adult in the here and now. Grounding exercises often involve identifying something from all five senses sight, smell, taste, sound and touch. By pulling yourself into the present, you can more easily rely on your adult self to respond to conflict rather than having your inner child hijack your feelings and behaviors.

2. Practice responding to conflict in the mirror.

I know, this one sounds and feels a little ridiculous, but having a script that you can use that you turn to automatically can help you not freeze up. It could be something as simple as, “I can’t talk to you rationally when you are upset. Let’s resume this conversation when we have both calmed down.” This will help remove you from the upset at hand and establish a safe space for a later discussion. I confess, I stink at this one and need a ton more practice.

3. Check your facts.

If your inner dialogue immediately shifts into catastrophizing about how this conflict is proof that you are a bad person or that the person you are engaging with is going to abandon you, ask yourself if there’s any merit to this story. Has that individual ever shown any indication that they would leave you because you had a spat? Has that person been there for you through good and bad times? If the answer is yes, then you know you are responding out of a regressed place.

The next time you find yourself in conflict with someone, try practicing some of these techniques. See if you can soothe that inner child long enough to tolerate the initial discomfort of the situation so that you can engage in healthy reparative conversation once you are both calm enough to listen without reacting. It could be a huge leap forward in strengthening your bond in your relationship.

Photo by Eugenia Maximova on Unsplash

Originally published: September 26, 2020
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