My conflictometer is broken.
February 18, 2010 5:58 PM   Subscribe

I just walk away from conflict when it arises. I literally cannot open my mouth when someone makes me angry; instead I seethe inside and pretend like nothing is wrong..besides therapy(cannot afford it) how can I deal with this?

For example, a "friend" I had for a period of a couple of years
( a thirty three year old male btw) asked me the other day if we could just start having regular sex instead of "subjecting ourselves to this bullshit" which meant just being my friend basically. Then he tried to play it off like he was drunk. (we were talking online) I was so hurt and angry I told him I was tired and had to go. I should have told him off, instead I chose to act like nothing was wrong at all but made a mental note never to speak to him again.
Fwiw, I had told him that I did not want a sexual relationship with ANYONE when he expressed interest due to myself trying to get my head on straight before I get involved with anyone, and how that might be a long time, if ever. Pick and choose battles, right? I don't know if he was worth a confrontation but I sure am seething.

This is a pattern in my life. Instead of confronting people when they hurt me I just blow them off and never talk to them again. I feel bad about it, mostly because there is no closure. Also sometimes they are clueless that I despise them and try to contact me. What is wrong with me?!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The magic words you are looking for are "assertiveness training." I can't vouch for a particular site or book, but that will help you immeasurably.
posted by desjardins at 6:13 PM on February 18, 2010

I struggle with this too. I absolutely do the same thing - if a friend says something that hurts my feelings I've tended to just stop talking to them altogether.

One thing that will really help is practice. Start slow. Practice being assertive and confrontational on the phone with strangers - customer service reps, telemarketers, receptionists (I've worked as all three. They can take it.). Tell yourself that other people do it, so why can't you? Don't be rude, mind you - but you probably couldn't be if you tried. If possible, confront without being passive aggressive. You may flub it, but you'll never have to see or talk to that person again. You can just hang up really fast and do a vodka shot (provided you're not driving or at work).

So, if these people on the phone provide poor service or even offend you, tell them. For example, not long ago when booking a early obstetric ultrasound (to date your pregnancy) as per doctor's orders, the receptionist asked me how far along my doctor thought I was and then proceeded to tell me that it was 'too early' for me to have an ultrasound. When she patronizingly asked when my last period was, I let my voice sound as irritated as I felt and told her that if my doctor and I knew when that last period was, I wouldn't need a dating ultrasound in the first place. Yay me! Yup, that may sound pretty darn tame, but for me it was a major milestone.

From there, extend the exercise to face-to-face strangers. Next, maybe email a friend or relative who has offended you and let them know (although do this very carefully if you want to mend the relationship). Finally, talk to friends / relatives face-to-face about these things. This is all easier said than done, but you can do it. And I can too.
posted by kitcat at 6:58 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to briefly say that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I have at times had the opposite problem, and it has gotten me into some pretty dangerous situations before. Being able to just walk away as you do is an ability that it takes some people years to achieve.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:17 PM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

I do the same thing -- internalize, and try to minimize conflict. Then I just tell myself, "well that's the end of that," and cut people off completely.

What I've noticed, though, is that it's a pretty polarized take on life. And, even worse, it reflects onto the way I treat myself -- I can be really terrified of failure to the point where I stop working on things I care about. One chance, I fail, that's it.

I'm trying to be more down-to-earth about things by leaving room for mistakes and learning to verbally walk people through what I feel. Psychologists have said that, in interpersonal relationships, it can help to start sentences with "I" rather than "you," and even this one little thing has helped a lot.

Another thing that has helped a lot is that I am now in a position where I've become a volunteer counselor on the side. I used to want to make everybody happy, but now when somebody says, "I just hit my kid when he pisses me off, ha ha" I've learned to look at it as an opportunity for me to practice something I suck at: Politely interrupting and saying, "hey, I realize you might be joking, but if you're not, I gotta tell you that's the worst thing you can do. Do you really hit your kid?"

The ball is in their court. Let people take responsibility or not. But leave it in their court. You do not want to "internalize" this stuff...that can be seen as a judgment, and more often than not, will be seen as a judgment on your part.

You may not think so, but you probably need to give your well-calibrated inner voice more recognition. The things that piss you off would probably raise red flags with most other sensible people. The "drunk" suggestion your friend made makes me want to punch him in the face and tell him to have some respect, for example.

So it sounds like you have a good internal voice working for you...maybe you just need some practice with verbally expressing it. It's a great feeling to finally get the words out and stop sounding like a pushover.
posted by circular at 7:49 PM on February 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

I'd start very small, and not worry about making the confrontation happen right away. Let yourself walk away from the situation, identify what upset you and why, and then figure out how you want to talk to the person about it. When you do confront them, it's ok to make a point of bringing up what you've said here: normally when someone upsets you, you cut them off, but you don't want to do that with this person. Then, talk about what happened and why it upset you - using lots of those great "I" statements.

For what it's worth, the example you gave might provide a great opportunity for you to practice confrontation. This guy was so clearly out of line for saying what he said, but there is a chance for the friendship to remain intact if you can talk about it and he can apologize, etc.
posted by violetish at 7:59 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to briefly say that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Sure it is. Anonymous says that they are "seething", feels bad about the pattern and it is causing distress.

I have at times had the opposite problem, and it has gotten me into some pretty dangerous situations before. Being able to just walk away as you do is an ability that it takes some people years to achieve.

Overreacting or escalating is not a good way to handle difficult interactions either but Anon is not just walking away after evaluating the situation and deciding that it is the best approach (which is how what you wrote sounds to me), rather it is their default approach.
posted by mlis at 8:17 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dear OP - the way you handled the example you gave us is SPOT ON.

In this particular example, to explain or engage further would just have lead to further drama. Your "friend" may have backed off for a time, but he's sure to pressure you again, as you've already indicated this is a running theme with him. Also, his characterization of your desire not to date or have sex until you're ready as "bullshit" - this demonstrates your "friend" holds a fundamental disrespect for you. No conversation will improve that. You usually can't teach people to respect you, because their ability to do so is usually about their values, not your value. See the difference?

I can't speak to other instances of this in your life. Just wanted to point out that if this particular incident prompted your question, you did good there and no worries.
posted by jbenben at 9:12 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think two things you can think about that might help you get to the root of this are: where did you learn this and what do you get out of it? If you can nail down why you do this and where it came from that may give you clues as to how to assert yourself. Whenever we do something that seems counterproductive, there is usually some reward in it for us. The trick is identifying the better reward and denying yourself the one that does you no good at all.
posted by amanda at 9:25 PM on February 18, 2010

People before me have mentioned being more assertive. That's all good. But you can't do that all the time. You shouldn't do that all the time. So how do deal with your repressed anger?

You have to forgive the people who made you angry. Forgiveness is the antidote to seething anger. Not saying you have believe what they did was right. But you come to understand it, and you have the humility to know that you can be a jerk too.

Forgiving someone doesn't mean that you need to make them part of your life. You can forgive someone and not speak to them anymore.
posted by conrad53 at 9:27 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think closure is sometimes overrated. I ask myself, "If I confronted this person, what could they say or do that would make me feel better about this?" Frequently the answer is, "Nothing." But if there is something, I ask, "Is that likely to occur?" Frequently the answer is, "No." When that's the case, there's no real reason for confrontation, since it isn't going to lead to closure; the only closure you will get is letting it go yourself.

If someone contacts you, then I would probably say, "Look, when you did X, it hurt my feelings pretty badly, and I'm not over it." But unless X was really egregious, you're going to look petty for hanging on to it and never mentioning it.

If there's something to be gained from a confrontation -- someone honestly misstepped or misspoke or didn't realize they hurt you -- figure out what that something is, and that tends to make it a lot easier to go to the person and say, "Look, Joe, what you said really upset me, and while it may not have been intentional, it's really bothering me and I can't get past it." Chances are you'll get the apology you're after.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:27 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think what you really want is to have the person you're angry at be aware of your anger. Maybe just a "you made me really angry the other day" would be enough to get a little closure. You wouldn't be acting aggressively by doing that, but the person would have to acknowledge your emotions, and that could even start a constructive conversation. Or, if that constructive conversation doesn't happen, you can always stonewall him as you've been doing, but at least feel that you've gotten SOMETHING off your chest.
posted by gonna get a dog at 9:02 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

My pattern has been similar to yours, OP and whenver there's an opportunity for conflict, I will run so fast in the other direction, you won't even see me go. I realize now that, while I will never be the kind of person who just does a big explosive dump on another, I can give voice to how I feel as long as I do it in a way that feels okay to me. Writing an email was a good first step for me being able to speak about something that really pinged me.

In your example, if the other person you mention is a friend who did something stupid, by all means have that conversation with them. Try it in email first. Give them an opportunity to open up to you about it. If they choose not to, the choice is yours then to stay or to leave the relationship altogether.

Baby steps work, as others have suggested. My first inclination is usually to run but once I get past the fear (and it helps to have some understanding about what the fear is about), I'm able to speak up.
posted by Mysticalchick at 9:28 AM on February 19, 2010

Take a deep breath and repeat after me: It's ok to say how you feel. It's ok to say how you feel. It's ok to say how you feel.

I spent a hell of a long time being afraid of what would happen if I wasn't nice, likeable or agreeable. Nothing scared me more than disagreement or conflict. Then I got sick of being a doormat, and found out - guess what? People (including you!) will like you a lot more when you have the strength and self confidence to be who you are and stop operating out of fear.

Life gets 1000% better when you're not putting up with bullshit for the dubious benefit of having friends that really aren't*. And the thing is: when you pretend there's nothing wrong, the people who care about you are cheated of the chance to know better, and the people who don't care about you get a consequence free pass to treat you like shit. Nobody wins!

It's a hell of a lot easier said than done. A couple of things helped me - start small and give yourself a break. No pattern changes overnight. It helps to learn that conflict and disagreement can be handled calmly. It doesn't have to be a big scary blow up. The "I" statements upthread are a great nonthreatening way to get your point across. And keep in mind that the vast majority of the time, the thing you're afraid of never turns out as badly as it does in your imagination.

Good luck! It's a huge step, but it's so, so worth it.

*That guy? Not a friend. What an ass!
posted by Space Kitty at 10:46 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't know what your background is, but many of us who grew up in less than functional homes have a hard time confronting people because the consequences can seem too dire.

There is some part of my brain that still thinks that telling people their behavior isn't okay with me will lead to violence /yelling/stalking/ X over-the-top reaction.

Logically I know that the people in my life aren't likely to behave this way (but there's always the chance!) and that surgically excising them from my life isn't necessary to keep myself safe. When I was 7 my options were limited, but now I'm in my 30s; cutting people off for (objectively speaking) minor infractions isn't always the best thing to do. Also, eventually most people did something that freaked me out and it gets lonely.

The cutting-off response was like an over-active immune response to a situation that doesn't exist any more: useful when I was 7, not useful now. And yet there it is popping up, undermining my relationships- personal and professional both.

Through seemingly-unrelated other circumstances I ended up in Al-anon. It turns out that what you're describing is very common there. The Al-anon program has provided a lot of tools to help make my decisions conscious, considered ones, instead of knee-jerk, self-preservation ones. Eventually, I ended up in some PTSD-focussed therapy, too. It doesn't make sense- I haven't been in an abusive relationship since I was little. I haven't been to war. But it's helped immensely with exactly what you describe. I was glad I went to Al-anon first because listening to other people talk (1) taught me how to describe what was going on in my head, and (2) taught me my reactions were improvable. I watched mine improve and I watched other people's improve within weeks. I had no idea why reacted the way I did but I did figure out that my reactions were more extreme than circumstances actually dictated, when viewed objectively, and that there was an array of options available to me that I hadn't known existed.

I won't argue that cutting off Example Guy wasn't the perfect thing to do- he sounds incredibly disrespectful and not really your friend. But if I were you, I'd be more comfortable knowing for certain it was a well-reasoned decision, and not one made out of an obsolete, self-defense reaction.

I am bad at explaining things, and also using punctuation (apologies to all punctuation-sensitive people), but memail me if you want. I have been there. In fact, I still am, but to a much lesser degree and it keeps getting better. And, of course, I am reading my own experience into yours, so ignore the whole thing if it doesn't apply.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:45 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree with conrad55 about forgiveness. Three quotations may help here to cast some light on the issues involved

The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.
Thomas Szasz

Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Eleanor Roosevelt


Nobody can hurt me without my permission.
Mahatma Gandhi
posted by noirnoir at 4:43 PM on February 19, 2010

My personal problem with all those is that they tell me I'm Doing It Wrong without giving me any tools for how to do it right.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:42 PM on February 19, 2010

Like previous posters, I have found emails to be very helpful in asserting myself in some situations (to people I care about).

For example, I had some misunderstandings with a friend within the past year (nothing like your example). My initial defensive response was to just shut him out. He kept trying to ask what was wrong but I was too embarrased to explain it. I finally realized how unfair this was to both of us, and I wrote my feelings in an email. I felt kind of cowardly doing it that way but it was a huge relief to let it out. He appreciated my honesty, and our communication has improved noticably since then. I now feel much more comfortable talking honestly face to face with him.

I don't know how much this would help in the situation you described (since my friend is generally a very sweet person), but I did find it surprisingly easy to explain my feelings to someone in that way.
posted by PeriDoe at 8:39 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really like what Mystical Chick, space kitty and small_ruminant have to say: it sounds like you want to give voice to what you're feeling, that you're afraid of speaking up and potential consequences, while small_ruminant outlines possible home environments in which these internal "coping" mechanisms flourish.

Clearly, you want to speak up and say what you feel. How to do this? First of all, you must believe that you have the right to voice what feel. Speaking up can be done in different ways. Examples of different responses to your “friend”:

“I don’t want to have regular sex.” This is a very basic, simple truth to the suggestion: you’re stating what you want to do/not do. However, I know that you want to get at something deeper than this.

So, going a level deeper, you’re angry and hurt. Again, just state this. “I’m angry and hurt that you made that suggestion.” But this doesn’t hit the mark either, I don’t think.

My guess is that you’re angry at him as a person, for thinking that he can act this way toward you. You may be angry at yourself for choosing to be friends with this person, and continuing to stay friends. These are probably things you need to work out in therapy, as you are aware, but since we can’t go that far yet (without therapy), just think about what you want with this person. Do you want him to respect you? Do you want to break it off? Do you want to continue being friends?

If for some reason you want to stay friends (which I don’t recommend), be really honest with yourself about why. Then tell him: “I want to stay friends because ____. I do not want you to ask me about sex anymore. If you do, I will stop being friends with you.” i.e. there are consequences if he doesn’t respect you. Y is what happens if he does(n’t) do X. No second chances. You gave him the warning, he didn’t respect it, you’re finished. If he keeps contacting you, ignore those calls. Uphold your boundaries. Don’t second guess yourself or go back on what you did because then he learns that you didn’t really mean what you said. Implementing and enforcing boundaries can be scary (because change is scary) but very empowering. If you get through this, you will have changed for the better.

In this situation, do you want to now tell him how you feel and end the friendship, or do you want to not talk to him and “forget” about it? If you want the former, you can say, “I don’t want to have sex with you, I’m angry and hurt you made that suggestion, and I don’t want to be friends with you anymore because this friendship hasn’t been healthy for me. Please don’t call me anymore.” And uphold the boundary as above.

Now, I understand that you fear not being taken seriously, or being mocked, or being disrespected. First, try not to anticipate this happening, because it’ll psyche you out. Second, if it happens, ignore it, and just keep repeating what you said. If he starts saying mean things that get you angry, just say “I’m not talking to you anymore” and that’s when you walk away or hang up. You walk away when you’ve said all that you need to say for that conversation and it’s obviously not sinking in for him.

Also, try to find low-cost therapy in your area if you haven’t already. It can be hard to find, but it’s possible. Some places offer sliding scale as well too. Just figure out how much you can afford per week/month (do a budget) and work with that.

Al-Anon was mentioned above; in a similar vein I’ll recommend Codependent No More and Beyond Codependency by Melody Beattie. I’ve found these books extremely practical and heavy on the message of “You are capable of figuring things out, solving problems, making decisions, etc.”
posted by foxjacket at 9:19 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can still tell him how you feel, you know.

There isn't a time limit on this kind of assertiveness.

I have a friend who I wrote off six months ago who recently wrote me, shocked that I wasn't his facebook friend. I listed his bad behavior and he apologized. We will probably never be close, but I asserted myself in writing (easier than in person).

There's still hope, do it!

If you want an example I can memail you one.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 3:23 PM on February 21, 2010

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