Avoiding Conflict Can Be Lethal to Your Self-Worth

6 min read
Tierney/Adobe Stock Images

Tierney/Adobe Stock Images

It was 90 degrees on a Sunday afternoon. I walked out of the grocery store with a cartful of frozen food and started the hike across the parking lot to my car. I transferred the groceries to my trunk and, in the interest of time, heat, and wilting lettuce, I made a quick decision not to walk the cart all the way back to the store. Instead, I stashed it at the curb and out of the way.

“Hey, you!” I heard someone yell as I walked back around to my door. It was a guy parked in the next row yelling from his car. “Why would you leave your cart there? That is so selfish; you need to move it right now,” he called out with a condescending sneer. Then he continued to explain what a loser I am and how wrong I was to do that.

I froze in my tracks as I listened, surprised and ashamed. Here’s an accounting of the progression of my thoughts as he continued with his verbal assault:

Oh man, I shouldn’t have left the cart there.

How embarrassing that I got caught.

Actually, it’s not that big a deal. The cart’s not in the way.

Wait a minute, he just called me selfish. And stupid.

This guy is mean.

I think he’s just looking for a fight with someone.

This guy has a real problem of some kind.

The man ended his diatribe with the repeated command: “You need to move your cart. You need to move your cart. You need to move your cart right now.”

Very quickly, in the spur of the moment, I had to decide what to do…

Unlike Angry Cart Guy, most people don’t go around looking for a fight. That is certainly a good thing. But there are plenty of folks who err in the other direction—by going out of their way to make sure they don’t find themselves in a conflict of any sort.

We all agree that clashing or arguing is not fun. Conflict has a way, as I did in the parking lot, of making us doubt ourselves and feel vulnerable or even ashamed. Conflict shakes the ground beneath our feet. It can turn balanced, self-assured people into yelling monsters or bowls of jelly.

Most conflicts are not such clear-cut attacks as the one I described. Instead, they’re typically more nuanced and complex. But just like myself with Angry Cart Guy, in any conflict, we all have four main options.

What You Can Do When Faced With Conflict: 4 Options

  1. Agree with the other person and say nothing – Conflict Avoidant
  2. Ignore the other person completely – Conflict Avoidant
  3. Yell back some equivalent insults at our critic – Aggressive
  4. Calmly and evenly convey your point of view while doing what you feel is the right thing – Assertive

Which of these four options would you be most likely to choose?

Childhood Emotional Neglect and Conflict Avoidance

We learn our conflict style from what we see and experience in our childhood homes. So, your answer probably depends on the conflict-management style of the family you grew up in. If the members of your family were loud fighters, you may now naturally tend toward aggressive. If your family was emotionally neglectful, meaning they tended to avoid emotions or discourage anger, you may have learned that your anger is not legitimate or worthy of expression or that your anger is bad. So, now, you may be more comfortable avoiding conflict whenever possible.

If you feel that avoiding conflict is usually the best option, I understand! In some ways, it makes sense not to provoke an angry person. (Who knows what Angry Cart Guy is capable of?) But there are two problems with the avoidant options. First, the other person gets to run the show, and their negative behavior goes unchecked. Second, you walk away feeling victimized and stifled. All of those toxins from the other person’s anger settle into your gut, and they eat away at your self-worth. Because what you have just done is send a message to your deepest self that you don’t matter, that you are not worth standing up for. You walk away with all those feelings inside of you, and you then have to deal with them on your own.

Growing up in an emotionally neglectful family not only conveys to you that your feelings are not valid or worthy of expression, but it also has another negative effect on your ability to face and handle conflict. Emotion-avoidant families don’t get to learn or practice healthy conflict management skills, so, as a child, you don’t get to learn them. Decades later, as an adult, you not only don’t value your anger or hurt as much as you should, but you also lack the necessary skills to express it.

Aggressive Responses

Tending toward the aggressive response in conflicts can help you feel less vulnerable, but it doesn’t work very well in parking lot confrontations or in relationships. The problem is that you may be lowering yourself to the other person’s level and/or blowing away the other person. Either way, sadly, your message will not be heard. Plus, there’s no opportunity for anyone, yourself or the other person, to learn anything. There’s no opportunity to work anything out.

Assertive: The 4 Skills

To be assertive, skills are required. Assertiveness requires you to do four challenging things at once.

  1. Manage your feelings, especially your anger and hurt
  2. Assess the situation
  3. Formulate your response
  4. Deliver that response in an even, calm, and respectful manner regardless of what your feelings are

Having gone through much of my life seriously short on all these skills, my choice for decades for how to respond to Angry Cart Guy would have been conflict-avoidant. Luckily for me, I’m a psychologist. I have faced and worked through my childhood emotional neglect. In this process, I’ve had amazing opportunities to learn about assertiveness and build these skills.

So, I know first-hand how well conflict avoidance works (it doesn’t). I also know that assertiveness skills are effective and that they can be learned. And I know that assertiveness skills are the cure for conflict avoidance.

So, here’s how I handled Angry Cart Guy:

“You know, I’m not going to move the cart because I don’t like how you’re talking to me. If you’d asked in a nice, respectful way, maybe I would.”

Apparently not expecting that, he seemed nonplussed by my reaction; His rant took on an insecure stutter and his face reddened as I walked calmly to my door and got into my car. As I backed out, he was still spouting at me as I gave him a friendly wave goodbye.

Did I teach him anything? Most definitely not. But I didn’t walk away with his toxins either. I drove away with my self-worth intact. And that is the power of assertiveness.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

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