- Why Am I So Afraid of Conflict? A Therapist Weighs In
- Is a fear of conflict a genetic trait or one caused by life experiences?
- What are steps you can take to overcome a fear of conflict?
- How can one cope with anxiety caused by conflict?
- Some people seem to thrive off conflict and aren’t afraid to ignite it. How do you resolve conflict with someone who is eager to keep the disagreement going?
- What should you do when you’re caught off guard by conflict?
- Are there times that conflict avoidance is the right path to take or should conflicts always be addressed head on?
- How do you tell the difference between constructive and destructive conflict?
- Do you have any tips for overcoming a fear of conflict? We’d love to hear your stories!
- Blog | Fear of Confrontation: 5 Tips for Overcoming the Discomfort
- Fear of Confrontation = Less problems now, more problems later
- Start Small
- Breathe Through It
- Consider the Payoffs and Consequences
- Track Your Practice
- Reframe Conflict as an Opportunity
- What Causes Fear?
- The Effects of Fear on the Brain
- The Physical and Emotional Effects of Fear
- Fear and Mental Health
Why Am I So Afraid of Conflict? A Therapist Weighs In
When I was in college I had a small desk calendar that taught me a new French word or phrase every day.
Obviously most of these words were forgotten before I learned the next one, but one phrase instantly stuck in my memory: L’esprit de l’escalier — which literally translates to the spirit of the staircase, but metaphorically illustrates the experience of when you think of the perfect conversational reply too late. We all have these moments, but I experience them frequently (maybe too frequently?). Of course, there is no “normal” way of feeling or living, but I know that I’m more afraid of conflict than I should be. Because of this fear, I often times don’t say the things I should say. Which means I play the “l’esprit de l’escalier” game pretty frequently. Pro tip: it’s very satisfying to play while stuck in traffic. But sadly, there’s never a winner.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of conflict. When I was five, my mom noticed I didn’t seem to the fish sticks I was eating for dinner. I didn’t, I hated fish as a child, and still do to this day.
When I told her I didn’t them, she asked why I had never told her and took them away immediately. I don’t know why I didn’t speak up sooner.
My parents never made me eat food I didn’t , so why didn’t I say something?
As an adult, I have bigger fish to fry than fish sticks. Particularly, I’m very afraid of conflicts in the workplace, which brings me back to l’esprit de l’escalier. There are so many workplace conflicts that I didn’t resolve properly. Where I didn’t advocate for myself or tell my side of the story. I know that this does me more harm than good, even if I do avoid an awkward conversation.
My fear of conflict doesn’t surprise me — I know many other people who feel similarly to the way I do.
But what does always surprise me is when I meet someone who seems not only comfortable with conflict — which is probably a good thing — but who thrives on it and seems to seek it out.
I wanted to see if I could learn more about my fear, so I asked Miriam Kirmayer, Therapist and Friendship Researcher, a few questions about how a fear of conflict develops and how to successfully handle conflict.
Is a fear of conflict a genetic trait or one caused by life experiences?
While there is no specific fear of conflict gene, we do all differ in terms of our predisposition to experience and express difficult emotions as well as our stress response to situations we perceive as threatening.
When it comes to conflict, our past experiences, including our interactions with the people closest to us and the behavior that was modeled for us growing up, can impact how comfortable we are expressing our needs and how open we are to hearing someone else out.
These experiences can also shape the beliefs we have about conflict itself, which impacts our willingness to engage in conversations we might perceive as threatening.
When we are stressed about other things that are going on in our lives, we also have less room to navigate and cope with conflict. Stress has a cumulative effect, and unless we develop ways to cope with bigger stressors and daily hassles, it can have a dramatic impact on our ability to tolerate and manage interpersonal conflict.
What are steps you can take to overcome a fear of conflict?
This question comes up quite a bit in my clinical practice as a therapist where I work with people who are experiencing conflict with friends, partners, family members, or colleagues.
We all have ideas or assumptions about what conflict means for ourselves and our relationships. Often times, these beliefs contribute to and maintain our fear of conflict and make it harder to have productive conversations. As a starting point, it helps to recognize what our beliefs about conflict involve and how these might be getting in the way of our relationships and well-being.
Do you feel asserting your needs will invariably cause conflict? Are you afraid that conflict will lead to the end of an important relationship? Does it feel experiencing conflict means that you’ve done something wrong? Identifying your ideas about conflict and questioning whether these are true won’t make conflict go away, but it can make it much easier to navigate if and when it comes up.
When we’re afraid of something, be it a spider or conflict with someone who is important to us, our natural tendency is to withdraw or avoid. And while this might work short-term, over time it reinforces our belief that we should be afraid and actually maintains our anxiety and fear in the long run.
That’s why one of the most effective ways to overcome a fear of conflict is to gain experience with it. Expose yourself to whatever it is you are fearful of in small, manageable steps.
Imagine what a difficult conversation will feel , practice being assertive with other less threatening people, and work your way up to a situation that you previously would not have thought you were capable of handling.
How can one cope with anxiety caused by conflict?
Conflict is inevitable in any close relationship. It isn’t the absence of conflict that makes for a close relationship, but our ability to work through it in a healthy, constructive way. Remembering that conflict is normal — and even expected — can lessen the anxiety we experience when we feel threatened by actual or impending conflict.
It also helps to challenge the ideas or assumptions we have about conflict. Are you predicting the future or catastrophizing? How ly is it that the worst-case scenario will come true? If it did come true, how would you cope? Challenging these kinds of thoughts can help you to feel more confident and prepared going into a difficult situation or conversation.
At times, it can also help to take a step back and respect your need for time and space. The idea isn’t to ignore the conflict or person with whom you disagree, but to take a step back to be able to re-engage in a healthy way.
Take a few moments before returning a stressful phone call or email. Or excuse yourself from a stressful situation for some fresh air and a few deep breaths.
Just be honest with yourself about whether you are hitting the pause button or taking a more permanent escape route.
It also helps to establish good baseline habits and self-care — sleep hygiene, proper nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, and social connection all do wonders for our ability to manage and cope with conflict.
Some people seem to thrive off conflict and aren’t afraid to ignite it. How do you resolve conflict with someone who is eager to keep the disagreement going?
Conflict can be even more difficult to manage when the person we’re interacting with has a different communication or conflict management style.
If you’re faced with a situation where someone seems to thrive off conflict, pointing out the ways in which they are stoking the flames will usually only escalate things. The key is to focus on your own emotions, reactions, and experiences as well as the dynamic between the two of you.
Use language “I” and “me” or “us” and “we”. Remember that, despite your different approaches, you are both ly coming from a similar place of wanting a resolution to the conflict.
If you feel things are becoming too heated and you need to take a break, by all means do so. Just be sure to let them know that this isn’t meant to be experienced as you avoiding them or not wanting to work through issues, and that it is in fact the opposite — exactly what’s needed for you to re-engage.
Conflict can occur in any relationship. Should we be handling professional conflicts differently than personal conflicts?
We as women tend to be apologetic for voicing our opinion or needs, especially in a professional setting.
And, unfortunately, a fear of conflict can hold us back from taking credit for our successes and contributions, pursuing new opportunities, and reaching our potential.
Knowing that asserting our needs doesn’t always lead to conflict, and that conflict isn’t always inherently bad, can make it easier to speak up in a professional setting and reach our goals.
That said, the power imbalance that exists in all relationships can be even more significant in a work setting and can make it difficult to speak up or engage in conversations that might involve conflict.
Never should we feel as though we cannot or should not address harassment, bullying, or inappropriate behavior of any kind.
But in weighing the pros and cons, we might sometimes choose to overlook differences of opinions or situations in which things feel unfair or to withhold information that we would typically share in a conflict with a friend or partner.
If you do decide to avoid expressing your needs or perspectives, focus on why you are doing so. Feeling as though it’s a decision, as opposed to something that is outside of your control, can make it easier to accept and to move forward in a constructive way.
What should you do when you’re caught off guard by conflict?
If you find conflict especially difficult to manage, it can help to have a few coping strategies at your disposal. See if you can set aside a few minutes before diving into a stressful interaction.
Taking a few deeps breaths or visualizing a relaxing, safe space your favorite vacation spot might seem trivial, but can go a long way toward helping you to feel relaxed and ready to engage in a potentially stressful situation.
Remind yourself that conflict is normal and that you won’t feel the sting of it forever, and challenge self-destructive and self-critical beliefs that might be getting in the way.
Are there times that conflict avoidance is the right path to take or should conflicts always be addressed head on?
The old advice to work through conflicts and avoid going to bed angry with the people we love is sound. But there are times when taking a step back from an argument or conflict may be the best course of action. If conflict has the potential to become harmful or violent, or if you’re worried about your own safety or those around you, it’s best to take a step back and cool down.
If you’ve repeatedly expressed your views or needs and you just aren’t being heard or respected, it might also be best to take a step back and reflect on how you want to proceed – whether it’s by letting some things slide, re-engaging when you’re both in a different headspace, or finding a new way to communicate.
The reality is, in a long-term relationship of any kind there will be times when we need to let some things go.
Avoidance really becomes a problem when it is a pattern and we’re left feeling chronically unheard, disrespected, or disappointed. This can lead to resentment or heartache and take away from the closeness we feel in our relationships.
It also sends the message that our needs aren’t worth sharing, which can take away from our overall sense of self-worth.
How do you tell the difference between constructive and destructive conflict?
This is a great question because it highlights that conflict isn’t inherently negative. Ideally, conflict leads to mutually beneficial outcomes or resolutions. It can even bring us closer to the important people around us.
Obviously, conflict can become problematic when it devolves into disrespectful arguments, but there are other subtler ways that conflicts can become destructive. Conflicts should ideally be resolved through solutions that work for everyone involved.
That’s why conflict can be destructive when one person’s needs are consistently prioritized over another’s.
It can also be destructive when it involves ruminating or rehashing the same issues over and over again without coming up with a new solution or plan of action.
Conflict might not always feel good in the moment, but it ideally can leave you feeling as though you’ve worked through something together, you’ve been heard and respected, and that you’ve come to a solution that will make things easier in the long run.
Do you have any tips for overcoming a fear of conflict? We’d love to hear your stories!
Blog | Fear of Confrontation: 5 Tips for Overcoming the Discomfort
Does your fear of confrontation leave you feeling unheard, misunderstood, taken advantage of, or worse? If so, it’s time we take a look at this.
How many times have you screened your calls, ignored text messages, or gone along with something you didn’t really want or agree with just because the thought of confrontation made you nauseous? A fear of confrontation is more common than you think. Confrontation is something we often avoid the plague.
This isn’t because of some innate defect, mind you, but usually because that’s how we were raised– to believe that confrontation is scary. We feel our heart rate spike, our hands get sweaty, and our stomachs start to knot up at just the thought of an uncomfortable conversation.
We tell ourselves it’s easier to avoid, it’s safer, and what’s the big deal anyway?
Fear of Confrontation = Less problems now, more problems later
Unfortunately, this often leads to all kinds of problems down the road both in our relationships and within ourselves.
- Distance in relationships with your spouse, children, parents, or friends
- Hostile or uncomfortable work environments
- Small problems fester turning into bigger, even less manageable problems
- Depression and low self-esteem ly increase as we become more passive observers of our own lives rather than active doer’s
- We may start drinking more or using other substances to avoid that nagging feeling that we are avoiding something
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can learn to deal with confrontation a pro. Maybe your family prefers to keep things light (a.k.
a sweep things under the rug) or maybe raised voices are a trigger for your anxiety because of experiences with domestic violence or some other type of frightening confrontation.
Either way, it’s perfectly understandable that you ended up with expert avoidance skills when it comes to confrontation. And perhaps, at that time, back in that place, the safest choice was to keep quiet, but not always and maybe not anymore.
People give lots of reasons for avoiding conflicts, but one of the most common is fear. Fear of the relationship being damaged, fear of embarrassing yourself, fear of making the problem worse. If fear is driving you to avoid confrontation, consider the following the next time you find yourself doing the avoidance dance.
Avoiding confrontation is a lot more ly to cause problems down the road, than dealing with the issue now, calmly, in a healthy way. Avoidance of confrontation is a lot avoiding a credit card bill. Some conflicts seem to have interest attached (and an alarming rate at that).
While some small issues will blow over without even a mention, often times the larger ones only get more troublesome. This often happens because while you’re busy avoiding, you (or the other person) may also be busy building a strong case of resentment, because when it comes to people and relationships, resentment is the snarky cousin of avoidance.
Remind yourself that dealing with the problem sooner rather than later will help avoid bigger, even more stressful issues later on.
You can practice dealing with confrontation anything else you’ve learned over the years, start small! Meaning, if you’re avoiding your coworker the plague ever since he made that inappropriate comment to you last week at lunch, maybe start honing your skills elsewhere first.
Practice with little things when someone cuts in front of you at the deli line in the grocery store.
You may laugh because you might often let something this small go and never think of actually bringing it up to the person, but that means this is an excellent chance to start small, when the stakes are tiny ( a few extra minutes at the grocery store or a half pound of ham).
Breathe Through It
Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or guided imagery to decrease your anxiety and boost your confidence in your ability to say what you mean and mean what you say. Relaxation techniques can be really helpful if anxiety gets you tongue tied and flustered.
If you really want to take baby steps, just notice the next time you are in a situation where you feel a confrontation may be coming, even a small one.
Then just sit with it, notice the sensations in your body–these sensations are what’s telling you you’re anxious! Then try taking a few slow deep breaths, inhaling to the bottom of your lungs (see diaphrematic breathing for a lengthy explanation).
As you slow your breathing, your heart rate and blood pressure will also begin to slow, thereby sending new messages to your brain that you are calmer. Over time this gets easier and has the added benefit of being able to think more clearly and articulate your side of a confrontation much more easily.
Consider the Payoffs and Consequences
Download a worksheet here to help you reflect on the [download id=”174″]. It is important to look at the payoffs and the costs for any behavior if you want to change it.
Consider what you are getting avoiding confrontation. Maybe it is short term relief from the discomfort of expressing yourself.
Consider the advantages of changing specifically if you want to boost your motivation to do something about this unwanted behavior.
Track Your Practice
If you were trying to lose weight you would probably keep track of how many pounds you’d lost, so why should working on your communication skills shouldn’t be any different? That’s why I drafted a handy dandy [download id=”177″] to help you keep track of your efforts. It’ll help you get a bigger picture of what types of situations or conversations you’re avoiding AND keep track of your progress. Double win!
Reframe Conflict as an Opportunity
Try to look at every potential confrontation as another opportunity to practice. Think of these uncomfortable little moments as opportunities to grow.
Chances are, there is a little voice in your head that chatters on and on about how terrible it will be to have that uncomfortable conversation. The mind has the amazing ability to psyche you out in a matter of seconds.
Try turning this around by practicing talking yourself INTO confronting the problem rather than it.
For more information on tips and tricks for dealing with conflict, I recommend Lee Raffel’s “I Hate Conflict!” The book offers a breakdown of the skills needed to deal with conflict more confidently and emphasizes conflict as an opportunity for personal growth and change!
It should be noted, however, that there are times when confrontation SHOULD be avoided, such as when there is a potential for violence.
In these instances, it may be best to let things cool down first or to seek outside help before addressing the issue at hand.
If necessary, information and assistance is available from Harbor House in Orlando (contact information at the bottom of the page) or through 2-1-1 in your local area.
If you are looking for counseling in Orlando or the surrounding area to help you stop avoiding confrontation and become more assertive, feel free to contact me for a free consultation, to make an appointment, or just to gather information on where to look for some helpful resources. I’d be happy to help get you started on your path to wellness.
Fear is an emotion that typically occurs when you perceive a threat to your personal well-being. Sometimes, it can prompt action against the threat. Fear is a common emotion experienced by most people at some point or another; it's considered to be a normal, natural part of life.
However, fear can lead people to experience a wide array of physical and mental changes, and irrational or intense fear may interfere with a person’s happiness, sense of security, and ability to function effectively.
When fear is persistent or has a negative impact on your daily life, a therapist or other mental health professional may be able to help address this challenge and reduce your fear.
What Causes Fear?
All people are ly to experience some type of fear. Humans and animals typically possess innate fearful reactions to certain stimuli, such as unexpected or loud noises. Some of these stimuli may differ from one person to the next, although some fears occur more frequently in the general population. For example, a great number of people report a fear of death.
New fears are often learned. Fear-inducing stimuli paired with objects or events that are not normally frightening may cause new fears to form.
Some stimuli commonly reported to cause fear include:
- Aggression, violence, or war
A phobia, or a fearful reaction that is disproportionate to the possible danger, is a type of fear that may interfere with one's ability to function. A phobia might develop for no clear reason, but it might also develop after an experience causes a strong fear reaction. Therapy can often help people overcome phobias.
The Effects of Fear on the Brain
A person’s response to danger generally involves many different areas of the brain, but research in the field of psychology has identified the amygdala as pivotal in processing fear.
When a person is confronted with a potentially dangerous situation, the amygdala sends excitatory signals to other brain areas to ensure that these areas also become more alert. Evidence of the amygdala’s importance to the processing of fear has been highlighted in many studies.
When monkeys and rats with damaged amygdalas were exposed to snakes in one study, the animals demonstrated no fear of their natural predators.
Another study followed SM, a woman with Urbach-Weithe disease—a condition that results in the shriveling and hardening of parts of the brain.
In SM's case, parts of her amygdala had wasted away, and she felt no fear when faced with haunted houses, large spiders, or venomous snakes.
Further, researchers found that events that most would find traumatic, such as a past experience of being threatened at knifepoint, did not register in her brain as bad or dangerous, either at the time or later in life.
While the amygdala does play a critical role in triggering and processing fear, research found that its effective functioning is not absolutely essential for a person to experience fear. The 1995 study of SM also showed alternate brain pathways that played roles in fear learning and processing.
SM did not demonstrate signs of fear when exposed to fear-inducing objects, but she did experience strong fear and panic when asked to inhale carbon dioxide (a gas that causes choking).
It was clear to the researchers that while potentially dangerous external factors did not trigger a fear response, internal threats to her health and safety did cause SM to experience fear.
The Physical and Emotional Effects of Fear
Without fear, an individual's chances of day-to-day survival would ly diminish. In this way, fear can be healthy; it helps people keep away from dangerous or harmful situations by triggering a “fight or flight” response. Fear often affects people physically and emotionally.
Fear may cause someone to experience an enhanced perception of space and time, or their senses of sight, hearing, and smell may be heightened.
In life-threatening situations, fear can also reduce the ability to notice fine detail while increasing the capacity to distinguish large or blurry objects.
These adjustments in perception can increase a person’s chance of survival in a dangerous situation.
An example of how fear can affect perception may be when a camper notices a grizzly bear. The camper is not ly to focus on small details such as specific markings or other characteristics that distinguish the bear.
Instead, fear generally works to sharpen the camper’s senses of perception in order to better identify the bear’s location and movement, which can help the camper best determine how to escape the dangerous situation.
You may experience a variety of physical responses when experiencing fear, such as:
- Temporary paralysis or an erratic heartbeat
- Stomach pain, head pain, or nausea
- Dizziness or fainting
- Muscle tension, twitching, or trembling
- Erratic sleep patterns
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid or shallow breathing
Psychological effects of fear can include intrusive or distracting thoughts, loss of focus, and confusion. People may also experience a variety of emotional effects, including terror, anxiety, anger, despair, numbness, or helplessness.
Fear and Mental Health
Fear has been linked with numerous behavioral and mental health concerns. For example, anxiety issues generally involve some measure of fear of a future event or occurrence.
People who hold on to ideas that frighten them and those affected by hallucinations or delusions may also experience high levels of fear.
People affected by negative moods may become afraid of certain events such as death, breakup, loss, or failure.
Fear is listed as a contributing factor or symptom of conditions such as:
Some people may even experience a type of fear known as a phobia, which may be described as an intense and sometimes irrational fear of a specific place, object, or animal. The fear one experiences with a phobia is often disproportionate to the threat of the thing feared.
If you experience ongoing or debilitating fear, it may help to meet with a therapist or counselor. Therapy can help you discover whether your fear is caused by an underlying mental health issue or allow you to address and work through what is causing you to feel afraid.
- Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Damasio, H. & Damasio, A. R. (1995). Fear and the human amygdala. The Journal of Neuroscience, 15(9), 5879-5891. Retrieved from http://emotion.caltech.edu/papers/AdolphsTranel1995Fear.pdf
- Bocanegra, B. R. & Zeelenberg, R. (2011). Emotional cues enhance the attentional effects on spatial and temporal resolution. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(6), 1071–1076. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-011-0156-z. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3219868
- De Groot, J. H. B., Smeets, M. A. M. & Semin, G. R. (2015). Rapid stress system drives chemical transfer of fear from sender to receiver. PLoS ONE, 10(2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118211