Thriving in the Face of Conflict: How to Go from Pain to Gain

Avoiding Conflict in Relationships

Let's be honest, conflict can be painful.  Many of us avoid conflict like a plague. Not only is conflict uncomfortable, it is a challenge and it zaps our energy.  Most of us would rather engage in harmonious relationships, and in the old adage of "Would you rather be right, or would you rather be loved" Most people would choose to be loved.

Conflict avoidance, however, comes at a cost. If we are not careful, we may be unintentionally and chronically cause harm to our self, damaging our psyche, and compromising our emotional and physical health.  

If you or someone you know resonates with the idea of suppressing your emotions to keep the peace, staying quiet to avoid conflict, feeling timid in the face of conflict, it may be advantageous to come to a point of awareness.

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Transformation is all about being aware of where you are (emotionally, mentally,  in consciousness or otherwise), recognizing the issue at hand and embracing the courage to not simply survive a situation but to thrive in light of it.  When we are able to thrive in the presence of fear, we create a pathway of growth for self-empowerment.

Nicole Eby, has walked this path, and in the spirit of generosity, shares her experience and learning of embracing conflict.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, right?  Check out her story below of how she courageously transformed her pain, practicing assertiveness and made pain her gain.

But First, Full Disclosure

Author's Note: Let’s start out with full disclosure: I am not only an “expert” at conflict avoidance but also at suppressing emotions that in themselves might lead to conflict.  It’s something that I’ve worked hard my whole life to perfect, and I think that I can list it as one of my finest accomplishments.  But is there a cost?

With all my efforts to be accommodating, one might even call me a peacemaker – although I’m not always peaceful, as you will recall if you’ve read my article about struggling with anger as a parent:  I’m a Volatile Parent – My Two-Pronged Strategy.  Sometimes all my suppressed emotions get the better of me and come out in a torrent of anger and frustration.  But for the most part, I’m pretty successful at keeping the waters smooth and the boat unrocked.

Avoiding conflict, and thus keeping the peace might, at first glance, seem like a good thing.  Conflict is negative, right?  The world would, in fact, be a better place if more people were like me and worked to keep the peace at all costs.

Sounds great in theory, but it turns out that like just about every other situation in life, IT DEPENDS!

My efforts might seem like a step towards world peace, or at least peace at home and in the office, but it comes at a cost to my health.  And let’s just say that it’s the suppressed negative emotions associated with being a serial accommodator that are going to get the blame.

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Defining Conflict?

Before going too far, let me take a moment and define “conflict.”  I’m not necessarily referring to major conflicts, such arguments, and full out fights.  I’m mostly talking about those routine, everyday moments that crop up when you live and work with other people – basically any time that my ideas don’t mesh with others or when something has occurred that I find hurtful, disrespectful or offensive.

Now, if you’re a conflict avoider like me, then it won’t come as any surprise to you that the first hint of discord – even if I’m not directly involved – sends my sympathetic nervous system into high alert, readying me to flee or turn and fight.  Add in the almost constant demands of modern life, and I find myself in an almost constant state of stress.

And, of course, it’s no longer any secret that our body’s protective fight or flight mode wasn’t designed to be perpetually turned on.  It was designed to help us evade being killed by creatures with sharp teeth and claws.

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Left on too long and the nervous system and all of its associated stress hormones start to get out of whack – a body can only take so much adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.  Want to know more about the three “stress” hormones?   Check out Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine: The Three Major Stress Hormones, Explained over on The Huffington Post.

As it turns out, our modern life is just too much for our primitive coping systems.  And our overall health is definitely suffering.  Here’s what the Mayo Clinic has to say about chronic stress: Chronic Stress Puts your Health at Risk.

RELATED: The Truth About Mindfulness In The Midst of Changing Times

Why Avoid Conflict?

Long before the media started buzzing with warnings about the harms of constant stress, I had decided that I didn’t like the way I felt during and after conflict.  I don’t like the way it makes my chest tighten, how my breathing becomes faster and shallower or the way my mind panics.  So, I went out of my way to avoid it.

Which should be good for my health, right?  If I don’t turn and fight then I’m not flooding my body with cortisol, after all.  Or better yet, if I am able to accommodate others so that there is never even a whiff of conflict then my sympathetic nervous system can stay at rest – a win/win, right?  Surely keeping my sympathetic nervous system calm is better for my health?

HOW DOES A LIFELONG CONFLICT AVOIDER LEARN TO FACE CONFLICT HEAD ON? - The Impact of Suppressed Emotions on Chronic PainPhoto by Di Maitland on Unsplash

Chronic Pain and Suppressed Emotions

The fact that a perpetually activated sympathetic nervous system was wreaking havoc on my health wasn’t a surprise to me – thus my constant search for stress relieving alterations to my life.

What I didn’t know, and this will probably be news to you as well, is that my aversion to rocking the boat could actually have an even deeper cost than if I tackled each conflict head-on.  

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It might even explain my chronic pain.

Which could be viewed as a positive thing – knowing the cause of my pain that is – except I’m still kind of at a loss regarding what to do about it.

RELEVANT POST: UNDIAGNOSED CHRONIC PAIN – How to Stop Chasing a Diagnosis & Focus on Healing

Psychosomatic Pain

Another thing that wasn’t a surprise to me was that my emotions have an impact on my pain levels.  It may not hold up to the scientific process, but I spend a lot of time tracking my pain levels trying to come up with patterns so that I’ll be able to predict my pain.

The unpredictability of my pain is one of the most challenging aspects of my chronic condition.  I firmly believe that being able to identify those things that cause a spike in my pain will be a game changer for me.  Without knowing the triggers, I feel powerless in the face of the pain.  I don’t know what causes it, so I don’t know how to avoid making it worse.

In fact, one of my worst fears is that there isn’t actually any rhyme or reason to the cycle of my pain, that it’s completely random.

Finding the source, even if doesn’t lead to a “cure,” would be incredibly empowering for me.

The tracking of my fluctuating pain levels hasn’t solved the mystery of the root cause of my pain, but through the tracking process, I have found a link between big emotional outbursts (positive or negative) and my pain levels.  

Getting angry definitely causes a pain flare – sometimes fleeting and sometimes long term. Incidentally, prolonged periods of excitement have a similar effect.  Although, I seem to be able to recover from them more quickly.

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Suppressed Emotions

But emotional expression can’t explain every pain flare.  There are still all kinds of situations where I’m in severe pain, and my emotional state has been quite steady.

So, what gives?

Well, as it turns out, the culprit could be all those emotions I’m so good at suppressing.

HOW DOES A LIFE LONG CONFLICT AVOIDER LEARN TO FACE CONFLICT HEAD ON? - The Impact of Suppressed Emotions on Chronic PainPhoto by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Asserting Rather Than Suppressing

Apparently, my habit of being accommodating might have a causal relationship with my levels of chronic pain; suggesting that I would be better served, at least health-wise, by becoming more assertive.

According to an article on Healthy Holistic Living, suppressed emotions – especially negative ones – have been found to have an impact on pain levels in people who have been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia.

As I read the article, I found myself nodding my head.  It turned out that even though I wasn’t familiar with the facts, the general concept wasn’t really a surprise to me.  Although my own understanding of the effect of my emotions had been focused more on the experience of negative emotions and stress rather than the suppression of emotions specifically, it just intrinsically made sense.

And the fact that it was my friend who sent me the article, suggests that I’m not the only one to have made the connection.

Perhaps you’ve come to a similar conclusion with your own pain.

Now, to be clear, I haven’t actually been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. But since my doctor’s main theory for the origins of my pain is that it’s psychological, I feel like perhaps the results might still be relevant for me.

Conflict Avoidance

Now what does this have to do with conflict avoidance, you might ask?  Or have I just gotten way off track?  The title would lead you to believe that this article is supposed to be about learning to face conflict, and so far it’s all been about emotions and pain – suppressed and expressed. Let me bring things back around.

Learning What I Need to Learn

I have spent my whole life trying to avoid conflict.  And one of the key aspects of my avoidance is the suppression of my thoughts and feelings.

My main approach for avoiding conflict is to hide how I’m really feeling.  So basically my life has been one constant episode of suppressed emotions.  Which, if the research is true, might explain the chronic pain issues that I’m now facing.

The Healthy Holistic Living article addresses the need to express negative emotions.  And it gives suggestions for exactly how to do that – such as venting to a friend, confronting the person and therapy.  But, for me, this doesn’t quite go far enough.

To truly conquer my suppressed emotions I’m going to need to learn how to confront conflict head-on in a constructive and positive manner.  It’s the only way I’m going to make a significant change in my emotional health.

I need to learn to be assertive.

Accommodating to Assertive:  My Path, My Power

What I’ve come to realize is that making the change from being accommodating to being assertive is going to require a two-pronged approach.

In order to face conflict straight on – in a healthy and constructive way – it’s crucial to both learn some skills AND to address the reason that conflict avoidance became such an important coping skill in the first place.

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3 Critical Skills for Successful Conflict Management

All my personal research on conflict resolution and being assertive has shown me that there are endless resources to teach you techniques for being assertive in all sorts of situations. There are all kinds of tips, tricks, and skills you can learn to get you on the road to being assertive.

But, if you have as much trouble with conflict as me, you might need to get even more basic.

Here are the three skills I’ve identified as being necessary to create a strong foundation from which to face conflict.

Facing Conflict - Skill #1 :: Keep Calm Under Stress

Even the mere hint of conflict causes a huge STRESS reaction in me.  My heart races and basically my mind completely shut down.  I essentially lose my ability to form cohesive thoughts and put together logical arguments. I get so flustered that I can’t contribute anything of substance.

Frustratingly, approximately fifteen minutes after the “discussion” ends, my brain kicks back into gear, and I think of all the things that I could’ve said to present my case in a succinct and logical manner.

If you find yourself in this situation, the first step is to understand exactly what is going on – the quick answer is that your body has instantly gone into fight or flight mode.  And what you need to do is short-circuit the whole process.

You need to trick your body into thinking that it isn’t under duress.

You need to get your mind to re-evaluate the situation and to revert to normal brain mode.  Two tricks you can use to keep your brain calm are: slowing your breathing and changing how you’re thinking about the situations.

For concrete tips on how to do just that, check out: Use Neuroscience to Remain Calm Under Pressure.

Facing Conflict - Skill #2 :: Keep Emotions in Check

Keeping my brain unstressed and engaged is only part of the battle – there’s still the emotions to contend with.  So, even if I manage to stay calm in the face of impending stress, my mind still goes haywire.

I have been accused of being over-emotional more than once, and I tend to be a bit of crier – I don’t mean to be, I just get overwhelmed – If you’re anything like me, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that my brain freezes.

In order to successfully engage in conflict, keeping your emotions in check is critical.  Some of the techniques to avoid the emotional overwhelm are the same as those for keeping calm: regulating your breathing and using the power of your thoughts to keep the emotions at bay.  But, these in the moment techniques will only get you so far.

This is where preparation is going to be key.

Therapy to work through the reasons behind your over-sensitive response is a good place to start.

I’m going to postulate that the seemingly unrelated emotions that erupt during moments of stress and conflict have deep roots in psychological trauma – and a counselor is going to be able to help you dig down and address the underlying problem so that you can start to put your best assertive foot forward.

The other piece to learn to keep your emotions in check is straight up practice.

That’s right, you’re going to need to put yourself into conflict situations so that you can become adept at managing the emotional onslaught.  Of course, just running out and finding a BIG conflict isn’t going to do the trick.  In fact, it would be quite damaging.

The trick is to start small and work up to actual conflict.  You can use a combination of techniques, such as role-playing and visualization – did you know that your brain doesn’t know the difference between imagining you’re doing something and actually doing it?

The process of gradually exposing yourself to increasingly difficult situations is known as Exposure Therapy.  Anxiety BC’s article, Exposure Therapy for Social Anxiety, lays out on approach to Exposure Therapy – it’s specifically geared at social anxiety, but the principles are easily translatable to learning to become assertive without causing a cascade of negative emotions.

Facing Conflict - Skill #3 :: Focus on Facts

Rather than emotions, focus on facts. The final aspect of keeping your cool during potential conflict also involves emotions.  There are the emotions that you feel in the moment when “doing battle,” as we addressed in point two above, but there are also deeper emotions connected to the issue at hand.  In order to be assertive and successfully navigate conflict, it’s critical to be able to separate the facts of the matter from the emotions connected to the issue.

Sometimes the reason behind our strong stress reaction to a situation is that we’re too emotionally invested in the outcome – whether the emotions are relevant to the actual situation or not – which makes it difficult to stay focused on the facts.

Humans are complicated beings, and we often have emotional attachments that require peeling back multiple layers to really understand the triggers.  And these emotional issues can really play havoc with our ability to reason under duress.

Humans are complicated beings, and we often have emotional attachments that require peeling back multiple layers to really understand the triggers.  And these emotional issues can really play havoc with our ability to reason under duress.
— Nicole Eby,

So as you’re laying out your “arguments,” it’s important that you are focusing on the actual facts of the matter, and not getting distracted by those renegade emotions.

Extra tip: keep in mind that every person in the discussion will have some kind of emotional investments, so it’s important to make sure that you’re focusing on their “facts” and not their emotions.

More Resources to Deal with Conflict Straight On

My tips are just the very basics to get you started on your path of emotional expression and assertiveness.  To really bloom, you’ll have to keep learning and growing.

There are lots of resources out there – from articles to courses – but if you’d like a few links to get you started with some concrete strategies for dealing with conflict AKA being assertive, check out the following articles:

Figure Out Why You Choose to Avoid Conflict

Gaining the skills necessary to take the first steps towards joining in the conflict is only one part of the challenge.  The other part is to figure out why you do it in the first place?

  • Why aren’t you assertive?
  • Why do you avoid conflict at all costs?
  • Why do you keep your emotions locked inside instead of expressing them?
Not all conflict is negative; it’s actually a necessary part of change and productivity.
— Nicole Eby

Not all conflict is negative; it’s actually a necessary part of change and productivity.  Without conflict, nothing would change – even evolution is a biological response to conflict.

Coming Home to Myself

Being assertive is essentially the fine art of expressing emotions and desires in a constructive way so that others can hear you and acknowledge your importance.

Because that’s really what it’s all about: recognizing that you ARE just as important as the people who surround you.  Being able to put it all out there doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get everything exactly the way you want it.  But, at least your vote will get counted.

NOTE: Having a voice and being acknowledged as important isn’t synonymous with being declared right. The other person can maintain a completely different view from you and this doesn’t lessen you in any way

RELATED: 7 Powerful Practices of Courage You Need To Master On The Journey Home To Yourself

When it comes to managing my chronic pain, the truth is that both expressing my emotions and suppressing them can have a negative impact on my pain level.  

For me, as most things, moderation holds the key to emotional expression when it comes to pain.  In the name of pain management don’t get too expressive, but don’t hold it all in either!

The truth is that whether it actually has an impact on my pain levels, my tendency to avoid conflict is something that I need to address.  Of course, seeking out conflict just for the sake of conflict isn’t going to be a positive alternative either – but I need to get myself in the conversation.

I’d be willing to bet that buried under all the layers of emotions and traumas that have led me to be a conflict avoider, I just might find a vulnerable, sensitive girl who has what it takes to put an assertive foot forward.

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About the Author

Nicole Eby on thriving through conflict - going from pain to gain - Guest Post - Path of Presence - Personal Growth - Self Improvement Blog.jpg

I’m Nicole, and I live on the west coast of Canada with my husband and three children. I try to embrace an outdoor oriented, active lifestyle that’s friendly to the planet. My blog is an outlet for me to indulge in my passion for writing and maybe sort through some of the chaos that seems to permeate my life.

Join me as a I explore the chaos that chronic pain, anxiety, twins, fighting to stay active and a “sugar addiction” bring to my life.

Come along as I search for calmer and gentler ways to live.  Maybe together we can manifest the best versions of ourselves.

Find, Support, and Follow Nicole Eby on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

What Do You Think Friends...?

  • What have you learned about the mind-body connection from Ms. Nicole's story?

  • What fascinates you most about learning the counter actions to conflict avoidance?

  • What are your tips to face conflict head on?  

  • If you suffer from pain, do you notice a link between pain and suppressed emotions? 

  • Have you overcome your conflict avoidance and learned to be assertive?  

I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below!