By Dr. Julie Ann Allender
A son disappoints a Mom once again for Mother’s Day and the first instinct is to share with him the hurt and anger that he continues to create. What makes it even more difficult is that others would ask what the son did on Mother’s Day and the Mom wasn’t able to say he did much to make her feel appreciated. Was she a bad Mom?
The Mom had two days to think about it. He called the following night. His response was when the Mom’s affect was clearly not cheerful was to say, “What did I do wrong Now?” She was tired of saying the same old thing over and over, year after year. She said, “I wasn’t willing to talk about it and we could talk about something else. She had nothing to offer at that point and neither did he, so they hung up both knowing it felt bad.
He called back a few minutes later trying again. This time he responded in a more positive manner and started a conversation that was to last approximately 30 minutes. It was a pleasant conversation. They didn’t talk about the real issue. She asked him about his summer and if he had talked to his wife about this summer when he was going again to his summer job a few hundred miles away about the conflict that occurred the previous summer. He said no. “You know mom I don’t like conflict.” Avoiding conflict creates a much harsher form of conflict. It is similar to the saying that, “Not making a decision is making a decision” and carries consequences.
Avoiding conflict often creates hurt, anger, frustration and other negative feelings between the individuals that the avoider thinks he/she is preventing. It becomes a lose-lose situation rather than a win-win situation. In the instance of Mother’s Day the disappointment of not being a mother that felt special the son knew he would hear the Mom’s disappointment and then what? His way of dealing with it was to blame the Mom. “What did I do wrong NOW?” There was no apology, just tossing the responsibility in the opposite direction leaving the receiver feeling even worse.
The good part is it led to a lot of discussions and insights such as the issue of avoiding dealing with conflict. How avoiding conflict prevents one from accomplishing tasks and goals. How avoiding conflict makes one feel sad and helpless. How avoiding conflict creates losses by avoiding dealing with conflict such the negative effects as divorce, separation, poor parental relationships and creating a painful work environment.
One patient even said he used to feel, “It was my way or the highway.” If he was in charge or “right” than there was no way for him to feel like a failure. In exploring this further we were able to extract the underlying thinking. He was fearful of losing control and needing to be right to protect his self-esteem, which at the time was low. What he realized was how much he thwarted friendships and was pushing people away.
At work it was a powerful position if one were in a leadership position. He/she could feel like “the boss”. He/she was better than everyone else and able to make much better decisions. He/she didn’t see how he was alienating others who might have a lot to offer.
At home it made it difficult for other family members or friends to feel they were being respected or heard. It would be easy to shut down. It would lead to stuffing feelings, being afraid to be open and honest with parents, teachers, family or friends rather than building a healthy open means of communicating. At home it becomes even more dangerous once the avoidance of conflict leads to shutting down. This can lead to physical violence, suicide and other acting out behaviors.
The avoidance of conflict allows the silent party to feel vindicated. He/she didn’t do anything wrong, because they didn’t do anything. The not doing anything still has consequences. The person may internalize their anger or hurt and become passive aggressive. They may do things to sabotage the other person or situation. They may think it is easier to come late to avoid an event rather than just say they are uncomfortable going to the event. The thinking might go, “I got tied up. It wasn’t my fault. I had to work a few extra minutes. It shouldn’t make a difference. If it is such a big deal than I am going home. I shouldn’t have come anyway. I knew you were going to find something with which to be angry with me. You should be happy I finally got here.”
Avoidance of conflict doesn’t eliminate the problem it often adds to the problem. It is the old saying that, “If you lie to me I will be angry for what you did and now I will also be angry for your trying to cover it up.” The irony is that if one actually faces the conflict one may discover that it wasn’t really a big deal. They may learn from the conflict and learn that both sides can and often do feel better in the end. That is a Win-Win.
Is it fair to say that one sets up expectations that are too high, rigid or demanding? Sometimes that is true. It can be a problem that the person avoiding conflict knows that avoiding may lessen the negative consequences. If it is for safety it certainly should be considered. If it is avoiding dealing with the fear of having to face negative emotions it probably is a better choice to at least give it a try. As I usually tell patients, if you give it a try you have a 50/50 chance of something good coming out of it. If you do nothing you have a zero chance of it getting better. I like the odds of the former choice.
Conflict that is someone else’s fault, Your Fault, is often blaming that should never have been accused in the first place. Road rage is a good example of this. The angry person who may not have learned how to deal with conflict displaces it onto someone he or she doesn’t even know and then has to deal with the consequences.
Conflict that is My Fault needs to be evaluated whether it is really my fault or am I taking on someone else problem. I frequently get patients, usually women, to come in assuming they are the cause of a major issue only to learn the other person had a hand in the problem. If someone is drinking and driving and causes an accident that is when My Fault is appropriate.
No Fault is looking at it from a more realistic point of view and trying to evaluate the situation without placing blame. When the Amish family in Lancaster PA had 11 of their young girls killed they didn’t point a finger in the crisis. They looked at both sides and tried to help both sides heal. That was a totally impressive response to a horrific event. We need to learn to listen to each other and learn to understand what the other person is saying and feeling. The world would be a very different place if we took the No Fault approach.
I remember a patient many years ago that died in a DUI accident as he was driving to pick up his teenage son, who said about his wife on Mother’s Day, “She isn’t my mother.” His avoidance of conflict cost him his marriage, his children and in the end his life. But dammit he died being right!Dr. Julie Ann Allender has been a licensed psychologist in private practice since 1980. A native of Wood Dale, Illinois, Dr. Allender received her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. She received her M.Ed. and Ed.D. in Psychoeducational Processes (PEP) at Temple University in Philadelphia. PEP was a program that focused on group dynamics, organizational development and humanistic education. It was a pioneering program in humanistic education and psychology way before its time. Dr. Allender's education also included a two-year Graduate Student Professional Development Program (GSPDP) from NTL, National Training Laboratories, Institute in Bethel, Maine. She had a private practice in Lebanon, Pennsylvania for the past 20 years.
Dr. Allender has been an adjunct faculty member at numerous universities and colleges including: Temple University, Philadelphia College of Textile and Science, Thomas Jefferson University and the Pennsylvania State University. She is a staff consultant to The Good Samaritan Hospital in Lebanon, PA & Specified Professional Personnel in Psychology at Abington Hospital in Lansdale, PA. Dr. Allender is the author of two books: End of My Rope - Gender Cooperation Model and Chronic Illness: Healing the Wounded Heart, a contributor in 20 Active Training Programs by Mel Silberman and co-authored a parent/teacher/student school program Kid Concerns. She has been published widely in professional journals. She has also produced a deck of 54 Motivation Cards to help people get through the day.
Dr. Allender is a member of American Psychological Association, Pennsylvania Psychological Association, Association for Humanistic Psychology, past president of the Lancaster-Lebanon Psychological Association, past board member of Big Brother Big Sister and PROBE and has served on other community boards. Dr. Allender was an integral part to the Homebased Businesswomen’s Network in Beverly-Salem, MA in the early 80’s. She then founded and coordinated the Homebased Businesswomen's Network of the Lebanon Valley, Lebanon, Pennsylvania in 1984. In 2003, Dr. Allender established a practice in Sellersville, PA called Pet and People Therapy where she utilizes various therapies, including e-therapy. For more information, visit http://www.drjulieann.com/ and http://www.pettherapyparadisepark.com/