Conflict: It’s Personal

Circumstances alone do not create Problematic Interpersonal Conflict*, we people involved in those circumstances experience Problematic Interpersonal Conflict within ourselves. It is due to our human nature as social, psychological, emotional, spiritual and biological beings that we struggle to be able to cooperate calmly in some conflict situations. Certainly, very high degrees of conflict due to aggression or violence will generally excite a reasonably strong reaction in most people. But where the conflict context is not life threatening, the degree to which any individual reacts to a conflict situation is personal to themselves, and to the other people involved.

We are not Vulcans. We have not, as a species, formally adopted a quasi-religious cultural practice of suppressing all emotion in favour of logic and reason. (However, many of us have attempted to do that, consciously or unconsciously, with varying results.) We each are emotional beings with a unique psychological soup of genetics and early childhood experiences, trauma and coping strategies, fears and shame, that all come into play when we are confronted with Problematic Interpersonal Conflict. It is our emotional/biological self that puts us on high alert, that lets us know that we need to pay attention, that signals that we may be in danger and need to be on our guard for threats.

We are communal creatures. One of the surviving instincts in our human heritage is to ensure that we are valued and included by our group of humans. We need to belong, or we will die. We need the protection and support of other people to ensure that we have safety and shelter, food and warmth. This is not merely an instinct for physical survival; we are wired for emotional and social belonging for our survival as well. We need companionship and mutual positive regard to be wholly healthy human beings. We need to feel close to and secure with other people, and when that feels insecure, we feel threatened.

We are not all quite the same as each other. Although we all have the same basic needs, we each have come through our lives with a unique set of circumstances and experiences which have shaped how we interact with ourselves and with the world. Our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and how the world works have been shaped by our biological parentage, our gestational environment, and our early and later developmental experiences. Any traumatic events during these times, and into adulthood, will have impacted what we are sensitive to and reactive to, and what kind of pressures we can tolerate. While there are themes and similarities between people’s stories, no one else has experienced exactly what we have.

We are not always the same as ourselves. Our mood and energy and stress levels vary from hour to hour, day to day and year to year, over our lifetime. The way we respond to a challenging situation in one moment on one day may be significantly different from how we will respond at a different time, depending on our particular levels of resilience in those moments. There may be deep healing that has occurred which alters our response to previously triggering situations, or a recent loss may have “pulled the rug out from under us” and caused us to need a lot of protection from stressors for a time. Things change in life which impact how we feel and behave from one moment to another.

Love covers a multitude of sins. Depending on with whom we are in conflict, we may be reactive and triggered or we may merely feel irritated, or amused and forgiving. We may feel deeply threatened, or we may feel concerned. When there exists a sense of security, deep positive regard, affection, and trust with another person, we are more able to interpret circumstances through the lens of our relationship with them, and how we experience that other person ourselves. When there exists a lack of positive regard and trust, or if the environment of the conflict is connected to past trauma, we may react with defensiveness, anger, and suspicion. Our sense of security in the relationship with the person involved in the conflict impacts our level of reactivity.

There is more to understand about our experiences with conflict than the specific details and facts of the circumstances. We bring ourselves into every conflict we experience, and we are required to work it out with other people who bring their whole selves. The more deeply each of us can understand our own selves and what we are bringing to the conflict at hand, the better equipped we will be to resolve the deeper issues which contribute to Problematic Interpersonal Conflict. It won’t change the facts of the conflict, but it will change how we understand those facts and will lead us to a more deeply satisfying resolution. 

* Interpersonal conflict is common and healthy. I’ve coined the term Problematic interpersonal Conflict to indicate interpersonal conflict which has become disruptive to an individual or individuals to the degree that there is a breakdown in ability to continue to function in a desirable manner.