This article looks at the value and danger of various negative emotions when it comes to resolving interpersonal conflict. This follows Part 1.
Each emotion has its own considerations and pitfalls. Negative emotions in particular are easily misunderstood. One’s first impulse can be to push them away, whether through denial or self-shaming. But negative feelings show us something is wrong, and can provide the motive towards resolving it. When tempered, understood, and balanced out, they are an essential part of finding resolutions.
Anger is one of the most common emotions in an interpersonal conflict. Whether it’s as rage, resentment, or annoyance, anger pushes back against some aspect of your reality. While it can seem unproductive, anger can also serve as fuel for resolution. We get angry because we want the situation to change!
So do not dismiss your anger. It has its own logic, validity, and purpose.
Anger doesn’t have all the answers, though. It often presents us with easy answers, but these solutions are often blind to their true effect. They need to be balanced. Otherwise, you might end up causing harm to others. And that includes emotional harm.
Anger’s demands often amount to shortcuts. That does not mean that the anger loses its value. It just means you need a more comprehensive understanding of the situation.
Understanding Your Anger
Ask yourself: “What can I do to best support anger’s priorities while not causing harm?”
If you don’t know anger’s priorities, ask your anger what it wants. More often than not, it’ll tell you! Does it want them to shut up? Does it want them to apologize?
Whatever your anger wants, consider what positive feelings would come from getting what it wants. Often, anger just wants to feel okay. It wants harmony, or peace. For instance if it demands respect, think of what comes after the respect is achieved. Perhaps, relaxation?
You might not know a healthy way to support that underlying positive need right now. That’s okay. The first step is knowing that need. Next, ask your anger, “why do you need that?” Listen to what it has to say. There might be a story there. Maybe it’s been without peace, respect, or relaxation for a long time.
Next, ask your anger, “how can I give you your need?” Brainstorm with it. Maybe you need some time to yourself to rest and recover from a stressful situation. Maybe you need to talk it out with this person, but you’re afraid to. Whatever you come up with, make sure it’s in cooperation with your anger, not in opposition to it. You may butt heads, but there’s no need to lock it into a stalemate.
The Trap of Blame
There will be a temptation to blame the other person, to see an answer only in them taking action. Your anger might demand this. But that puts your power in the hands of another person. It leaves resolution, essentially, up to miraculous good will. It also introduces chaos, with which you’re probably already familiar! No one else ought to be solely responsible for your well-being. By continuing to blame, you keep unjust situations alive of your own will. It is for your own sake that you need to take responsibility. You need to look for what you can do to help yourself.
You may want to shout, “It’s their fault!”. But you must also be ready to ask, “Now, what can I do?”
Finding Balance when Angry
It’s also important to consider that sometimes anger can become so fierce that it blinds you to everything else. To see better in these moments, you may need to physically move to a new location. Consider basic needs. Do you need water, sleep, food? Since anger is often focused on what you can’t have, it’s important to consider what you can have. Breath, body, voice, time, food, positive relationships, or even just a walk to another room. By focusing on what you can have, you can take your power back without struggle and strife.
Each of us has our own set of behavioral standards. When we see others breaking with those standards, we can let it fuel our resentment. This in turn can keep us in a powerless place in a conflict.
When we’re self-righteous and focused on the other person, it’s easy to stay stuck. One way to move forward is to consider what our moral standard says about ourselves. What does it show us that we want in this conflict?
As hard as it is to accept, sometimes what someone likes or chooses is right for them. What matters to us is how we are affected by their choices. We might not want to be around their behavior. Or maybe something they’re doing is interfering with our lives. Judgment is essentially a symptom of poor boundaries. Thus, this emotion can help you see where you need to work on those boundaries.
Balancing Out Judgment with Understanding
Of course, judgment is not enough for defining boundaries. It advocates pushing people away, even those you might care about. You need understanding to balance it out.
Conflict between two people is a complicated situation. It involves the emotions, perceptions, and realities of two separate worlds. To properly navigate complex situations, you need information. Judgment can form a wall that blocks out the other person’s side of things. That information could make a key difference in how you would want to respond.
For example, let’s say that your friend who you regularly talk to has been silent with you for a week. You think “why would they do that? that’s rude.” You might want to tell them they should let you know when they’re going to be away for a while. That would “reinforce your boundary”, after all.
But what if you learned they actually had a sudden family emergency? Knowing this, you’d likely want to reply in empathy, and not demand as much. The issue would resolve and life would go on peacefully.
This is why you need not only understanding, but the humility to admit what you don’t know. Remain curious! There’s much to learn, and people’s realities might surprise you. At the very least, it helps you to make informed decisions.
How to Use Judgment for Good
That said, don’t shy away from the positive aspect of self-righteousness, either. We need to take its input on-board so we can discover our own boundaries.
Let’s go back to the previous example. Let’s say you ask your friend why they went silent, and they seem rather lazy and non-committal about it. Perhaps to them, remaining quiet was no big deal. Whether it’s right or not, the question still is: what do you want to do about it? They are revealing something about themselves that you need to adapt to.
Occasions like this might require you to dig deep. Maybe you have issues with abandonment. Maybe on some level you got attached to talking regularly, and you need to find a way to let go. Perhaps your inner child is hurt. Perhaps you just need space from the other person to figure out your own feelings. Find what you need, and act. But first, make sure you understand.
Fear of Vulnerability
There’s another aspect to judgment that can involve the fear of being vulnerable to others. Think about it: what happens when we think we’re morally superior to someone we feel vulnerable to? Doesn’t it give us a… minor boost in power? To feel superior pushes back against a sense of lost power. But this does not resolve a situation in a positive way. That’s why it’s more important to understand the situation, the feelings involved, and our boundaries. Superiority is a lesser win. We want pro-active, attentive action that understands and acts towards the well-being of all involved. Only then will moving forward feel truly right.
The message our sadness speaks is often one of change. It’s longing for something different. Awareness of sadness can lead us to an aspect of the situation that’s broken and needs fixing. Sadness is persistent, so finding a satisfactory direction is important.
While sadness does want things to be different, it has a sense of powerlessness towards actually attaining that outcome. It is a condition of many “if only”’s. “If only this person would be fair with me”, “if only they would acknowledge my feelings”, “if only I could find a solution that would make everything just go back to normal”. These sentiments can feel hopeless and useless for finding a resolution, but that’s not entirely true. Each “if only” highlights what you find important to preserve in the situation.
For instance, if your sadness says “if only they’d be fair with me”, this highlights two things. First, that you feel you’re being treated unfairly. Second, that whatever needs to change in the situation must uphold fairness, primarily towards yourself.
Alternatively, in the case of “if only things would go back to normal”, you likely feel chaos in the situation. What you really want here, is peace.
Find What Works
Thus, your sadness points towards something to uphold. But your sadness may cling onto one, singular way to uphold it. And that way is likely out of your control, gone, or lost. So, tough as it is, you need to look for other options. Ways to uphold what sadness values, but that can work.
What if you’re having trouble finding what works? Let’s say you know you value fairness, but can’t see how to get it. Consider these steps, replacing “fair” with whatever your value is:
- You can ask, “What is fair to me in this situation?”. List out your answers.
- Next consider, “Why can’t I have fairness?” You want to understand the obstacles in your way.
- Let’s say your answer is “because they won’t give it to me”, though. That doesn’t give you any options for moving forward. To get that, you want to ask, again, “Why?”. Keep asking questions, and flesh out your understanding of the situation.
- Eventually, you’ll see a way forward. Maybe it takes understanding the other person’s motivation. Why? Because knowing their motive can help you understand how to dialogue with them in a way that makes progress. Or, maybe your sadness just needs that understanding before it can let go and move on.
As much as sadness wants to lament the situation as it understands it, you need a way forward. Cultivate a greater understanding, and find a new way.
You want to also see how current choices may contribute to the situation. This is not to blame yourself or fuel self-punishment. Rather, it’s important to identify areas for change that you can proactively control. Our choices are under our control: whatever you choose, you can choose differently. This power to change choices is especially true when you’re aware of those choices.
The Dead-end of Self-pity
Self-pity is another thing that keeps sadness in place. When we act like we’re pitiful and powerless, we get this false promise of being saved by external forces. We believe the other could “take pity” on us, and thus give us what we want. But part of resolving a conflict is making sure both sides get what they want. Think long-term. If someone gave you something out of pity, does this make for a satisfactory relationship dynamic? By conceding to you, they are sacrificing their authenticity. They can’t work with you, and whatever “win” you get in that situation is a false one. It only serves you to be pitiful, and not well. You want to honor both individuals, otherwise you’re going down the road of isolation. Self-pity limits connection, and is essentially a dead-end when it comes to relationship conflicts.
Ask yourself: where do I feel I am pitiful? And then, what can I do to feel less pitiful? Asking these types of questions can help get you out of stagnation. You want to take responsibility for your feelings and hidden motivations. You want to step towards your power, moving forward, and finding resolution. Pity just keeps you stuck.
Overall, you want to make sure the values from your sadness take you somewhere. Keep those treasures, but find a way to move on. If you want joy in your life, you need to uphold the values you can be truly sad about missing. Sadness can lead us to new heights of happiness – we just need to learn how.
Fear locks us in. It binds our choices so we’re not able to externalize ourselves, connect, or be free. In a relationship conflict, fear often inspires us to shrink away from connection. This is because to fear it can seem like connection comes with pain, suffering, and threatened safety. These beliefs are often due to past relationship traumas, but they can also be learned. Regardless of source, fear tells us we are under attack.
There are many kinds of relationship threats. Maybe the other person is aggressive, or perhaps we’re just afraid to tell someone how we feel. The very idea of actions that interest us can feel scary. When this stops us from taking action, though, it can destroy relationships.
You need to treat fear carefully. But not with more fear! When we’re fearful, often what’s surfacing are the most visceral demands for safety inside ourselves. Imagine a fearful child. To calm them, you don’t demand courage from them or frighten them further. You reassure them, you gently teach them the nature of what they’re afraid of, and how they can be safe. It is like building a safe nest around a vulnerable egg. Bring your fear back to calm by keeping it warm, and showing it that things are safe.
Approaching your Fear
With fear, you need to acknowledge the dangers your fear keenly wants to avoid. Often in interpersonal conflict, this involves an escalation of conflict. We aren’t all experts in how to handle a volatile situation. We’re not always going to know how to avoid a blow-up from the other person. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get better at it. And the best way to do that is to first work with your fear directly. Gently calm yourself down, make sure you aren’t going to get triggered as easily, before approaching the other.
Ask your fear: “what danger are you sensing?” Let’s say it’s that by speaking up, you’ll escalate the situation. You’ll want to figure out how you can say what you need to, then, but without causing said escalation. Maybe when you talk to the other person, you acknowledge their wants and needs first. That way, they feel heard, and are less likely to rage.
What does your fear think about your ideas? Let your fear protest to this process. Let it be a dialogue. You want both your fear and you to feel good about the decision you make. Maybe you’ll need to make plans for if things do go wrong. Maybe your plan truly is too dangerous, and you need your fear’s help to make changes.
It may seem a little odd to externalize your fear like this. But it’s important because you don’t want to confuse your fear with you. You have in you the will to move forward, and you need that voice to be strong and distinct. And you also have a desire for safety, which can help you feel stable down your chosen path.
A No-Avoidance Mindset
Remember too that ignoring or denying the conflict is one way fear tries to get away with resolving it. This leads to isolation, bitterness, and a dissatisfaction with the outcome. For instance if someone is abusing their power over you, it might be incredibly scary to stand up to them. But think about if you take no action. You’re ignoring the conflict, and you’re still getting abused! Do not let fear isolate you and perpetuate a situation that you know needs to change.
When we’re in a conflict with someone, quite often we get confused on some level. While our own behavior may make sense to us, someone else’s might not. This confusion can cause a lot of distress while looking for a way to respond a situation full of unknowns.
In your individual situation, what questions do you need answered? Consider them one at a time – try not to overwhelm yourself. You can even write a list of your questions, and look at the most important ones first.
How do you find good answers to these questions? The way be diverse, but as a general rule you want to feel out your answers. Your feelings can tell you the truth of the situation, or even piece it together by tracing around its edges.
Feeling Out The Truth
Let’s take an example. Say someone who’s normally pretty friendly to you was, one day, quite rude. They answered your question in a snappy way, and didn’t talk to you for the rest of the day. You might wonder, “What did I do wrong?”, and shrink away from the person, avoiding interaction.
But let’s say you feel things out. You may get a dialogue like this: “Well, I don’t think I did anything wrong. Really, I’m only confused about their behavior. I want them to treat me nicely, but I know I don’t control them. Their motive is unknown to me, so maybe there’s something out of the ordinary going on with them. Usually they like treating others in a friendly way, so maybe they also feel bad about what they did. I know it might be they’re getting sensitive after going through an unknown issue in their lives. I can ask them about it, gently, to find out more. Maybe I’ll ask if they’re doing okay, and say what I notice in their behavior. If I show concern, it isn’t confrontational.”
Eventually, you arrive at a feeling of satisfaction. You’re set to ask questions in a way that feels right, and you’re not making assumptions.
This is what I mean by answering your own questions. A question is only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s up to you to explore the rest. Curiosity and openness are your allies. We are confused by the things we do not understand, and we do not understand because we cannot see. So, go looking.
Confusion, then, is extremely valuable in the sense that it provides motivation to look for greater understanding – to learn. In an interpersonal conflict, confusion is showing you that by learning, you might find your resolution.
That wraps up the discussion of the negative emotions during times of interpersonal conflict. Next, we’ll be talking about the positive emotions, and what you need to consider.