friendship

"I was hiding my real feelings." After months of avoiding conflict, I lost my best friend.

Recently, I’ve separated from someone I’d been very close to for 10 whole years. It wasn’t a romantic partner. It wasn’t a family member nor a mentor, although both roles fit the description at times. Family more often than not.

I lost my best friend.

And I lost her after months of avoiding conflict, which only ended up escalating it when it finally came down to it. When I think about it, though, it wasn’t only a few months that I was hiding my real feelings — it’s been years since I started establishing this sort of behaviour, this phobia of any conflict whatsoever. 

It’s been years since I properly argued, since I fought back, fought for my own self rather than for peace within the friendship.

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She got used to crossing my boundaries. Because I didn’t stop her. Because I didn’t properly tell her where exactly they were. Because every single time we had a fight, I ended up thinking about how upset she was, how I had to make it up to her, how I wanted her to calm down, come back and make peace with me. I didn’t think about my anger, my hurt feelings or how I could care for myself.

I’m a people-pleaser at the core, and it shows.

Avoiding conflict in relationships is often what breaks them, slowly, invisibly, until one day, you realise that you feel hollow inside, that you don’t have a say, that you need to take a break from the other person only to find yourself again.

If you don’t tell them and start distancing yourself away from them without any explanation, though, they will eventually explode at you — and the whole strategy backfires. You’re right in the middle of the conflict, crying, getting drunk, ranting about them to everyone, living with that dark anger bubbling underneath your skin for weeks to come.

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You break up. And only after months of self-reflection do you start thinking about where you went wrong instead of demonising them.

Here’s how to tell that you’ve been avoiding conflict in a relationship.

You’re walking on eggshells.

You care way too much. Every single time you do something, you automatically wonder if they’d approve. If they’d judge you, get upset at you, mock you. Even if that’s not what they usually do.

You can feel it deep down — that fear. You’re horrified that they might disagree with your actions and words, that they might get angry. You live with it for so long that you forget when it even started. It’s a constant source of invisible stress, this burden on your shoulders that weighs on you without telling you what exactly it is.

You do everything in your power to prevent your actions from causing any sort of argument.

The eggshells do break eventually. You’ve seen it coming. Trying to walk on eggshells is doomed from the very beginning.

You roll with whatever they say.

I was tired of arguing, of heated discussions, of getting tripped up on my words. So I found myself nodding more often than I actually agreed.

Every time you know what you want to say, you either stay quiet or you downplay it. You make everything seem like a smaller issue than it actually is; you dilute your words with I don’t know and I’m not sure.

This way, you don’t hurt their feelings. You don’t make them upset by stating exactly what you mean. However, this behaviour backfires, just like everything does when you avoid facing it for too long.

First of all, you confuse them. They’re not sure what it is exactly you want, which makes it difficult for them to navigate your boundaries and wishes. Secondly, by making everything sound like it’s not a big deal, you put yourself in an inferior position. They have requirements and demands — you have nothing.

You obey. It’s easier that way. But every single time you suppress what you want to say, every time you avoid conflict between the two of you, it looks for some place else to go. And that’s yourself. It settles within you, this constant struggle to be heard dulled down by the massive fear of speaking out.

In his TED Talk, "Avoid Avoiding Conflict", David Thornsen, PsyD says:

"The compromise that the internalised conflict requires is that we compromise a bit of ourselves. Every time. And it builds up, and it has a way of chipping away at a person’s sense of self."

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You’re smaller and smaller. Until you don’t even know where your place in the relationship is.

You defend their hurtful actions.

When they say something hurtful, you find yourself justifying them. You excuse them in your eyes and when someone else tries to challenge it; you fight tooth and nail to clear their name and explain their reasons.

"That’s just how they are, it’s fine, I like it."

"They didn’t mean it that way. It was a joke."

"What? Oh, that? That was nothing. I said some hurtful things too, at some point in the past."

You feel uncomfortable when these topics get brought up. That’s because you know there’s some truth to it. You know you don’t like how they act. Yet you buffer it up with all the nice things they’ve done for you in the past.

They don’t know her enough. They wouldn’t understand. You rationalise your way out of it.

You don’t want to admit to yourself that there are problems. These desperately need to be addressed. You don’t bother. It’s easier not to.

I grew up in a violent environment. I never knew when I’d be shouted at when my things would be thrown around the room and destroyed, when I’d be allowed to go out or when my dad would be nasty for no obvious reason.

Because of this, I value peace. Contentment and silence. Stability and security. Because of this, I did everything within my power to keep my friendship from falling apart — but I did it wrong. Conflicts don’t necessarily cause breakups.

Deep-rooted resentment does.

As your sense of the self gets chipped away each time you decide not to speak up, you collect little grudges. The anger makes your stomach hurt. The resentment makes you roll your eyes in exasperation. You accumulate so much conflict within yourself that after some time, you just give up.

Just like that.

One day, you realise that you don’t care anymore. That you hate your role in this relationship, you hate how you’re portrayed, how you’re sometimes treated, how you’re talked about. Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily have to mean that your partner or friend is a nasty monster — things are usually more complicated than that.

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Sometimes, you had a role to play in this. Sometimes, this role is being a passive recipient who rarely complains. Sometimes, you detest who you turned out to be in their eyes because you realise they got it wrong.

That you made them have it wrong.

Because you kept quiet when you should have spoken up.

And as many faults as they need to work on, this is your cross to bear. You’re the one to do the self-work.

Here are a few ideas so as to how.

Be honest.

A few days back, I was in a café with a few people who I’d just met. After an hour and a half, I started feeling tired of social interaction. I had two options: 1) stay there, get more and more annoyed, stop being fun to talk to and have an experience that would make it harder for me to go out again, or 2) tell them I’m leaving.

Once I realised I’d have to go for option two for my own benefit, I started feeling anxious. I didn’t want to cause any conflict, to offend or to show that I’m not having fun anymore. But I knew it was the healthy way. So I got over myself.

I said I was getting tired; I said my goodbyes, everyone was nice about it and I left. No big deal.

When you’re being upfront with people, they usually appreciate it. You’re kindly setting boundaries, you’re showing that you’re prioritising yourself. And that’s good. It builds trust.

Always make sure to be nice about it. Refrain from passive aggressivity, which is what it might come down to precisely if you ignore your needs for too long and get frustrated about it.

Practise being honest. Even when it makes you feel like your stomach is upside down.

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Respect yourself.

When you’re honest with people in a nice and firm way, it automatically builds some respect. What’s important, though, is to have respect for yourself first and foremost.

People will respect you if you respect who you are.

Tell yourself affirmation words that come easily to you and you find them helpful. Journal or write down a list of all the qualities you love about yourself. Reflect upon who you are and what you need to be happy. If you’re an introvert like me, realise that it’s okay to leave social events early and to decline invitations when it’s in your own interest to do so.

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Hype yourself up. And practise setting boundaries.

See conflict as an opportunity.

In a TED Talk "Finding Confidence in Conflict", Kwame Christian says that we should see conflict as an opportunity — it either strengthens valuable relationships or it helps you identify those that are not good for you, which makes it easier to get rid of them before they eat at you.

"As the relationships get closer, the stakes get higher," he says. That’s exactly why I feared conflict in my friendship. I was so scared of losing it at any point that I gave in to the illusion of it being conflict free.

However, the conflict is what ultimately makes or breaks the deal.

If you want to give your time to someone for many years to come, you need to know if you’re able to handle conflict and complicated issues together. If that’s not the case, at least you know it’s probably not meant to be. It saves you time, and it helps you bond with people who are truly worth it.

Compassionate curiosity.

This is a concept that Kwame Christian talks about in his speech. He describes it as a "genuine desire to understand tempered with empathy and respect." Instead of fighting hard for your own point all the time, you should learn to listen during arguments.

There are three primal responses to conflict — fight, flight and freeze. By using compassionate curiosity, you don’t give in to any of these — your reason rules over your biological reactions. According to Kwame, we should "ask better, deeper, more penetrating questions and listen more effectively".

It’s important to open yourself up to being vulnerable, to the possibility of being wrong or to potentially losing a relationship. That takes a lot of self-work and a lot of courage. In the end, though, using conflict as a rational tool rather than giving in to the emotional outburst will make it more useful and will lead to better results for your overall happiness.

Exposure therapy.

I have battled with anxiety my whole life, and recently it has gotten much better. This is because I’ve been undergoing my own form of exposure therapy for a long time now. The more you practice, the better you get at something.

The more you stand up for yourself, the more you prove to yourself that you have respect and love for who you are. The more you face conflict with your head held high even when you’re scared, the less horrifying it will get.

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Most of all, you’ll realise that with most people who care about you, handling conflict is actually not so difficult if you approach it with compassionate curiosity. You can go through your issues, identify them and solve the problem together. And if this doesn’t work out, maybe that’s precisely the information you need to know — this relationship might not be the best for you.

Letting someone go hurts, but it might be what will ultimately make you happier. Conflict helps with that. It doesn’t have to be a horrible thing lurking in the shadows. It can be a source of light that tells you exactly what you need to know.

We people-pleasers struggle with prioritising and standing up for ourselves.

Let’s prove to ourselves that we can do it. Let’s stand up for what we believe in. Let’s speak up. For the sake of ourselves as well as the relationships we value.

You can read more from Kate Feathers on Medium and News Break. You can also sign up to her newsletter here.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. 

Feature Image: Getty. The feature image used is a stock image.

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