New Roots Therapy Blog

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The “C” Word: Understanding and De-escalating Conflict in your Relationships

Post written by: Melissa Kroonenberg, Relationship Therapist

According to Webster’s dictionary, there are three definitions of conflict:

1. Fight, Battle, War (an armed conflict)

2. (a) Competitive or opposing action of incompatibilities: Antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)

(b) Mental Struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands

3. The opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction

I’ve found throughout my life and my experience as a therapist that “conflict” is often viewed as an uncomfortable, unnecessary, and damaging thing.  A characterization that makes sense if you consider the first definition of conflict listed above.  And when I discuss my client’s experience of conflict with them, they often describe it in a way that is in line with the first definition.  Each person comes to “battle”, “armed” with a tonne of psychological artillery that is sure to win the overall fight.  What a terrifying prospect!

It’s not like I don’t identify with this perception of conflict, too.  However, over the course of my life, my relationship with conflict has shifted. At first, it began as a terrifying possibility – when I thought someone was mad or upset with me – rendering me passive and paralyzed in the relationship. Then it moved into a protest phase where I spent considerable time and effort trying to control the people and elements involved in order to avoid conflict at any cost. Finally, it moved into a place where I could begin to see conflict as an opportunity for growth and empowerment, rather than letting it bulldoze me or actively trying to stop or avoid it.

Ultimately, conflict – despite its bad rap – is an unavoidable, natural, and (wait for it) healthy part of close relationships. Over time, relationships transition and require a renegotiation of needs and hopes in order for the relationship to evolve and thrive, which is much more representative of the second definition of conflict.  What it comes down to is understanding the distinction between generative conflict and degenerative conflict.

Generative conflict is a process where the participants involved have an awareness for, and acceptance of, the core emotions they’re experiencing, as well as the ability to clearly and respectfully communicate those feelings to the other(s) involved. The focus isn’t on squashing your feelings or denying them – it’s about responding to your emotions consciously and with intention vs. reacting to them automatically.  Generative conflict also requires flexible thinking and an openness to hear the emotional experiences of the other, which means holding multiple perspectives simultaneously (e.g., yours and the other). The desire for mutual understanding and resolution, as well as the appreciation of complex feelings and perspectives, underlies this type of conflict.

Degenerative conflict, by contrast, is a process where understanding, awareness, and flexibility are undermined by the desire for one or both members to control the argument.  In this way, people are either mutually interested or invited into a power struggle to the psychological death!  The goal of mutual understanding and appreciation for the outcome of the conflict is obscured by the desire to “win the fight”.  This can look like one person “emotionally attacking” while the other “defends” their position, or it can look like both/all parties involved mutually attacking one another with insults, accusations, judgements, sarcasm, and harmful criticisms.  Degenerative conflict not only eliminates the possibility of evolving the relationship into something healthier, it also erodes trust, facilitates emotional injury, damages the emotional bond, and sets the stage for future degenerative conflict and tension.

Everyone deserves the right to be treated with respect, openness, and curiosity, even during times when anger is present. Although it can be difficult at times, we all have a responsibility to the people we’re in relationships with to take care of each other, and ourselves, even in the face of anger. And if anger gets the better of you – and sometimes it will – then the ability to own it and take responsibility for your own emotional reaction is imperative for conflict to remain generative. Making mistakes in an argument from time to time (e.g., criticizing, attacking, etc.) does not create degenerative conflict in and of itself.  Rather, it’s the lack of responsibility taken for the mistakes over time that will distinguish generative from degenerative conflict.

Below are some tips for staying generative during conflict:

  • Awareness: practice awareness of your feelings and be clear and specific about what is causing the tension or distress before engaging someone in a conversation about it. It’s also important to practice awareness of your emotions during the conflict. Pay attention to your feelings as things come up in the conversation. If you feel like you’re getting too heated, take a break to cool down until you feel like you’re able to return to a more generative conversation.
  • Self-care: If you’re feeling really angry with someone, wait to talk to them until you feel like you can be more flexible and open to what the other has to say; respond to your anger first, don’t react to it!
  • Decline the invitation to engage: If someone comes at you with a complaint and they’re acting hostile, aggressive, attacking, critical, or disrespectful, respectfully decline the invitation to engage with them until they feel more able to be generative. This can be done with kindness and compassion.  For example: “I’m feeling attacked, I can see you’re angry but it’s hard for me to have a conversation with you when I’m feeling attacked”. There will be times when you won’t be able to get that sentence out because the other person might be so heated that they will talk over top of you. In this case, just remove yourself from the situation and try to explain later why you had to go. Trying to discuss anything with anyone who is so worked up that they’re acting hostile, is like talking to someone who is intoxicated- you will not get anywhere productive.

When I reflect on the times that I’ve felt most anxious about bringing up a concern with someone or discussing tensions, it was when I believed that degenerative conflict would take place. Ultimately, you cannot control how others will respond when you raise concerns but you can decline the invitation to engage in ways that you know will be harmful to you and the relationship. In fact, showing people that you will not engage in degenerative conflict will not only help you feel empowered over which kinds of tension you allow in your life, it’s also likely to lessen the fears and anxieties that others have when they need to approach you about something awkward or tense.

Is the distinction between generative and degenerative conflict helpful to you?  Let us know how in the comments below!

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How to Practice Self-Love When You Don’t Know Where To Start

Post Written By: Corinne Carter, Relationship Therapist

“Love yourself first and everything else falls in line. You really have to love yourself in order to get anything done in this world.” – Lucille Ball

“Self-love” and “self-care” are terms you’ve likely heard before, especially if you’ve read some of our previous posts! They’re terms that get used a lot in the personal development space, and for good reason – loving yourself, and developing practices of caring for yourself, are the foundation for every aspect of your health and well-being: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, and relational. In other words, self-love and self-care are pretty darn important!

When speaking with my clients about self-love/self-care, I often hear them say, “Corinne, I understand the importance of self-love and I want to love myself…but, how do I do it? Where do I start?” These are great questions! If self-love is unfamiliar, how do you know what it looks like and where do you begin? First, it’s important to understand that self-love is more than a feeling you have about yourself; it’s an intentional choice to act lovingly towards yourself, as well as the desire to strive for overall well-being. From this understanding of self-love, you can begin to put specific practices into place to love yourself wholeheartedly.  Below are some tips to help guide you in your journey towards greater self-love:

1. Develop your self-awareness: Self-awareness is the ability to turn inwards and acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Loving yourself involves knowing what’s happening for you on the inside, so that you can identify (and voice) your needs and, ultimately, make changes that reflect your worth. Ask yourself:

  • Do I notice any patterns in my thoughts? Do the same thoughts come up again and again across situations (e.g., “I’m a failure”, “I’m not good enough”, etc.)?
  • Are certain thoughts connected to particular feelings? For example, do I tend to feel unmotivated each time I think, “I’m a failure”?
  • How do my thoughts and feelings impact my actions? For example, when I think “I’m a failure” and start to feel unmotivated, what do I typically do? How do I typically behave/respond?

A useful tool for developing self-awareness around your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours is called a “thought record”, which is used in Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Try it yourself: The website, Self-help.tools, contains thought record worksheets for your use, as well as instructions for completing your thought record.

2. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is another way to develop your self-awareness, as it involves paying conscious attention to the present moment. More so (and this bit is important!), mindfulness invites you to pay attention without judgment.  So, you aren’t judging whether your thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc. are good or bad – you’re just noticing them, with interest and curiosity. Mindfulness, in itself, is an act of self-care with countless benefits for your mental and physical well-being, including: reduced anxiety, stress, depression, and chronic pain, as well as improvements to memory, concentration, creativity, immune system, and overall mood and quality of life! By paying conscious attention to your present experience, you give yourself the opportunity to notice what feels good to you and what doesn’t. This is important for developing self-love since loving yourself involves making decisions to take care of yourself, and to do what is good for you. Note: doing what is good for you doesn’t mean being oblivious to the needs of others! See our previous post, “The Importance of Loving Yourself First” for more on this.

3. Create your self-care “non-negotiables”: Create a list of activities/practices that you know help you feel good and/or give you a mood-boost. For example, things like getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, setting standing dates with friends/family, having an hour each night to read or watch Netflix, getting out in nature once a day, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, having an hour each week to work on creative projects, etc. You get the idea! Now, go through the list and pick your top three non-negotiables. These are the activities that, no matter what – no matter how busy life gets, no matter how exhausted you feel, no matter how often your thoughts tell you you’re not worthy – you commit to doing for yourself regularly. Everything else on the list is a bonus to be enjoyed when you have less on your plate. Self-care is self-love in action!

4. Set clear mental and emotional boundaries: Boundaries are important for self-love because they encourage respect – respect from yourself, and from others. In relationships, healthy boundaries help you to identify what you’re responsible for and what you’re not; they make your limits clear. Healthy boundaries can help you to stay present in conflict without becoming defensive or escalated. Healthy boundaries can prevent you from taking responsibility for the problems of others. When you understand your own thoughts, values, and emotions, boundaries become easier to set, which is one of the reasons why developing self-awareness is so important! Boundaries aren’t about being mean to other people – they’re not meant to be punitive. Rather, healthy boundaries are essential for taking care of yourself so that you can be at your best; if you’re not at your best, your relationships won’t be either. Setting clear boundaries can be as simple as saying “yes” or “no” when you mean it. This doesn’t mean you’ll never do anything you don’t want to ever again – that’s just a part of life! Instead, it means being more intentional in your decisions about what you do and why you’re doing it; setting boundaries is about making choices purposefully, rather than feeling like you never had a choice at all. Try it yourself: Over the next week, every time you’re invited to do something – take on a new project, go to a party on Saturday night, accept responsibility for an outcome – practice saying “yes” and “no” to the invitation. Keep track of the reasons for your decision, as well as the way you felt about your decision afterwards. Feel free to use this boundaries setting worksheet to help you!

Love yourself fiercely; your life depends on it ❤