I’ve always been conflict-averse, to a fault.
Years of unintentional conditioning in my upbringing left me certain of the insignificance of my own frustrations, boundaries, and needs. I was taught, slowly, and over time, that my anger was both my own fault and my own problem.
Don’t you dare get snotty/use that tone of voice/make that face/walk away from me.
I didn’t know that what I really wanted was to be asked what was wrong, or how I was feeling. Lacking the language to express my anger, I did what kids do when they have big feelings and no idea what to do with them – I acted out.
I gave my mother the silent treatment because I didn’t have the skills or knowledge as a kid to say, “I’m angry and I need space from you right now to take care of myself, but I would like to talk to you about it when I’m feeling more capable.” Instead, I refused to do things that I thought would make them happy, like do chores, go to church, perform well in school, behave.
Once it sunk in that getting myself grounded wasn’t hurting them or helping me (which wasn’t until high school), I stopped acting out and started acting in. I started drinking. I stopped eating. I started cutting. I stopped trying to be seen or heard. It was done.
I learned that if people love you and do good things for you sometimes, you don’t get to be angry at them if they hurt you. I learned that intention outweighs impact. I learned that boundaries are earned and subjective, not automatic and self-determined. I learned that being angry at someone is a good reason for them to be angry at you. I learned how to accommodate. I learned how to suck it up. I learned how to stay quiet and smile. I learned that discord cannot be worked through or resolved, and must be avoided at all cost. I learned that people are not to be let in, they are to be pleased.
This has impacted every relationship I have ever had, romantic, platonic, or professional, and was often reinforced in those relationships – from the ex who jumped to, “If I’m so awful and making you so unhappy I should just leave,” when something bothered me, to the boss who ignored my complaints of being condescended and disrespected by my coworkers because, “You’re so young, Katie, one day you’ll understand where they’re coming from. Maybe you could work a little harder to change their perceptions.”
I allowed myself to be disrespected, disregarded, and treated as optional in every area of my life. I took what I could get and said thank you, and after a while I couldn’t tell if I hated myself or the people around me more. I felt crazy.
I wanted to learn how to speak. I spent hours watching TV shows and movies looking for scenes of conflict and anger. I studied them like I was studying a new language. I took my cues from scripts other people had written. I was amazed by the way they spoke, how plainly these fictional characters were able to tell people they felt wronged, and I was blown away and hopeful every time I saw the other person hear them and apologize. I developed a deep love and envy of sitcoms, where all problems came and went in 20-minute intervals and always ended with a hug.
Years (and many failed relationships) later, I’m a little better. Not much, but a little. I’m still learning, and thankful to have a partner who is willing to learn with me. I have these little pockets where I’ve started being able to stand, shaky as hell, and tell someone how they made me feel and what caused that feeling. I’m learning how to be angry without thinking it’s my fault. I’m figuring out how to express that anger and not sweep it under the rug, or go to the other extreme of flying off the handle. I can ask for something different if I need it. I can set clear boundaries and expectations, and follow up if they aren’t being honored.
Except with my friends.
My partner hurts my feelings? They’re gonna hear about it. Sometimes immediately, sometimes later, sometimes I’ll ask for something to change, sometimes I just want them to be aware of their impact. But I’m comfortable letting them know I’m angry.
A friend? Fuck that. Nope. Can’t. Won’t.
On one hand, my partner is My Person, and sometimes I feel like they have more of a responsibility to me and my feelings than my friends (even if I know that’s total crap). That’s not really it, though. I talk to my partner more easily and readily about these things because I have to.
If a friend makes me angry or hurts me, there is nothing easier than just not picking up the phone for a while. If I’m mad at you I’d sooner just not talk to you, which is something that is not available in my relationship. I developed those muscles with my partner out of necessity. If I’m upset or angry, it’s going to be noticed. I can’t hide.
My friends are used to me disappearing for a while at a time. My depression and anxiety often manifest in me isolating and having stretches where I don’t reach out or respond, which the people closest to me understand. While it’s helpful and lovely to been seen in that, it makes it very easy to not vocalize when something is wrong, and instead opt to stay scarce until I’m not upset anymore.
This isn’t fair to me, and it isn’t fair to my friends. I am stripping them of the opportunity to see me in totality, and to learn how to avoid hurting me in the future. I am stripping myself of the opportunity to set boundaries that will help me flourish in my friendships. I am preventing my friends from helping me feel safe, and in turn depriving myself of safe spaces. I am actively creating and contributing to a dynamic in which I carry resentments towards some of the people I love most in the world.
What am I afraid of? What is it that I think will happen if I said the words, “I am angry at you because ______” or “You really hurt me when you ______”? Do I think they’ll get angry back (like I was so accustomed to growing up)? That they’ll leave? Not get it? Not care? All of the above?
Of course I don’t really think those things would happen, but much like with my fear of flying, if a possible result feels catastrophic enough I don’t really care how unlikely it is.
Wherever it’s coming from, it isn’t helping anyone. These are muscles, and I’ve been allowing them to atrophy. I have valued the comfort of my friends over my own, and that’s not noble or selfless or productive.
I need to trust my instincts. I need to trust my friends. I need to trust that our relationships are strong enough to withstand whatever else that kind of transparency may bring. I need to believe that we can experience conflict and wind up stronger for it.
Friends, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t shown up fully for you, and I’m sorry I have withheld my presence and vulnerability from you.
I don’t want us to coast.
I want us to thrive.
And that’s why I want us to fight.