Conflict for Introverts 101
Can all the peace-loving, conflict-hating, deep-feeling introverts in the room please stand up? Wherever you’re reading this from, just quietly stand up in solidarity with me, and I’ll know I’m not alone in this personality type. I’ll imagine people all over the world quickly looking around, awkwardly standing up for exactly 1.9 seconds and sitting back down, hoping no one saw them. And I will feel… actually, wait a moment. Don’t do that. I’ll just feel all of your embarrassment, and this won’t be nearly as cathartic an exercise as I was hoping.
Just continue reading this silently in your own little corner, and know that I see you. That I AM you. And that when it comes to navigating relationships, especially relationships with conflict, I feel all of your discomfort and share all of your questions. At least, I did, until recently.
Different personality scales and assessments have called us by different names. I identify with pieces of the Myers Brigg’s INFJ type, the Enneagram 9, Urban Dictionary’s definition of “empath,” and have sometimes wondered if I don’t have a sensory perception disorder. I often feel like a walking sponge for human emotion. Big groups are hard because I feel the crowd’s myriad of emotions. Certain movies or TV shows spark a darkness inside of me as I mourn for fictional characters that portray realistic pain. But conflict with the few people in my inner circle aches on a supernatural level inside my soul.
To avoid the overwhelming hurt that conflict causes in me, in the past I have often found myself not speaking my mind so as not to start a conflict, trying to diffuse the conflict between other people with humor or softness, blurring the lines of honesty if I think the truth will hurt someone else, or holding on to hurt feelings for much longer than was healthy to avoid adding to the hurt with a potential argument.
To make matters even messier, the noise of other people’s emotions can often be so much louder than my own emotions that I either struggle to deduce what I’m actually thinking and feeling OR find myself apologizing for “causing” someone else’s negative feelings while ignoring my own.
Because Jesus knew I needed to be stretched in this area, He chose a husband for me who is the exact opposite in all of these areas. Paul is loud. And confident. He not only isn’t nauseated by conflict, he welcomes it, especially if a healthy debate can lead to deeper understanding and clarity. He loves to define terms, wants to make sure every little detail is understood explicitly, and is ready for all this conversation at a moment’s notice. For the first year of our marriage I lost every single argument we had, simply because he knew how to argue and I knew how to throw up when the room got tense. (Thankfully, one day the Spirit tapped him on the shoulder and said he was gonna have to make some room in his debate paradigm for his less confrontational wife, and he did.)
And the thing is, for those of us who find ourselves living this beautifully painful empathetic life, the internal battle can be worse than the external one. Given enough time and space I knew what I thought, or at least I knew what I didn’t think as soon as Paul said it out loud. I’m not immature or a slow thinker. But I often felt like the problem. If only I could know my mind more quickly and speak it without fear of how someone else would react! Wouldn’t life be easier? It might, but I discovered that lonely people would also go without that extra smile or hug, scared kiddos wouldn’t get the reassurance they needed in a noisy room, and friends wouldn’t want to pour their hearts out to me because I wouldn’t feel as safe. So, what could I do to thrive inside this empathetic soul I was given? How could I care for my own heart during the inevitable conflict that often sharpens us without growing callous to the world around me?
As Paul and I studied communication styles and skills to write our conflict resolution curriculum, a few things surfaced that have eased my discomfort greatly. I’m going to list them quickly here, but we will develop them further during this week’s podcast.
1) In groups, I pray on the armor of God. Praying through these verses in Ephesians 6 has been life changing for me. It reminds me that pain, suffering, and brokenness are all around us in this sinful world, but I don’t have to listen to them constantly. I hold up my shield of faith to push back the pain, and ask that Jesus would bring those He’s put into my path to be ministered to my attention. Sort of block out the negative, and look for only that which Jesus wants me to see.
2) I learned my thematic primary emotions (TPEs). I was always so confused why “I statements” didn’t get me very far in conflict. I could say “I feel disrespected when you take your moms’s side over mine” and Paul would still be defensive. But you know what? Disrespect is not an emotion I feel, it’s an evaluation of Paul’s behavior. That evaluation ws often not shared by him, so he got understandably defensive. It’s so important in conflict that we stick to our primary emotions…those feelings that are underlying and driving the bigger, hotter emotions likes anger or frustration. And thankfully, most people have 2 or 3 that spark anger in them. I have three: sadness, overwhelmedness, exhaustion. If I’m expressing anger (or feeling it and trying to shove it down and hide it), I’m probably feeling one of those 3 things.
3) I started expressing my TPEs within a certain conversational construct. If I told Paul “I feel disrespected when you side with your mom on issues regarding our children rather than listening to me,” I’m likely to spark a response about what exactly “disrespected” means, all the ways he did listen to me, and what I could have done differently to have undersood him better. But if I lead with “I feel really sad and overwhelmed when it looks to me like you are taking your mom’s side instead of partnering with me on parenting,” I’ve given him a glimpse of my heart that’s really hard to argue with, because I’ve admitted it’s just my perception. (Now, he might be a jerk and railroad over that, but I haven’t added to the argument, I’ve just expressed me state of being, and that fact alone helps me be brave enough to say it.)
4) Lastly, I embraced the fact that, while my perception of any given situation may not be intrinsically accurate, it is acceptable. I am constantly reading any situation through the emotional eyes of at least 4 people (myself, Jesus, Paul, and my girls) - and that is just personal situations. If I’m thinking about a conversation at work or at a party or at church, I add any number of viewpoints to my own perspective. And you know what? That’s ok. Paul doesn’t get it. And he generally doesn’t care what anyone else is thinking or feeling. I bring so much to the conversational table by sifting through other people’s takes on a situation. Jesus has a use for that. And no one else has to get it for it to be ok.
I still hate conflict. It still makes my stomach turn to even think that someone was offended by an off handed comment I’ve made. I really doubt that part of my personality will change. But, I know that conflict and resolving it well is a normal and necessary part of life. And using these steps has helped me to feel empowered to handle conflict in a healthy way, rather than wanting to just run away from it. Now, I’m able to shush everyone else’s voice in my head, think through my own thoughts and feelings, and express them in a constructive way that can be received and interacted with. And that makes it all a little bit easier.
Thanks so much for reading! We’ll keep these coming every week. You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, & Pinterest with the buttons at the top of the page, or post this article to the platform of your choice with the buttons below. Also, please feel free to leave a comment! We’d love to hear your questions or receive any feedback you’d like to offer! Finally, if you’ve found this information helpful at all, you should know that we get to sit in person with couples like you every week and help them through their relationships. We’d love it and be so grateful if you would consider making a donation to support our work so that we can keep serving couples in our community and all over the world! Thank you!