Your roommate constantly leaves dishes in the sink. Your co-worker always drops the ball on group assignments. Your partner made a joke that rubbed you the wrong way. It’s an unavoidable aspect of life as a human: From time to time, other people will upset you.
Some folks have an easy time airing their grievances to the offending parties. They address their concerns calmly and without judgment, somehow manage not to cry, and are able to have a productive conversation that improves the relationship.
For others, approaching confrontation can be anxiety-inducing. Avoiding confrontation, however, can lead to a buildup of resentment which could harm your relationship, whether it’s through snide remarks, a big blow-up later, or just slowly icing the other person out.
If you’re prone to bottling your feelings up because you’re super uncomfortable with confrontation, here’s what might be going on.
You’re making decisions based on your past (negative) experiences.
While there is no reason to fear an attack, your past experiences may have conditioned you to expect unpredictable negative consequences from confronting someone. This fear comes from a primitive impulse to avoid danger, Debra Kissen, a therapist and CEO at Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Center, told VICE. “It’s a fear that if I confront another party, they may attack me and I may be harmed,” she said. In reality though, the worst that’s likely to happen when you confront someone is they’ll be angry or disappointed, or it’ll be an awkward conversation. Not a life or death situation.
Think about your “origin story,” or the ways the adults in your life modeled confrontation when you were growing up, therapist Nicola Pierre-Smith told VICE. For example, if you frequently overheard your parents fighting, you may have learned that “arguments or conflicts lead to rejection or some kind of relational injury,” Pierre-Smith said. “Over time, if that isn't unlearned, that leads toward avoiding conflicts in friendships and romantic partnerships and with coworkers.”
The lessons gleaned through past experiences impact decision-making throughout life, according to research. If you were met with defensiveness or combativeness when voicing complaints growing up, it’s not outlandish to believe you might elicit a similar response from, say, your roommate now. It’s reasonable to want to avoid being on the receiving end of further negativity. “You might have grown up with a very defensive caregiver when you brought up your concerns, making you fearful about sharing them,” therapist Ilene S. Cohen told VICE.
“Destructive conflict,” as Cohen puts it, is emotionally exhausting, so steering clear of these interactions can be a way of preserving your energy and minimizing stress.
You value short-term comfort over long-term growth.
Sometimes navigating around potentially uncomfortable conversations isn’t in your best interest. Avoidance coping, where a person avoids addressing difficult feelings or situations, doesn't make the problem go away. People who circumvent confrontation typically prioritize the short-term comfort of not having to have an unpleasant conversation over the potential awkwardness involved in resolving their concerns. “If I say something, I can have my needs met … but I'm going to avoid it because it feels too uncomfortable,” Kissen said. “In the short term, I don't have to feel uncomfortable, but in the long term, I’m staying stuck in a situation I could change.”
Instead, think about the long-term benefits of speaking up. Rather than silently stewing whenever your sister asks for a favor which you know she’ll never repay, address the issue head on, and set a boundary. It may be hard to speak up in the present, but you’ll save yourself a lot of future stress and frustration.
You’re a people pleaser.
People pleasers often put their own feelings aside in order to win the approval or affection of others. “They worry that telling their mother she's overstepping her bounds will upset her, or they fear that telling a friend her jokes are offensive might end the friendship,” Amy Morin, a therapist and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind, told VICE. “There's often a real fear that someone might get angry or end the relationship. It's tough to address concerns when you're terrified that the other person may become upset.”
Low self-esteem is often at the root of this behavior—people pleasers “view their worth as a condition of other people's acceptance of them,” Pierre-Smith said. When you derive value from the approval of others, confronting them poses a threat to this approval. For example, you risk upsetting your friend if you bring up how you felt dismissed when she bailed on multiple hangouts. If she does react negatively, you interpret the pushback as very harsh or a rejection.
People pleasers internalize this perceived rejection, and it can prevent them from broaching difficult conversations in the future, feeding into an endless loop based on false assumptions of impending disappointment and rejection.
However, people pleasers commonly overestimate how angry the other person will get. “Some people may get upset, but your imagination may exaggerate how mad they'll become,” Cohen said. In most instances, you can voice your concerns without angering the other person. The key is to use “I statements,” in which you describe your feelings and avoid casting blame, Pierre-Smith said.
You’ve over-analyzed the situation.
While it’s important to approach any discussion with a clear mind (versus being fueled by emotion), some confrontation-averse people tend to think so much about the circumstances that they decide either their concern wasn’t a big deal, or that they overreacted in the moment. Maybe you realized that joke you perceived as a personal attack was indeed in lighthearted jest after thinking about it for a bit and it wouldn’t be worth the energy to bring it up again—and you don’t really care anymore. Or you tend to call in an outsider to weigh in on the situation, Cohen said. Their unbiased opinion helps you decide the best course of action.
This analysis isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and can be an indicator of knowing when to pick your battles. “I think it is essential to think things through before bringing anything up,” Cohen said. “For example, you might find you were just upset and might come off as critical.”
Of course, there are people with whom a civilized conversation will never happen. “The person might be abusive and unwilling to hear you out,” Cohen said. Knowing this, you may never broach a confrontation with them simply because you’ve mapped out the conversation and don’t anticipate a positive endgame.
When envisioning how a conflict will go, you assume the worst.
Confrontation doesn’t have to be combative! Honest communication is essential to any relationship, and minor conflicts are the tune-ups keeping the engine running smoothly. By assuming the conversation will go poorly, you’re doing yourself and your loved one a disservice.
If you find yourself terrified of broaching big topics, start off small—say, asking your generally flexible and kind roommate if they could wash their dishes in a more timely manner before you approach a best friend who frequently criticizes your life choices. Once you’ve seen that everyone around you doesn’t hate you or think you’re a high-maintenance monster for valuing your own comfort or expressing your needs, you can work your way to more difficult confrontations should they arise.
“Remind yourself that by addressing a behavior or problem, you're showing the other person you care enough to want to make things better, and you trust them enough to address it,” Morin said, “even if they feel angry.”
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