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Dealing With Conflict in 2020

With many generations of attorneys, therapists, and challenging educators in my own family, it would seem that the complex joy of navigating conflict in one way or another has influenced many of our professions, myself included. (I guess we just love to argue!) I appreciate conflict because I have seen in my family how conflict can lead to great lessons and growth. Change cannot happen without conflict.

The other day I was discussing the overwhelming amount of conflict that exists in the world with a friend, in particular how politics has created rifts in families (he is a therapist), and the heaviness that surrounds it all. I can feel it, and I know many of my friends I have spoken with feel it. The world feels unsettled, and even unsafe at times. Balancing these feelings is something I personally deal with, as well as a common practice in the classroom.

I have certain beliefs that influence my methods for addressing this conflict we are feeling. First, I think people are inherently good. This belief has remained throughout my work in prisons, intervention with families in crisis, and driving in Houston, TX. I believe that people generally want similar things, and there have been many theorists who have worked to understand this idea (Abraham Maslow being one). I also believe that when those needs are being challenged, people will behave desperately to regain some sense of control. 

Maslow theorized that people can’t focus on psychological needs (feeling accomplished or belongingness) if our basic needs (safety, security, or health) are not being met. Another perspective is we cannot maintain community if we do not feel safe and secure. It is easier to get infuriated with someone who cuts you off when we are anxious about other personal security issues. It is easier to register the fear of the worst that a person can be (amygdala), than to assume the best in them and that it was a simple oversight that we all regularly make (our frontal lobe). 

Image from ThoughtCo.comNeurologically and calorically, the process of “react to the worst” makes sense. Our brains are amazing at being efficient, and critical thinking uses more calories than snap judgements. Imagine how exhausting it would be if we weighed the risk/reward of every action we make during the day. In fact there is a term for the exhaustion that can occur if too many choices are being made: decision fatigue. Once we have gotten to the point of decision fatigue we employ habits so that we don’t have to think anymore. Some habits can be intentional routines and be very helpful in us meeting the many goals of the day. Others are less beneficial, and act as a utilitarian response to prior experiences (traumas, hard lessons, perceived slights, family patterns, etc). 

I have always been amazed at the capacity for human kindness. Being around young children affords me the opportunity to see the sweetest of actions daily. Just today, one of our friends in the Otter class broke her stick, and as her tears flowed from the tragedy, another friend offered the child the stick she found when we first got to outdoor time. Such a small and simple gesture. Perhaps Maslow would have said that the child felt safe enough to be kind. 

I have a mantra when things start to feel out of control: Just do the things. “The things” are the behaviors that I know make me emotionally able to manage whatever stress comes my way. Often it is less about knowing what they are, but maintaining the boundaries to complete them. Specifically, my “things” are:

  • exercise daily (with a high heart rate and fun) 
  • eat and drink healthily 
  • create opportunities to explore (often combined with my exercise)
  • create opportunities to connect with my loved ones
  • sleep the right amount 

Self care and the boundaries necessary to maintain them are prophylactic for emotional and mental stress, and my biggest struggle with “the things” is that my bad habits creep in to take the place of good routines.

Here’s a real-life example: I took a hiatus from social media for most of this year (aside from posting the occasional sunrise or sunset photo), and I found that my ability to assume the best of others’ intentions has returned to a state it has not been in years. I think if we are constantly bombarded with how evil, ignorant, or apathetic the “other” is, we just make that a reflex. Our brains are hardwired to protect us from the “other” and if we don’t stay on top of this tendency, we can fall prey to validating the worst that people can be. It takes empathy to understand the struggle behind desperate behavior, whether in ourselves or others. 

So, here is my challenge to each of you: 

  1. Be kind
  2. Create a routine for self care (“the things”)
  3. Practice empathy without the expectation of empathy

We will get through this conflict together, even perhaps changed for the better.

Written by Nick Pearl