Moving Towards Healthy Conflict

Client: When I’m with Mom, I don’t remember to say in the moment: “Mom, your words are hurting me and I need you to speak more calmly or I will end this conversation.” I have said something along the lines of “I’ve had enough of you calling me up and abusing me” and I’ve done a great deal of defending myself (to no avail) as well as, in my less fine moments, allowed myself to retaliate with blaming of my own.

Paul: You are showing a lot of maturity and good sense, even in the face of discomfort in an important relationship. I would suggest you try to speak from “I” statements about your own life experience. That is, rather than saying “Mom, your words are hurting me and I need you to speak more calmly or I will end this conversation.”, I would suggest saying “Mom, It feels painful to me when you talk to me that way. I am going to leave if you don’t stop.”

Of course we tend to resist speaking this way when in conflict because we’d rather blame the other and we don’t want to be any more vulnerable than we already feel. But if you truly desire healing from your past dysfunctional family and the ways you took that on, there are several REALLY good reasons for thinking and speaking this way.

  • It is less inflammatory. If you say “you are hurting me”, the other person can and probably will vehemently disagree with you. Your Mom probably believes that you are hurting her, so if you say “you are hurting me”, you will be off and running into more disagreement. In the 12 Step programs, people often advise “stay on your own side of the street”, meaning focus on your own feelings, behavior, and responsibility, not on the other person.
  • It is more personally accountable. However convinced you are of being correct, she is similarly convinced of her rectitude. The only truly firm ground you can stand on is your own experience, which is yours to declare as your truth.
  • It avoids “interpretation”, i.e. sharing what we think is going on for another, which is often incorrect and, even when correct, may raise defensiveness for the other. For a healthy relationship, avoid not only blame and accusation, but even assuming you know what is going on for another. If you do, nonetheless, feel sure that you understand another’s motivations and inner dynamics, avoid saying it unless the other person non-defensively asks for your perspective.
  • Vulnerability and honesty from the heart as I am suggesting tends to be disarming. It is more likely to build a bridge than is accusation.
  • Aside from relating to your Mom, this way of looking at the world, i.e. being personally accountable for all of your own feelings, though initially uncomfortable, actually is very empowering. As long as you believe she causes your pain, you are a victim. When you realize that, in truth, your pain does not come from her words, but arises from your interpretations and beliefs about what is happening, then you have the possibility of freedom and sovereignty!
  • Finally, add in the Somatic Experiencing perspective I write about elsewhere on this website. Here we learn to be in our physical experience and to embrace even our uncomfortable feelings. Blaming, accusing, interpreting and attempting to control another in a conflict is a great distraction from our own uncomfortable experience in our own body. However, it resolves nothing and ultimately brings still more anguish. If I truly stay with my own inner experience, I often find I have far fewer words to say. And if I give up any hope of trying to make someone treat me the way I want to be treated, then it may be that the only honest, non-manipulative thing I have left to say is “I feel really sad”.

Does learning to think and speak this way guarantee that an important person in our life will listen to us sensitively and respect our boundaries?

The short answer is “no guarantees”. Another person will behave how their perspective and habits govern them. If they have a lot of their own issues and are hiding behind wounds and defensiveness, then such speaking on your part won’t solve the problems. However, it will avoid throwing gasoline on the fire.

On the other hand, if the other person in the conflict has done some of their own personal awareness work, is sensitive, and they care about having a satisfying relationship with you, then following these suggestions will help that to happen.

This is a lifelong quest. I work this perspective every day, having come in my youth from a very victimy and controlling perspective. Practicing these principles, I’m much freer and happier now than ever.

I would wish the same for you.

    • Do you have private questions about the body-mind connection or about recovering from trauma, loss, or abuse? Click here to leave me a private message.

      Paul Chubbuck is a practicing psychotherapist in Fort Collins, CO, using Somatic Experiencing® to help people release trauma, abuse, and loss. He may be reached at 970-493-2958 or through his website at
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