Escalated Conflict and Mistaken Beliefs
*Nora describes her relationship with her partner, *Kris, as mostly good. They enjoy spending time together and generally get along well. She feels supported and cared for and believes Kris feels the same…until conflict arises.
It doesn’t happen often, once every 3 or 4 weeks, but when it does the argument escalates quickly and continues unresolved for hours, ending in Nora retreating from and ignoring Kris for a few days. Eventually, Nora and Kris come back together, tentatively. They both carefully avoid bringing up the original conflict as it feels dangerous and unresolvable.
Nora grew up in a home where, as the oldest daughter, she shouldered more than her share of the invisible work, both physically and emotionally. She was praised for being independent and capable and meeting the needs of others. Reward was withheld and sometimes she was punished for being too loud, too angry, too sensitive, too selfish and sometimes, just too much. These experiences informed the rules Nora internalized about her worth. They were reinforced in her family of origin, intimate relationships and culturally under our kyriarchal power structure.
The truth that Nora has lost sight of is that each of us is worthy and belongs simply because we exist. We operated from this space as newborns. We just were. We communicated what we were feeling, what we liked and what we didn’t like without hesitation. We didn’t try to be a different kind of newborn, or a more palatable newborn.
But as we grew older, we began to soak in everything around us. We tried to make sense of our world. We needed to know, what are the rules? How do we predict what will happen next? This information shaped our behavior, our beliefs and our relationships with ourselves.
Nora learned that taking on the invisible work around her, working hard to read and meet others’ needs/expectations and putting herself at the bottom of her priority list was the clearest, safest path to feeling worthy of love and belonging.
Like Nora, each of us has a path we’ve been traversing since childhood. As children our paths are pretty basic. We are responding to an environment and relationships that are chosen for us. We don’t have much power in changing our paths, our environments or our relationships.
As we mature new branches splinter from our original paths that lead to new places. We have more power over our environments, our relationships and choices. But, without self exploration and insight into our limiting beliefs about the world, ourselves and others, we may continue walking the familiar path with our heads down, focused on what we know. We self limit by choosing what we’ve always chosen.
Our limiting, or mistaken, beliefs, like Nora’s, tell us what we have to do or be in order to satisfy the most basic of our needs, worthiness and belonging.
When what we’ve learned is A) worthiness and belonging are earned and B) we must be perceived as doing what earns us our worthiness perfectly or face rejection, abandonment or even annihilation, we will do everything we can to avoid these devastating consequences. This is why arguments that don’t initially seem to be so high stakes can escalate quickly.
For Nora, the trigger is feeling she’s disappointed her partner, or failed to live up to expectations in some way. Her mistaken belief, learned in childhood, is, “there is no room for me to be human and flawed, when I make a mistake or disappoint my loved ones the truth of my unworthiness and unlovableness is revealed.”
For Nora to experience this situation differently as an adult, she must re-parent her child self. Providing for her affirmation, validation, and unconditional love wrapped up in the immutable truth of her worthiness and belonging. She is not worthy of love and belonging only so long as she is pleasing others. Her worthiness and belonging are a part of her birthright. They exist because she exists.
When we bring our mistaken beliefs into the light and offer compassion, truth and understanding to our child selves, we are more able to stay in our wise adult minds even in conflict. We are able to lower our unrealistic expectations for ourselves (and others) and give ourselves compassion and empathy. The conflict can just be about the issue at hand rather than a blow to our feelings of worthiness and belonging.
*Nora and Kris are not real clients, they are instructional constructions of my imagination.