Recently I watched what seemed like an alpha-contest between two or three women in one of the institutions I volunteer with. As a voting member on the team I was involved in meetings and lengthy discussions around courses of action: calls for policy decisions that seemed necessary to several. I tried my best to be fair and to not allow the strong opinions those involved – some I was close to, others less so – sway me in what I thought were right actions for the group.
The conflict resolved, as these things often do, by fairly drastic action: the resignation of one of the long-standing members. In my contact with the individuals involved I inferred a strong sense of “winning” from the parties who went head-to-head the most – they each had their stories, their versions; they were supremely justified in their actions toward the other and in some cases held excellently-rendered character attacks in place (which for some reason give me pain to hear).
What I’ve been thinking about lately is not this particular group, the members of which seem to all be moving on. It’s the subject of how we handle conflict, the desire to wrestle control. In these interactions I recognize within myself the impulses and behaviors that later I have come to regret – but sadly, have a hard time growing out of.
I have come to wonder if domination, or the instinct to dominate, is born out of two impulses: hurt or fear. When I am hurt I will throw out my best defense, my logical precepts, my “if-you-put-it-down-in-writing-it-is-true” arguments – rather than take the time to find the deeper truth, not the words being said, but what is really happening between us. In my experience when I find this deeper truth there is, really, nothing so hurtful after all. A mortal enemy can turn into a friend (this has happened to me many times). And yes, thank goodness, I find my desire, or my needs, which can always be communicated gently and firmly. I am not a doormat; hardly. I am someone who will get my needs met because I no longer require validation from others before I set off to do so.
As I type this I try to feel fear again so I can describe it here. Fear has a different shape than hurt; fear dwells within me, not always known consciously, and therefore treacherously easy to activate. When someone taps it, an ugly force takes over and I am off to the races with a well-defined object in my rifle scope. How often do I suddenly realize I am lashing out against my husband, or my family, and that although I am mostly right there is a tiny part of me that is horribly, horribly wrong? In these cases I have let my own emotional self lie dormant and misshapen, and now I’m inflicting her wounds on others. How often in the middle of such a fight do I sense my own character flaws? Am I willing to halt, to stop, to pull back – or will I go on carrying the argument out to the bitter, “triumphant” end?
Just yesterday I allowed myself to participate in this kind of fear – the strenuous arguments, the desire to resolve, to squash, to finalize, to finish a discussion so I would never have to go through it again. “I’d had enough”. I was going to make a stand. This was, of course, with my husband, and in this case involved an issue of money.
Today I realize, with sadness, that for one thing I talked too much. Every point I made yesterday could have been simplified and could have been stated with dignity. “Talking too much” might not seem that bad at first; but wait. It is not that I said anything I regret, or that I don’t believe today in what I did yesterday. It is that I allowed myself too much verbiage, that in my hurt and irritation I threw out so much verbal flak it could easily be experienced as an offensive, as anger, as a series of specific slights on him (this pains me to think about). My behavior yesterday could not be experienced by my husband as I experience myself now, the morning after: a stronger sense of self, a knowledge of criticisms I am surprisingly vulnerable to.
My husband has sometimes accused me of saying something but behaving a different way. Of course; why wouldn’t this be true? The bottom line is boy, I sure like to talk. Can I back up all I am saying?
Words have consequences; and as someone who loves to use them I hope I can incorporate more self-knowledge and more wisdom about when to slow down.