Always or Never

Recently, I’ve developed a secret fascination with Twitter. Secret, because I don’t contribute, just follow. It has, I admit, led me to some interesting, funny and worthwhile bits of info and ideas. However, it also often leaves me frustrated as I watch the polarization of ideas, frequently with little middle ground, either “for us or against us” arguments. I find myself wanting to weigh in, but stymied with the challenge of being respectful to both sides of a debate, making a point which encompasses all of the space in between, with less than 140 characters. I also find myself shocked, sometimes amused and often bewildered by the speed and sharpness of the debates.

So what do these thoughts have to do with my blog, usually a bit of stream of consciousness around emotional health and wellness? Well, it puts me in mind of witnessing people in conflict, often in my professional practice where I work with relationships, but also among friends and family from time to time. In the worst of these instances, the biggest culprit seems to be a quick and/or habitual assumption that one knows from a single behaviour or statement all of what the other person represents. For instance, something is said or done, and I have a “gut reaction”, perhaps hurt or anger, and rather than (I admit this is hard) asking myself and the other person more about the situation or what the reaction really is, I assume I know everything necessary to understand and fight back. They may very well have the same process going on for them by now, and the conflict is on.

How we behave when we’re in conflict with another person is usually different than when we’re feeling amicable. We sharpen our points, narrow our vision and firm up our stance. Contradictory feelings are set aside – there’s no room in battle to explore that dissonance. Hence, “if you could say that, you must not love me”, which can lead to looking for all prior instances when we’ve felt wounded the same way and declare this assumption to be also true of those situations. Always or never, black or white, no room for shades of gray, hesitance or uncertainty. In conflict, both sides are likely feeling on the ropes, needing to fight back to preserve a position, and neither are going to find it easy to backtrack and question the original assumptions. Remember that the original assumption may have arisen from a belief that “if I am hurt, that must mean that you not only hurt me, but intended to do so”. To believe otherwise would require holding contradictory feelings, as in “I feel hurt, and I don’t like your behaviour or words, but I love you and believe you love me”, examining whether the situation triggered your own sensitivities, inquiring as to the source of the original behaviour or words, and allowing yourself to stay vulnerable enough to work it through.

The most difficult aspect of this is allowing ourselves to acknowledge that our feelings, real as they are, are not accurate indications of fact. Feelings actually can be seen as sensors or warning signs that something is off, making us feel vulnerable. The most basic response to vulnerability is to try and shut it down, defensively or offensively. The response most likely to preserve and deepen relationships that matter is to allow ourselves to stay vulnerable, open to reflection and alternate understandings of what has transpired. This opens the door for others to seek to understand us, our needs and feelings and the unique contradictions that make us human.


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