I am a highly sensitive person, and I am also an introvert. I tend to be highly analytical of my emotions and my motivations.
Anger and my response to conflict are things I have analyzed many times, probably because they are things which impact me the strongest. I don’t naturally handle anger or conflict well.
When considering “fight, flight or freeze”, I almost always use flight or freeze. Avoidance, or peacekeeping is the direction I instinctively want to take during conflict.
Inside, I just want the conflict to be over, so I end up trying to smooth it over by avoiding the issue, rather than by resolving or facing it.
A while ago, my husband and I had what I perceived as a conflict over his computer. Some time ago, I had come home excited from work because my co-workers had been talking about a free download of Windows 10 (something FREE!!!).
That weekend my husband updated his computer from Windows 8 to Windows 10. Big mistake.
At first, everything seemed ok. Very shortly after updating, though, he began to notice problems which had never been there before.
His computer would freeze completely, requiring that he restart it. His internet would freeze every so often for a few seconds. He could no longer shut his mousepad off. He could no longer use many of the “F” keys.
He was frustrated by the problems and grumbled each time something went wrong. And each time he got frustrated, panic would build in me.
I didn’t tell him what I felt, though. Externally, I remained casual.
I tried to gloss over the problems with the hope that he would feel less frustrated. I threw myself into trying to sort out a solution (Google became my friend).
But, any fix I suggested did nothing to help, and as the days passed, the problems with his computer became worse and worse.
Inside, whenever he grumbled, I felt extremely bad. In my mind, his frustration was my fault, so it felt as though it was directed at me, not at his computer.
His minor grumbling from across the room began to feel like barbs of anger at me. I heaped shame upon myself.
I was stupid to suggest the update. I’d wrecked everything.
These feelings built and built until one day, as he was sighing over his computer freezing again, I erupted into a blazing ball of emotion.
“I didn’t know!” I burst out through a haze of angry tears. “If I had known it was going to be so bad I wouldn’t have suggested it!!”
All the feelings of shame from having made the update suggestion, and all the tension I had felt from his frustrations came out.
There was silence from across the room, and then, in a somewhat bewildered voice my husband said “Leila. I never said anything about you. I was frustrated with my computer, not with you.”
I saw suddenly that my sensitivity had clouded my perceptions of what he was thinking. So I stopped – I breathed – I calmed down.
I looked at the scenario again. I acknowledged that I felt angry and upset because I thought his annoyance with his computer problems meant he was placing the blame on me.
I took time to let some of the tidal wave of emotion pass, and then communicated this to my husband – “I thought you were making angry jabs at me when you were getting frustrated. I had expected your frustration to turn towards me because I felt like it was my fault”.
To which he said “You didn’t create the update, why would it be your fault?”
And in that instant, it clicked inside me: not my fault. I was not to blame.
His feelings of frustration were not automatically my responsibility. At that point, I was able to let the conflict go. It was resolved.
I was able to keep the correct perspective on his future frustrations over his computer. We took his computer in to get fixed by a professional the next week.
Because conflict is something which naturally causes my mind to freeze, I have had to start really thinking out a plan in advance.
I know that ‘in the moment’, I am rarely going to be able to think, or to react in a way which helps bring about resolution. I have that overwhelming rush of emotion from conflict and anger, and it obscures how I am able to view the situation.
So, giving myself some steps in advance gives me a concrete plan of action to grab hold of when it occurs in my life. This plan has a simple, easy to remember acronym: A, B, C, & D. Acknowledge, Breathe, Communicate, Determine.
The first step to any positive change is acknowledging the negative. Being aware of a conflict is easy, but being aware of and accepting of your own anger is another story.
Some highly sensitive people feel a sense of shame attached to strong emotion, such as anger. Anger is not wrong to feel. Directed well, it can be a powerful motivator. Denying its existence is damaging, to yourself and to others.
Breathe and wait. As with many highly sensitive introverts, I have a struggle with what is called ‘brain freeze’ during conflict or high stress situations.
I literally cannot think. Any flow of rational thought is interrupted by the stress. I usually feel as though a fog has crept into my mind, everything has a fuzzy feel to it.
Stress can bring us to a point where our rational thinking mind feels like it becomes separated from our base core instinctual mind, and is unusable for a time.
In order rejoin the two, the solution is simple (albeit frustrating at times): give it time. Calm down. Breathe and let your mind relax, allowing the fog to clear.
I do recognize that this can be difficult or nearly impossible during a direct conflict. It’s extremely hard to calm down when you are in an argument.
This is where stopping, breathing and acknowledging what is happening to you is important. There will be many times that walking away from a conflict for a while is the best and only solution, since nothing can be resolved when your brain is struggling to even form a thought.
By ‘communicate well’, I do not mean whoever yells the loudest or says the most. Expressing yourself well during a conflict is about quality vs quantity, and is imperative for a number of reasons.
You are the only one who knows what you are thinking and feeling. The other person is the only one who knows their thoughts and feelings. Conflict is easily heightened when we assume the other person knows exactly what is going on inside us.
Expressing yourself well is easier in a ‘thinking’ state of mind in order to clearly express “I am feeling X, because of X”. Sometimes this will happen during a direct conflict itself. Often however, some time and space is needed before you will be able to verbalize those things. Or, sometimes, instead, writing your thoughts down is the direction to take.
Those words look so simple – “I am feeling X, because of X” – but I know from experience how rare it is (because of brain freeze) that I have been able to say them.
When I have been able to express what is at the root of what I’m thinking and feeling in a direct manner, I feel a huge sense of empowerment after the conflict is over, regardless of how the other person has responded.
Because, when I am able to clearly communicate my feelings. it helps my anger, thoughts and emotions to feel validated.
Determine or Decide
As a highly sensitive person, when I am in a conflict that sense of shame runs high. I feel shame for my own feelings, and I also feel shame for the conflict in and of itself. I start to take complete blame for the other person’s feelings too.
This means being honest with yourself and learning to separate out what you are responsible for, what the other person is responsible for, and what is neutral.
Each conflict will be different. It is important not to automatically take responsibility for everything, but it is equally as important to determine honestly what you contributed to the conflict.
Take the time to think through and assign the correct responsibility for all aspects of a conflict. What caused the conflict? What actions/words did I take or say that contributed to it? What actions did the other person take that contributed to it?
A bend in the road led me to embrace my introversion, and to discover my identity as a highly sensitive person. As I have moved along the path in learning more about who I am, how to take care of myself as an introvert, and how to handle the challenges of life as an HSP - my love of writing has been rekindled and embraced once again. It intertwines with the journey I am on, and is reflected in what I write.