Highly Sensitive Introvert - Conflict: Run. To. It. - Eva Rubin

Conflict. Run. To. It.

Knowing how to handle conflict makes a huge impact on your ability to navigate the normal ups and downs of relationships – at home, with friends, and at work.

Research suggests that higher levels of being able to manage your own emotions and emotional intelligence result in better performance in teams.  If you are a team with your partners or friends, getting through relationship conflict matters.

And, yet, HSIs notoriously avoid conflict.  I know I’ve avoided it like the plague at different times in my life!

I think that sometimes conflict and mistreatment can get confused.  Do you know how to differentiate between conflict and mistreatment?

It can be helpful to know what healthy conflict can look like for Highly Sensitive Introverts if you’re just beginning to consider how to handle conflict in ways that serve you better, and not make yourself available to mistreatment.

Healthy Conflict

Conflict is normal. Every single relationship in the world, every living thing that grows and evolves experiences conflict inside themselves (intrapersonal) and with other people (interpersonal).

Healthy conflict doesn’t necessarily feel good. If it did, it wouldn’t be so dang hard! But mistreatment doesn’t feel good, either. So, how do you know what’s what if you can’t tell by how each feels?

Healthy conflict happens in the process of relationship. It happens when there is a difference in perceptions, needs, values, priorities, goals, ways to reach those goals, or when there is miscommunication.

It’s a normal part of being with other people because we are so diverse in our experiences, what we need and want, and how we think about our world.

Healthy conflict also happens when there are misattributions – meaning, you think you know why somebody acts in a certain way or does a certain thing, but you’re actually making up a story.

Many Highly Sensitive Introverts who might prefer to spend time alone have experienced other people assuming they’re arrogant or stuck up, or conceited.  This is a story they’ve made up.

People notice you keeping to yourself and attribute your preference to be solitary to being arrogant, or thinking you’re better than others.  It’s a misattribution.

It’s not accurate and can create all sorts of problems as a result.

We all create stories in our heads about other people.  As people who tend to live in our thoughts, we are just as likely to make up stories about other people that may not be accurate.  That, in and of itself isn’t a problem.

Being open to amend those stories frequently and regularly gives us a better chance at making sure the stories we make up are accurate to get through conflict.


Mistreatment is when one person exerts power and control over another person, or when one person gives up their own sense of power and control to someone else.

Mistreatment can range from unknowing ignorance to intentional harm.

Mistreatment can be the result of someone who is a sociopath that exerts his or her influence and power. It can rise to the level of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

Or, it could also be someone who’s not aware of how they impact others, and assumes that the way they do things is right. Their tone might be demeaning or demanding or disrespectful. Their words might come across as critical.

It can be because they are stuck in the way they see and experience the world–not because they intend to do you harm to benefit themselves, or have no capacity to consider your needs.

In other words, even good people (who are not narcissists or sociopaths) can say and do things that are hurtful or disappointing without intending to do so. It does not excuse their actions.

Or the need to voice your feelings and needs.

But it does mean that they may be open to building relationship with you that is satisfying – depending on their availability, openness and skills to resolve conflict with you in a caring and respectful way.

So This Is Where Running To Conflict Gets Messy

How do you separate out the takers (sociopaths and narcissists) from the givers who are open and available to developing relationship that can meet your needs (but may not be aware of how they’ve impacted you)?

If you don’t identify a taker, you’re mistreated (or worse, abused).

But if you mislabel healthy conflict with another giver as mistreatment or abuse, then you lose out on the chance for deeper connection with other people, and the emotional benefits that come with resolving problems.

Plus, you loop around in your thoughts and overthink your interactions.

It also puts you in a “victim” dynamic when you actually do have the ability to influence how you’re treated and take actions to improve the quality of your life.

If you keep creating the little sea where you can be a big fish, you’re better able to avoid this common trap.

As an HSI, knowing how to identify the sociopath in your life is important. Having the skills to recognize and engage people in your life in healthy conflict is just as important.

What Does Healthy Conflict Look Like?

Here’s the thing. Most people don’t have good skills for handling conflict precisely because it’s not easy and because it’s not exactly something we learn in school.

Conflict is threat.  For most of us, it’s a deeply emotional experience that can lead to impulses to run, freeze, or fight (if backed into a corner).  For HSIs, these impulses can be so all encompassing because we’re so sensitive to what we feel in our bodies.

It can be so incredibly distressing.  Focusing on learning to see people as they are can help.

The cool thing is that if you can learn ways to be healthier in conflict, the people in your life who truly care about you will respond positively.

It’s funny.  I find that the people who are not healthy somehow can’t handle healthy ways of being with each other.

They may protest and they may up the intensity of their games, but most will self select themselves out of your life because you cut off their ability to suck your energy.  Or, you become less open to spending time with them.

Here are 5 characteristics of healthy conflict that can help you distinguish it from unhealthy conflict – so you know when to run toward conflict (even if you can’t or aren’t ready to do it yet) and not away from it.

Healthy conflict:

  1. Is compassionate
  2. Values listening and clarifying needs
  3. Encourages and supports honest and clear expression of your needs
  4. Oriented towards problem-solving
  5. Focuses on discovering solutions

 Healthy Strategies For Dealing With Conflict

Many HSIs are familiar with accommodating to the needs of others, or avoiding conflict altogether, but may feel less comfortable with other strategies for handling conflict.

Most of us have our “go-to” strategies when we’re feeling under threat or vulnerable, but they may not work in every situation.

Avoiding and accommodating are healthy strategies when they’re used in the short term.  As a longer term strategy for handling conflict, they can actually open the door to more conflict (and make you miserable in the process!).

Thomas Kilman: describes 5 strategies to deal with conflict.  Which ones do you tend to use most during conflict?  Which ones do you think might be helpful for you to learn to use with more ease?

Competing is assertive and uncooperative—an individual pursues his own concerns at the other person’s expense. This is a power-oriented mode in which you use whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position—your ability to argue, your rank, or economic sanctions. Competing means “standing up for your rights,” defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.

Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of competing. When accommodating, the individual neglects his own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person’s order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another’s point of view.

Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative—the person neither pursues his own concerns nor those of the other individual. Thus he does not deal with the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.

Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the two individuals. Collaborating between two persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other’s insights or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.

Compromising is moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. The objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. It falls intermediate between competing and accommodating. Compromising gives up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding, but does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference between the two positions, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground solution.

Conflict isn’t fun.  But maybe, just maybe, there are ways for you to get through it and come out of the other side of it with more satisfying, caring, and meaningful relationships.  It starts with being willing to consider running to conflict when it’s healthy.

Image Credit: deanoakley

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Eva Rubin, MPH/LCSW

Hi! I'm Eva Rubin, LCSW. I study the psychology and the art of how to live well as an introvert and sensitive person so that I can learn and share it with you.
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