Stepping Back from Conflict: Assertion & Compassion, and the Aftermath

This isn’t the post I meant to add today, but life has inspired this conversation lately.

I like conflict, and I don’t like conflict. I like conflict because it opens up the door for me to assert myself; I don’t like it because I feel guilty about asserting myself afterward, even if I did my best to be compassionate and reasonable. (In fairness, compassion and reasonability are things I’ve only recently begun to add into my assertions.)

Another issue I have in the aftermath of conflict is this feeling that I need to be extra nice to make up for causing someone else distress, even if I only caused them distress by standing up for myself instead of being used as a punching bag. I pile massive weights of guilt and shame on my shoulders after asserting myself in any way. I bet I’m not the only one to get thoughts like these:

Am I nice enough to be asking for this kind of kindness/consideration?

Have I earned the respect I’m asking for?

What if I’m asking too much?

What if I make things worse?

What if things don’t get better, even after I try to set boundaries?

Once again I’m touting Buddha’s Brain, an amazing book: it has a whole chapter on assertion and compassion. Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth also talks through this theme, albeit in a more “turn-the-other-cheek” type of way. Something both books stress is being an observer of one’s thoughts, emotions, and senses; not ignoring them, not pushing them away, but not being hooked by them.

When I first began to get really into meditation and spiritual practice I didn’t connect their usefulness to the realm of conflict. To me conflict has always been the breakdown of compassion, of centeredness. No matter how “centered” I thought I was, I was your typical New Jersey driver flipping people off for the smallest things; I took low blows in fights; I felt that the only way to end a conflict was to “win” it. Have I completely stopped doing these things? No, of course not! I’m a person. But now I’m aware of these things – I can observe my anger, my insecurity, my sadness or hurt or righteousness. I’m better now at recognizing what my anger or insecurity or sadness, hurt, and righteousness are telling me. I’m getting better at setting boundaries and bringing honesty into all of my relationships because instead of reacting to that “first dart” of feeling or thought with more darts I recognize what I need and communicate that (or, at least, try to).

So do I avoid conflict? Not necessarily, no. I am trying to get better about carefully, mindfully, taking a step back when I see conflict arising and observing myself and the other entity, inviting in compassion. Compassion for them and for myself and anything else that might be affected by the conflict.

That compassion for myself component is very important and has been one of the harder things for me to learn. Like I said, I worry after an argument or disagreement that I was too much, that I didn’t deserve to be right or stand up for myself. But being able to step back and slow down before responding in an argument has helped cultivate that compassion: when I observe and slow down my reactions are more rational, more honest, and more meaningful. I’m asking for what I actually need in a way that’s considerate and not about “winning.”

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