5 Toxic Conflict Thoughts
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Early last week, I looked at the list of conflict thoughts I had put together. I thought “hey, these look pretty good.” Then I took a few seconds and thought pleasant thoughts about myself. Hey, if you don’t love you, no one else will.
Then I thought about the list a little more. One question kept rattling around in my head. Would any of this advice have helped my relationship with my mom? And as I turned over that question, I realized that they probably wouldn’t have. It’s not that the list is bad, or the advice flawed. It’s just that it is incomplete.
Last week’s thoughts on conflict make the assumption that conflict occurs between individuals (or groups or institutions) that engage in a spirit of good will, and that everyone involved has a genuine desire to resolve the conflict. The advice assumes good intent.
If we have learned anything in 2020 it is that positive intent and shared goodwill are NOT a given. There are some people (and groups and institutions) that lie, cheat, and manipulate. There are people who will gaslight, deny reality, and behave in ways that are destructive and self-serving, never once giving a thought to what someone else thinks or feels.
This week is about THAT kind of conflict.
Toxic Conflict Thought #1
Not all conflict is created equally.
I have written about my mom several times. She passed two years ago. I loved her very much. I wouldn’t say I miss her.
She and I had an extremely difficult relationship, especially the last few years. She was a narcissist, and it took a tremendous amount of personal work and growth to overcome the damage that her issues did in my life and psyche. Work that is ongoing.
Narcissists do not operate like other people. At her best, my mom was dazzling. She had an electrifying presence and a larger than life personality. She could take over any room that she was in. She was outgoing, energetic and engaging. She told the best stories. She came across as generous and loving. If you only met her once or twice, you would still remember her, and remember her fondly. If you were someone who only saw her occasionally or were a distant relative, you would be convinced that she was a wonderful, caring woman.
Narcissism is different than many mental illnesses in that it causes damage in reverse. When you have mental health struggles, typically the relationships that are most affected are the ones at the periphery of your life. You will struggle in school or at work. You will lose contact with old friends, stop investing in relationships. The one place that tends to remain strong is your closest relationships. Your family will continue to love and support you to the very end. It can even be a co-dependent relationship. Your closest relationships will remain strong sometimes long after they should’ve taken a step back.
Narcissism isn’t like that. Narcissists have GREAT relationships with people who barely know them. I was inundated with people who knew my mom and assured me after her passing that “you and your brother and her grand-children were the thing she cared about more than anything else in the world.” Only. Yeah. No. Not exactly.
The people who are the closest to narcissists are the ones that take the direct hits. We are the ones who get the damage.
One of the very worst moments of my very challenging year in Iraq involved a suicide bomber and a group of kids. It was awful. I still have nightmares about that day, and that incident. For years I didn’t talk about it. Even now I tend to be vague on details and don’t particularly like talking about it, even in therapy. Even to myself.
I did tell my mom though. I mean, she’s my mom right? Who can’t tell their mom something like that and expect love, concern, and care? We had this conversation before I had accepted that she was a narcissist, and long before I could even process what that meant. When I told her about what had happened, stopping several times to gather myself to continue, she responded like I told her someone cut me off in traffic.
“Well,” she said, “I sure hope y’all got that son-of-a-bitch.”
That was it. No “I am so sorry.” No “how terrible.” No “how are you doing, how can I help.” Not even a hug.
A few months later we were at her house for a visit with the kids. There had been a fire a few days before at an apartment complex near her pawn shop in Myrtle Beach. It had been a bad fire in the middle of the night. Several people got hurt. A few died, including a child. We were all watching a news story about the fire. There was an interview with the fire chief, who singled out the men who had responded to the fire. He talked about how hard it had be to see the loss of life, especially the child, and that it was every first responders worst fear.
My mom is watching this story with tears in her eyes. “Oh my god y’all,” she said. “Can you even imagine something so awful? That poor child. Those poor firefighters. I just can’t imagine how strong someone would have to be to deal with something like that.”
I sat there stunned. All this emotion and sympathy poured out for a situation (that while truly awful and lamentable) involved people she didn’t know and had only a passing connection with. But when I had told my story? Crickets.
How do you engage with someone that oblivious and self-involved? What does conflict look like with someone like that? How do you productively disagree of create accountability with someone incapable of seeing the needs of others? How would you even start to work through a disagreement?
How do you negotiate with someone who lies? How do you trust someone who obscures their true motive? How do you maintain civility with someone who is convinced that your very existence is an affront to God?
The truth is that not all conflict is created the same. Some conflicts, some people, are toxic. This week we explore more about how to think about toxic conflict. How do you disagree when the normal rules don’t apply?
Toxic Conflict Thought #2
Boundaries. Have them. Love them.
During my week in Malibu, CA at the Save A Warrior recovery program, we did lots of stuff. Some of it was really powerful. Some of it was just okay. That is how these things tend to be.
I was exposed to a lot of new ideas and therapies that I had either never heard of or had never taken seriously. A couple of them - meditation and somatic therapy - ended up being the keys that unlocked the door to the path of recovery and wellness I have been on since. Some of the others (like, say, using the hero’s journey as a metaphor for life) were less impactful.
One of our activities that week was equine therapy. Of all the things we did that week, it was the one I was the most confident about. I may not have known shit about meditation or holistic wellness, but if there was one thing I did know, it was horses.
I grew up on a ranch in Central Texas. I had been around horses my whole life. I was in a saddle before I could walk. I knew that horses were very emotionally intuitive. I knew that they picked up on human emotions. I was excited that morning. I knew that it was going to be a good day.
And it definitely started that way. Our guide for the activities that morning was the actress Chloe Webb. You may know Chloe from Sid and Nancy (she was Nancy) or the show Shameless. I was excited because she had been on one of my very favorite TV shows of all time - China Beach. We were going to spend the morning working with her and her horses on her farm in Malibu.
The first guy in the ring with the horse that morning was Cory. Cory had lost his right eye in Fallujah. When he got in the ring, Chloe asked him to call the horse over. Cory gently called the horse and the horse immediately walked over to Cory and nuzzled against him, inviting a hug. The horse was on Cory’s right side, and seemed to lean his head into Cory’s eye. It was like the horse was saying “it’s okay.” We are 5 minutes into this morning and already the entire group is hushed. “Holy fuck,” somebody said. Yeah. No shit. That about covers it.
Our task, Chloe told us, was simple. There was a path marked around the outside of the ring. We were supposed to get the horses to run on the path. The horses had no halter or lead. We were just supposed to use our hands and our encouragement to get them to the path, and to start running. Running comes naturally to horses, Chloe assured us. They want to do this. If they trust you and understand what you want them to do, they will do it. If you are hesitant however, she pointed out, or if you get frustrated or upset, they will just stop. Think about your intention, she reminded us.
Cory had never been around horses. It was his first time being close to one. Turns out, he was a natural. After nuzzling, he had the horse running around the ring within just a few minutes. When Cory called the horse again, it immediately stopped and came to him for another nuzzle. We all celebrated with Cory as the next man went through, then the next. All had pretty quick and easy success. It was a good morning.
By this point my confidence had turned into cockiness. When it was my turn I walked to the horse in the middle of the ring. “Hi,” I said. “My name is Jeff and we are gonna rock this.” The horse could not have been less impressed. I got no nuzzles. The horse actually turned away from me. Fine, I thought. No big deal. Let’s just do this and get some lunch.
I tried to encourage the horse to the track as Cory and the others had done. He stood there. I tried again. And again. The horse just stood there. “See if you can give him some gentle physical encouragement,” Chloe suggested. I gave the horse a gentle nudge. The horse took two steps toward the outside of the ring and stopped again.
“C’mon, dude,” I pleaded. “I would really like you to walk now.” Nothing. I felt Chloe’s hand on my shoulder. “Here,” she said, pressing a rope into my hands. “Wave this gently and see if it helps.” I waved the rope again and the horse started to walk very slowly toward the outside of the ring. While he walked he started drifting to his right. Toward me.
Soon the horse and I are walking shoulder to shoulder around the ring, but nowhere near the outside. The horse would just get closer and closer, making the circle smaller and smaller. Eventually we made it back to the center of the ring. The horse just stood there. I waved the rope. Nothing.
Confidence had given way to exasperation and embarrassment. This horse wasn’t doing anything I wanted it too. I tried a few more times. Finally Chloe suggested we take a break. As people went to get water and use the bathroom she came over to where I was. She could tell I was frustrated.
“You know what the problem is?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said, “the horse won’t do what I am asking it to do.” “That’s because the horse can sense that you have a problem with boundaries. He is walking into you because he knows you won’t do anything to stop it. He won’t listen until you have some limits to what you will allow.”
At that point I pretty much checked out mentally and emotionally from equine therapy. I though Chloe was full of shit. The horse was just being difficult. Maybe it was tired. I don’t know. I had boundaries. Lots of them. I was no pushover.
After SAW, I kept coming back to what Chloe (and her horse) had said. It suddenly occurred to me that - for years - when my mom came to MY house to stay, Barb and I would always give up the master bedroom to her. I thought of all the times I had said yes to things I didn’t want to do, or been in relationships I didn’t want to be in because I was afraid to say no. I was afraid to hurt someone’s feelings, or afraid to feel rejected. Or the fact that I kept drinking long after I knew it was a problem because I was simply afraid to say no.
6 months or so after SAW it hit me. I had some real boundary issues. Especially with my mom.
So I started building boundaries. Yes, you can come anytime. And you will need to stay in a hotel. You can interact with your grandchildren whenever you want. You will just need to focus the conversation on them - their needs, their activities, their ideas. Don’t use your conversations with them to ask how Barb and I are getting along, or if money is tight. That is not their worry. They’re kids. Don’t use your time with them to talk about what’s wrong in your life. Focus on them.
My relationship with my mom changed. I suddenly felt much better. I had clarity about how the relationship could and should work. I was able to keep some of the toxicity to a minimum. She chafed at the boundaries. She accused me of keeping her from her grandkids. Not having unlimited access is not the same as being kept away, I reminded her. But to her it was. Narcissists do not like not getting their way.
Once I started to set boundaries, I became a big fan. One of the best ways to manage toxic relationships is to set boundaries for yourself. Refuse to talk about certain topics. refuse conversations in certain places or with certain people. Place limits on the time and attention you give some situations.
Boundaries. Know them. Love them.
Toxic Conflict Thought #3
Your most valuable resource is your attention.
Have you ever lost your car? I don’t mean your keys. I mean your whole ass car. Have you ever come out of the mall and just.... forgotten where you parked?
It’s frustrating right? Embarrassing? A little bit scary? There is a moment where you are running around, berating yourself, wondering how in the world you managed to misplace a whole two ton vehicle.
That’s what it is like having a brain injury that causes short term memory loss. I am constantly in danger of misplacing things. Not just small things, like my phone (although I do that on a regular basis), but big things. Like my car. Or entire meetings. Or conversations that I JUST had.
I just forget shit.
My neurologist told me to think of my brain as a colander. It looks like a normal bowl, it just has holes in it that let some stuff through, while holding on to others. Your brain works like a normal brain, he said, it just has holes in it. Some stuff will fall through the holes. Some stuff will stay in.
What he didn’t tell me was how random it would all be. That I would be able to remember the teams that played in the 1986 Final Four (LSU, Duke, Kansas and Louisville) or that Don Quixote is the best selling novel of all time, while simultaneously not remembering that I have lunch with a friend tomorrow or being able to remember if my wife’s birthday is on the 9th or the 19th. I am pretty sure it’s the 9th.
Ask me what I had for breakfast and I will shrug. Ask me who led the American League in home runs in 1953 and I will say Al Rosen almost before you finish the question.
I have learned how to manage the injury. One of the biggest tools in the tool kit is my hand Field Notes notebook. It goes everywhere with me.
Inside this 3x5 notebook I write down to do’s, random thoughts, writing ideas, and stuff I want to remember. If you tell me something and don’t see me write it in a notebook like this, you are taking better than average chance I won’t remember. I have notebooks going back to 2011. I keep them all in a wooden box.
The main purpose my Field Notes serve is to focus my attention. They are a way to bring me into the present. I tried other ways to remember things. For a while, my iPhone was the thing I depended on. Over time I found that I just didn’t remember things as well unless I wrote them down, by hand. I could write a note in my phone and still forget something moments later.
Attention is powerful. I think that you could make the case that in late stage capitalism it is the last remaining natural resource. So much of our economic model is built on attention - who gets it, and what they do with it. For all his flaws as a leader and as a basic human being, Donald Trump has one true genius. He knows how to get, maintain, and exploit people’s attention. You know who else was good at that? My mom. It is the one true skill of a narcissist.
All toxic relationships are built on attention. We give our attention and focus to people and situations that simply don’t deserve it. People who don’t respect us. Organizations that don’t value our contributions. Relationships that do not encourage or sustain us. We give to these things in the misplaced hope that they will change, or out of some insecurity or fear.
The single best way to resolve a toxic conflict is to simply stop giving it our attention. This is simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing to do. It is easy because it is simple. If someone or something in your life is toxic, just cut off all contact with them or it right now. Not tomorrow. Not after you organize your thoughts. Not after you come up with a justification. The toxicity is your justification. Just end it. If the news makes you feel sick, stop consuming it. If Facebook makes you miserable, delete your account. If someone consistently pushes your buttons, then stop making buttons available. And yes. It really is that simple.
It is hard because we tend to not have a lot of experience with simply ending things. It feels selfish or self-serving. And the toxic people in your life will tell you that too. In reality, it is just the opposite. It is self-care. It is the healthiest thing you can do for yourself. You will also tell yourself that you need the toxic person or thing. My grandkids are on Facebook, how can I just delete it? You are deleting an app, not your grandkids. If I stop watching the news, how will I know what is happening in the world? You can take control over when and how you interact with the news. It doesn’t have to drive your day.
The philosopher William James said that our experience is what we attend to. What we pay attention to defines how we experience life and the people around us. If you spend the bulk of your time doing toxic things with toxic people your life will feel overwhelming and terrible. Or you can choose to pay attention to something else.
It really is as simple as that.
You can write that down. I suggest a small notebook.
Toxic Conflict Thought #4
Do your work.
I have a good friend who is a professor of languages and linguistics in Belgium. She teaches graduate level students. In one of her seminars she assigns the kind of work you might expect from a graduate level seminar. The students decide on a research project, write a paper about their findings, and then present the results. I have been in at least 3 graduate programs (combined degrees = 0) and every single course was built in much the same way.
Here’s where it gets different. The students in her seminar have to do all of that together. It is all a group project. And they are the group. The whole class. There’s like 15 of them. 15 people that have to collaboratively come up with a project. 15 people that have to coordinate research. 15 people that have to jointly write a paper. 15 people that have to share work, ideas, and credit.
I told her that if I was in her class when she announced all this that I would calmly pack up my things, walk slowly out the door, and then run to the closest port and hop on a ship to another country. Because that sounds like hell on earth to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I was in the military. AND the PTA. I know how to be a team player. I can collaborate. I am perfectly capable of working as part of a team. Doesn’t mean I have to like it though.
There is a fear that comes with giving up control of outcomes. I think that many of us like to have some degree of certainty about the things that will happen when we take on a project. We want to be able to shape the final product, especially when we will be held accountable for what that project looks like.
Matthew once came home from high school frustrated and annoyed. What happened? I asked. Well, he said, I just hope that the people in my AP US History group are the pallbearers at my funeral so they can let me down one last time. He never liked group work. He’s at basic training now, where it’s all group work. I’m sure he’s having a blast.
I think that it is human nature to want to control outcomes. We want to be able to shape narratives, direct responses, and predict outcomes. This basic human need for some degree of predictability and control can be a really good thing. It can make us focus, and cause us to be conscientious.
And in toxic relationships it can be our undoing.
One of the things we want most from the toxic people and situations in our life is for them to change. We want to minimize the toxicity. We want to make them less awful. We want to have a predictable (and better) outcome. We want to regain control.
This basic human desire hides a deeper universal truth. There is no control. Of anything.
You can’t control outcomes. You can’t force another person to have a breakthrough, or grow as a human being. You can’t force someone to be kind or caring. No matter how much I may have wanted to, I could never control how self-involved my mom was.
I can remember once when I was 12 or 13 I got sick and had to stay home from school. In the back of my mind I had kind of hoped that my mom would take the day off and stay with me. She still went her office, but told me she would be back around lunch to check on me. Later that afternoon, I heard her come home. I still felt awful, but I was excited that she was home. I laid there in bed, waiting. She didn’t come. After an hour or so I closed my eyes and remember just hoping, praying she would come check on me. Say hi. Fluff a pillow. I don’t know. Mom stuff. She never did.
The next day she told me that she had a really bad morning at work and that she was just too tired to check in on me. But that I looked better and she was sure I could go to school that day.
You can not control other people. No matter how much you want to. You can’t cause understanding or revelation for someone else.
What you can do is YOUR work. You can do the things YOU are responsible for. You can take charge of your own healing. You can take responsibility for your own wellness. You can be the source of your own care and your own joy.
Do your work. Don’t worry about what the other person is doing. You have no ability to control that. Are you one of 15 students researching a project? Do your part. Do it to the very best of your ability. Whatever will be will be. Let go of the illusion that you can control someone or something else.
Do your work.
Toxic Conflict Thought #5
Let go of toxic hope.
Hope is a funny thing.
It is a very powerful thing. On my journey of healing and recovery, I have talked to so many people who have struggled. I have connected with people recovering from addiction and abuse. I have spent time with survivors - from combat, from childhood trauma, from sexual assault and racism and poverty. I have spent time in jail, in a psychiatric facility, and in 12 step meetings. I have heard dozens and dozens of stories of people hitting rock bottom.
And to a person they have said that when they lost everything, the one thing that kept them going was the hope that things would get better. Not greeting card hope. Not the hope that comes from privilege and protection. The hope that comes from survival. The hope that comes from having nothing left. The hope that comes from knowing that the world has thrown everything that it has at you, and you are still here. You are still fighting. Hope that you can make it another day, hope to take another step.
Yes. Hope is powerful.
And like all things, hope is complicated. It has a dark side. Just like there are some people, situations and conflicts that can be toxic, hope can be toxic too.
A few years ago, Barb asked if I would be willing to come with her to see her therapist. He wanted to spend some time with both of us. He felt like it was important for her work. I went and the conversation turned to my relationship with my mother. Because therapy. And also because narcissism. Narcissists make everything about them. If you are raised by one (or married to one, or in a relationship with one, or if one is president) then you will find yourself making everything about them too. They have the gravity of a black hole.
As we are talking about my mom, I said that I was hopeful that since I was sober, and working so hard on myself, that my relationship with my mom would change and get better. That she would see how hard I was working. “Right,” said Barb’s therapist. “She will see how good you are doing and give you credit. Tell you she’s proud of you. Tell you she loves you and really mean it this time, right?” I was SO relieved. This guy gets it. “YES,” I said.
He looked at me and the room got quiet. “Only we both know that’s never gonna happen. She is not going to change. She is who she is. You have to stop hoping that things will change. She is never going to be who you want and need her to be. Stop waiting.”
His words were hit me like the shocks that they used on my brain in electroconvulsive therapy. He was right. I had spent my whole life hoping that she would change.
When I win this high school writing award, she will change. When I graduate and go to a good college she will love me. When Barb and I get married, things will change. When I join the Army, when I have a kid, when she is a grandma, things will change. When Willie got diagnosed with autism, when I went to war and came back changed, when she moved to South Carolina. There were so many moments that I hoped would be the moment when she finally stopped making it about her. When she finally accepted me and what I had done.
When she would finally love me unconditionally.
After my conversation with Barb’s therapist (and many with my own) I finally started to research more about narcissism. I started to better understand its effects on the children of narcissists. It was like I finally got a road map to my own insecurities.
There is a concept that describes this desperate, unfulfilled hope that is unconnected with reality. It is called toxic hope. Far from being the kind of hope that gives us strength and sustains us, toxic hope destroys us. It makes us hold on to things that are not real, and will not be real.
In order to truly resolve or move beyond toxic conflicts and toxic people, you have to let go of toxic hope. Some people will never change. Some relationships have to be let go. Even when you love someone. Even when it’s hard. Some conflicts can’t be resolved. Life ain’t Hollywood. There’s not always a happy ending.
It’s okay. Nothing lasts forever. You can let go of toxic hope. Donald Trump will never act presidential. Some people will never really get it (no matter what IT is).
When you let go of toxic hope, you make space for the real thing. Brene Brown says that hope isn’t an emotion or a feeling, it is a thought. It is a cognitive process. Toxic hope is about feeling. It’s about wanting. Real hope is about faithfully expecting, and working to make it happen.
It all comes dow to a couple of really simple questions.
What would you lose if you let go of toxic hope? What would you gain?
As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.
See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.