Maybe I just want you to be someone else
Preface: I’ve had this newsletter sitting in my drafts for months. Each time I think about posting it, I’ve recently had a conversation where I worry that person will think the content is about our conversation. If you’re thinking this is about you—this is about all of us and no one specifically.
I just want you to be someone else
If conflict is a signal that something needs to change, then often we react to this signal by looking for that change to happen within somone else. We see another person’s behavior, priorities, feelings, or values as “the problem,” and we see “the solution” as a change in their way of being or doing things.
For example, a colleague overplans for every meeting and we feel micromanaged—we want them to plan less. A partner spends a lot of time going out with friends and we feel unimportant—we want them to spend less time at the basketball court. A friend is always talking about their crush or who they’re dating, we’re tired of it—we expect them to stop caring so much about their romantic life. A family member recently became engaged in social justice and their constant “insights” are annoying—we want them to realize that what they think is life changing is obvious to “everyone else.” And so on. These experiences are common at the center of our conflicts and often come with a confusing mix of wanting to stay connected to someone important and feeling resentful, judgmental, annoyed, or unvalued.
Here are our challenges—
Conflict transformation asks us to see conflict as an opportunity rather than a problem. What does this mean? Rather than first looking for the source of “what’s wrong” and trying to find a diagnosis or issue, we want to look for what we value, care for, and want to preserve. We want a good working relationship and to have agency in our work life. We love our partner and want to spend time with them. We care about our friend and we miss the things we used to do together. Our family has always been a safe place to land and we want be comfortable there. From this place of recognizing value, we can then see the conflict as an opportunity to return or enter into right relationship, to highlight those meaningful aspects, and meet everyone’s needs.
Conflict transformation then asks us to seek the root causes of a conflict, toward social justice and liberation. One individual’s behavior is rarely (if ever) the root cause of a conflict. If all we see is that someone else needs to change, then we are not looking deeply enough.
Seeing our part
Often the problems we find in others are a reflection of our judgments, insecurities, and resentments that we need to address within ourselves. Ask yourself:
What is it about this behavior that bothers me?
There are some things that we just don’t like. We don’t like when people talk with their mouths full or chew loudly. We don’t like the sound of someone’s voice. We don’t like people who are overly romantic or sexual. We don’t like people who are “fake” or “normie.” There isn’t something inherently wrong with having preferences—unless we act on those judgments in ways that try to control other people. If we’re mean or unkind to them, we make them feel bad about what they like or do, or we try to pressure them to not be who they are in order to accomodate our preferences—these are controlling actions. If we’re bothered by someone’s behavior or preferences and we’re unable to control our own judgmental actions—that is a problem with us, not with them. We might not be the right friend for them—because they’re wonderful the way they are!
Is there something underneath this that I am insecure about or afraid of?
Sometimes we see things as a problem because they make us feel unsafe or insecure—we’re afraid of being abandoned, we’re feeling lonely, we are unsettled by the unknown. In an unpredictable, oppressive society that is isolating and destabilizing this completely makes sense. But, when we try to get people to accomodate our fears in ways that sacrifice them having their own needs met—that’s an unhealthy part of a relationship where we need to address our fears rather than others skirting around them. The first thing we can do is be honest! Try saying something like: “When you spend more time with your friends than me, I get insecure and feel unimportant. Here are the things that would tell me that I’m important to you…[insert some reasonable requests, like telling me you love me or spending some time with me].” Another thing we can do is get to the root of our fears and insecurities: where does that come from? how can we find other ways to feel safe and secure that don’t require someone else to give something up? Maybe that means spending time with other people who care about us, or getting closure around a previous incident of abandonment.
A caveat: of course in some cases, our feelings of unsafety or insecurity are rooted in an otherwise unhealthy dynamic: our partner, friend, or family member may be manipulating or otherwise being abusive. In which case, it is on them to change and we may need others’ support to make that happen.
Why do I resent this part of the relationship?
Resentments can be really tricky in a relationship of any kind or depth. They can come from a past incident with this particular person or group, or they can come from ways that we have been treated in other relationships. In any case, resentments often cause us to become hypercritical of others’ behavior because we want them to “make up for” or compensate for unfairness, injustices, or wounds. It can be really easy to feel that a resentment is someone’s else’s fault or problem to fix and to feel burdened if we have to name it directly. However, a resentment is an unresolved feeling with ourselves and our relationships, where we haven’t embraced closure for an ongoing misalignment or past wound. Consider this:
Letting someone know that you’re still holding on to a past event and would like to talk about it or make amends
Setting boundaries in relationships with similar dynamics (e.g. if you feel taken advantage of, make clear that you won’t give out free rides anymore or can’t be someone’s sole support)
Ask yourself what you’re still holding on to and explore what it would take to let that go
What are my expectations of others?
Finally, we need to get curious about the obligations we create for others to meet our expectations. For example, why do we expect our partners to center their social lives around us (primarily or exclusively)? Or why do we expect our family to know what we have already learned, on our timeline? Or why do we expect our co-workers to do things the way that we would do them? Why do we expect other people to care about what we care about?
In conflict, our expectations often set us up to fail. Releasing others from our expectations can be just as freeing for us. Holding people to a high standard is a lot of work. Certainly that doesn’t mean we should have no standards at all—but we need to ask ourselves if those standards are fair, reasonable, appropriate, and possible for someone to meet as who they truly are rather than who we think they should be.
Once we better understand our part, there are two more things we can explore:
Understanding their why and root cause
Conflict requires us to understand why another person does what they do. Maybe our co-worker overplans because they want to make sure everyone has what they need—maybe they feel immense pressure from capitalism to overperform and secure their income. Maybe our partner feels belonging and cultural connectedness on the basketball court and spending so much time with friends is a matter of nurturance for them. Maybe our family is so excited about what they’re learning about social justice (perhaps a little late) because something has recently clicked for them and they’re realizing how disconnected they have felt in the past, due to the erasure of their heritage or traditions. We should try asking something like— “Hey, I noticed that you really spend a lot of time preparing for these meetings, why is that?” (and try our best not to sound like we’re interrogating them). Once we understand they’re why, we might realize what’s at stake for them and be able to support them in having that need met without them having to change.
Of course, someone’s why isn’t that deep—they just really like to be organized, they just want to avoid being home and being nagged, they’re a little full of themselves. Usually all of these things are true together. But these less deep reasons return us to our part—can we tolerate being annoyed? can we tolerate people’s imperfections? is it okay that people are a mess a lot of the time, in ways that push our buttons? That’s a part of being human and not necessarily a conflict in itself.
Finding a place to shift the impact
If after all of this, we see that something still needs to change outside of ourselves—then it’s time to look for a way to shift how we are impacted by a behavior or way of being. For example, just because our co-worker is ultra-organized because they feel pressure to perform, doesn’t mean that we aren’t also losing the opportunity to fully participate in decsions about our own work. So, we have to ask— “Other than being bothered by this, what is the impact (outcome, result, consequence) for me? How does this change my life, day, or experience in ways I don’t like or want?”
Once we’ve identified the undesirable impact, we can explore a few things—
Letting the other person(s) know the impact on us, which they may or may not have intended
“Hey, when you plan the meetings this much, I don’t have a say in the agenda and there’s rarely time for my ideas—”
“I know you don’t mean for this to happen, but when you go out with your friends 5 nights a week, I get lonely—”
“When we get together and you only talk about guys, I have a hard time getting invested in the conversation—”
“When you talk about social justice it can be hard for me because I’ve been trying to tell you these things forever and it feels like you didn’t hear me—”
Working together to find options where they have their need met and so do we
“—Can we work on the plans together, or can I have some time during the meeting to plan on my own—”
“—Can I come to basketball once a week and/or could we have a regular date night just for us?—”
“—Can we do more of the things we both love, like eating at the restaurants we used to go to and doing karaoke together?—”
“—Maybe we can go to some protests together so I can show you what I’ve been up to all these years, and also go to some cooking or dancing classes so we can learn about the culture we lost—”
Considering ways that we can decrease the impact on us, without them having to change
“—I can also make sure I’m sending my ideas to the group Slack beforehand, rather than relying solely on your facilitation—”
“—I will also schedule more time with friends so that I rely on others and it doesn’t all fall on you—”
“—I will also try to be more supportive of your dating life, because I know how important that is to you and how much you’re invested in finding a life partner—”
“—It might also be great for you to share what you’re learning with others—”
And addressing the root cause
“—I also want you to know that your job here is secure and you don’t need to spend ten hours outside of work doing all of this extra stuf—what do you need to feel secure in this job? A better contract? Health benefits? A raise? Let’s fight for it together.”
“—I want to make sure you feel seen and heard in our relationship, I would love to do more things that are valuable to you.”
“—I know that patriarchy and sexism can be so painful, trying to find a date among all of that must be hard and lonely, and I want you to know that I am here for you and you can always lean on me.”
“—And I found a few groups that are just for people who are Gen X and were forced to assimilate, I think you’d love connecting with other people who are in a similar place.”
Of course, it’s also possible that the other person(s) aren’t the right folks for us—right? Maybe the change we need is to seperate or change the relationship, because what we need and want from others isn’t present. That’s valid. And also, let’s not twist ourselves or other people in ways that harm or destroy us.
In the end, it’s important to ask ourselves—In the absence of harm/abuse, why do I expect this person to be the source of change?
Workshops are coming up in late May and June! Excited to meet new folks and learn together.