I am often asked to provide counsel on the conflicts within families, between friends, and other situations, which are up close and personal, often in the case of families with deep roots in family history. Some seem almost impossible to untangle at which point the old Clash record: “Should I stay or should I go” seems to start playing in peoples’ heads. :)
But there is maybe one approach I have personally found helpful in such situations of inter-personal pain. It is, in a nutshell, to separate out what is driving the other people to behave in ways that cause us so much pain from the question of why their behavior causes us this pain.
There is much to recommend about the process of understanding other people, other people’s demons that drive them to cause us pain. It can allow us to predict their next attack. It can help us realize: hey it’s not about us but about their stuff. It may allow us to develop mental martial arts moves to counter or block their attacks. We can even (as readers of my blog may recall) use my favorite response to any conflict attack: a question like “why do you say that? What is driving your need to attack me? Is it your stuff?” This can stop people in their tracks sometimes. Though it can also make them quite angry as you are forcing them to confront their stuff, their demons. So use with care unless you are a battle hardened labor relations veteran like me with diminished pain sensitivity. :)
Or you can even use my wife’s great tactic when she thinks someone has put her down, she asks “Was that a put down?” If they say no: then she says: “Well it sure sounded like one. Maybe use different words?” and if they say yes it was, she says: “Why would you want to put me down? What’s your beef with me?”
But, while this boxing ring stuff has some place, especially where the person concerned is oblivious to your tactics and continues on their merry way, or where there is a power differential against you, there is another angle. It is to use the pain they cause you to figure out why what they say causes this pain. And I am not talking about physical violence here, where you should call the police. But psychological attacks.
I suggest you notice where it hurts when they attack you, what part of your mind or body feels the pain. And find some quiet time to write about or think through what in your own history makes this so painful. It is a sort of conflict-triggered self therapy. And, of course, you might need professional help for this, or a steady friend, who is not going to judge you. I even jokingly tell people: note where the pain buttons are that those close to you push on a regular basis, mark them with a felt tip pen and run the uninstall program in your brain to get rid of them. This is a metaphor in case you take it literally: do not try this at home. :) (I also note that parents know where their children’s pain buttons are because they installed them; an insight I gave to a friend of mine about her mother’s effect on her, forgetting she had a daughter too and she asked if I were suggesting she had done that to her daugher?)
So with this approach you now have a twin track method: understand those who inflict psychological pain on you and their reasons, and adopt appropriate measures to defend yourself or cut off from this crap. But use the pain they cause to good end to figure out why it hurts so damn much, so you can use the pain to better sit with and figure out your own demons. With the latter, I advocate inviting them in for tea and listen to them sympathetically….
Hope this helps. It is not easy, but neither is suffering the continuing pain others can inflict on you. And remember mostly: “It’s not about you!”, their actions.
And I have previously posted on Peter Kramer’s fine book “Should You Leave?” which is a good approach to relationship conflict. If you search for his name in the search box for this site you will see a few postings around his work.