This post is dedicated to my dear friend Evelyn, who suggested I blog on this topic after we discussed it.
I grew up in a very conflict averse family. There was an immense amount of subterranean conflict going on between my parents and my controlling, live-in grandmother/mother of my father, over my upbringing, my education, the household, whether to have a dog, money, family obligations, vacations, and every other normal family rub point. But none of it was really ever surfaced or dealt with. No alternatives considered. No preferences explored. No creative solutions sought. It was like bloody Lorca: the conflict was in the silences.
And absent any discussion, there were no solutions; just endurance and stress. And of course, I lived in a 1950s suburban street where most of the families also suppressed conflict saying ‘what would the neighbors say?’ And the stress, I presume from this distance, caused my to suffer from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and got me six months in bed in hospital free from the suppressed conflict zone and with a lot of time to read and learn to think for myself. And when I came home, my grandmother had been sent to live with another brother of my father, and the conflict was much less, still suppressed, but less of a rhinoceros in the corner of the room. And I was eventually an argumentative teen and the overt conflict was finally expressed….though not very constructively….
Now even at the most repressive era in the family, my father did argue almost every night of his adult life in the local pub over politics, economics, religion and any other topic that came to mind. Often taking the opposite view on a subject to anyone else and switching sides if need be; all in the interests of a good argument. But all these skills were not deployed back home to festering issues that lay unresolved. Though I learned them from him, to apply them outside the home, and thank him for that.
I now realize that in retrospect this family milieu had profound consequences for my choice of career and my life long pursuit of conflict, open argument, and confrontation with my own inner conflicts. I learned to go looking for conflict. I became a labor relations negotiator in one of the most militant, unionized, auto plants in the world where building 90 cars an hour makes pressure intense and conflict inevitable. I loved it because though the conflict was brutal, aggressive, often close to violence, it was out there in the open to be dealt with. Constructively and creatively or destructively and negatively. But dealt with it had to be, 24/7 round the calendar. Ultimately that amount of conflict was not good for business and many of the plants I worked to save, closed down because the conflict was just too much. But I had my time in the world of overt conflict, ‘back in the day’, and when the plants closed it was not on my watch….
And now after all that, I have been researching and writing about the psychology and neuroscience of conflict in this blog and for a book on conflict I am working on. I realize that of course magical thinking has taken over. Officially I somehow want to change how the world handles conflict, but really I want to write a book that travels in a time machine back to my childhood and helps my family (who are all dead now) face up to and handle its suppressed conflict. And also to travel back to my troubled auto plant and put it back on the rails to long term survival. That’s what’s really going on I decided a few weeks ago…neurotic need to solve ancient conflicts….
So now, like a good therapist, I know my ‘stuff’. I know my fantasy about conflict handling. About it reinventing ancient history. And so now, knowing that, I can get on with life, research, write, publish and be damned whatever, freed from any illusions that the past can be changed. And probably as people resist systematic processes in all aspects of life, they aren’t likely to flock to them in conflict situations either. So the future won’t be changed much either, though my friends tell me they use my approaches….
But hey, it means I am no longer conflicted about conflict. And I also understand why nine intelligent psychologists (and why would you be a psychologist unless you had demons to tame) have become involved in my work in recent years to assist my in creating psychometric scales to measure conflict handling, and all nine dropped out the moment the work made them confront their own inner conflicts by simply focusing them on the processes of conflict. And for all my friends in Social Work or as I term it Swam Work, and my psychotherapist friends, the world’s helpers of others: the moral of this insight is around uncovering your own demons before you work anyone else’s. ‘Psychologist heal thyself.’ Just as ‘Conflict professional heal thy inner conflict first’….