I begin with the proposal that the repair after the rupture is more valuable than there never being a rupture in the first place.
Nonetheless, I have spent a great deal of energy avoiding personal conflict in my life. Other times I’ll suppress my needs in order to accommodate the needs and interests of others. I’m actually quite good at this. With a high capacity for empathy, observation, and adaptability, I’ve lived a mostly conflict-free life. (I'm including the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes model below for further context.)*
But something has been missing. I’m not showing up. The danger in constantly adapting my needs to those of others is that I disappear. When I project the responsibility onto others for my own self-sacrifices I become resentful. This corrosive force has been a recurring theme in my relationships. I feel that my sacrifice goes unacknowledged, I begin to feel trapped and then I long to be alone.
Not only is this behavior self-destructive. There is also a hidden distortion of perception in this tendency. When I focus solely on pleasing and taking care of others, I’m missing the fact that others also experience the joy of giving. I find great joy in helping others, and they do too. If I keep my interests to myself then I’ve taken away the opportunity for others to even consider sharing with me or offering me support. My desire for people to voice their needs is real, but I tend not to afford this gift to others.
I remember my good friend telling me once that she needed me to say “No” to her sometimes, so that she can trust that my “Yes” is authentic. Well now, years later, I’m finally practicing my capacity to say “No.” Another way to say it is that I’m practicing my capacity to show up authentically and this requires me to say “No” and requires me to ask for what I want. More than anything it asks me to act from my heart.
There seems to be a deep danger in ceasing to defer to others and in asking for what I want and it is two-fold: The first danger is that when I say “No” to someone, or they say “No” to my authentic request, I’ll find myself in conflict. The second danger is that by acting authentically I risk disappointing others, and it will be me who has done that.
So I find myself in a bind. I either avoid conflict, disappointment and myself and risk withering away in resentment and isolation, or I express my authentic interests, act from my heart and risk conflict and being responsible for letting people down.
One tool that I’ve learned comes from Celeste Hirschman, co-creator of Somatica and author of Making Love Real. She offers the following three-part commitment that she makes in relationships. We are invited to consider the same commitments:
1. Maintain the connection,
2. Show up with your authentic and true self,
3. Stay for the repair that comes after the rupture.
I love how this simple set of commitments points to a cycle. The first commitment sets the foundation. By committing to the connection we affirm that the relationship is one that we are in and we know that it is important, valuable or at least inevitable.
The second commitment affirms that a quality connection requires the involved parties to show up and bring their best selves. It's better if both can bring their full self to the table, but we can only begin by doing this for ourselves.
The third commitment is a direct result of the first two. If we are in relationship with others and we are committed to expressing our true needs and interests, then eventually we will find ourselves in conflict. In authentic relationships there will always be disagreements and there will be rupture, and it becomes crucial to follow through with the repairs. This brings us back to our first commitmen to maintain the connection.
If we authentically hold the connection and follow through with the difficult stuff we are guaranteed to grow.
So here is my current practice in life. I am going to practice speaking up for my interests and needs. I say practice, because I know that it is a skill that I’ve been developing and one that I’ll continue to develop. The skill that I’m specifically trying to work on is to be curious about what is coming up for me. When? With who? In what conditions and contexts? Eventually I am hoping to learn to communicate what I want in a way that is direct and clear, yet also compassionate. Generally, when I try to be nice, I am indirect to a fault and the result is drawn out and painful miscommunication. In contrast when I do find the courage to speak my voice, I usually have to cut through the frustration, and the result can be a bratty outburst. I’d like to trust that I can confidently speak my voice in a way that is mature and easy to hear, but the truth is that I am practicing. I am very much humbled by this practice.
This brings me to the point I started this conversation with: the repair after the rupture is more valuable than there never being a rupture in the first place.
This means that we are in a world a diverse people and perspectives that will not always align. It means that to have a world with thriving people and relationships we’ll need to give voice to those perspectives. This will often lead to rupture, especially if we are still unskilled about how we say “yes” or “no” or if we still struggle with people saying “yes” or “no” to us. We are all in a lifelong process of learning how to be humans, so we can also practice being patient with one and another.
The main point here is that there is a magic that can happen when put our cards on the table and it becomes a mess. When we express ourselves in ways that leave us and those around us triggered, we are then invited to actually commit to the follow through of the repair process. When we choose to engage in the process of repairing the ruptures that result from our authentic expression, we are doing something really special.
We are affirming that everyone’s voices and perspectives are valid and desired. We are also affirming that there is space for the emotions that the expression of our interests bring up. In a way, we are saying that both the relationship and the individual matter, and we simultaneously affirm that the process matters too.
So here is my commitment. I'm going to let myself voice my own needs. It is not just a request. It is a gift. To do this, I'm going to take refuge in the idea that my capacity to follow through the repair after the ruptures will strengthen my relationships, foster collaboration and liberation.
*Thomas Kilmann Conflict Modes model presents 5 strategies for folk to use in the face of conflict. The y-axis is measure of how important it is to get the outcome that you want. The x-axis is a measure of how much you want to preserve the relationship. Those who seek to preserve the relationship but don't care about their own needs will tend to accommodate the requests/demands of the other, while those who care about their outcome but not the relationship will choose to compete with the other person. Many hedge their bets and go to compromise where neither is fully satisfied but at least some needs are being met for outcome and relationship. The choice to avoid conflict means that you will never get your needs met, and it also implies that you will never be in full relationship. Conflict is a natural part of being in relationship with other humans. The dream is to collaborate, taking the time to find an outcome that meets both people's needs and affirms the relationship in the process. All of these strategies are appropriate in certain contexts. It is very useful to be aware and intentional about what you are choosing and why.