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Whether it’s an argument with a coworker about responsibilities in the workplace, or an ongoing problem with a roommate who won’t do their part with the chores — as annoying as these confrontations are, they’re also unavoidable for most of us.
Being afraid of confrontation is a normal response—we need fear to sharpen our senses and help us make good decisions. But too much fear can have the opposite effect.
In order to feel confidently in control in conflict situations, we need to overcome that fear. This can be done with practice, and a little understanding of what’s going on in our heads when we experience fear of confrontation.
According to the American Psychological Association, confrontation is the act of facing a situation, contradiction, realization, discrepancy or other point of conflict that can be considered difficult, unpleasant or potentially consequential.
Fear of confrontation is a major source of distress for many people, and whether that’s happening in the workplace, family, relationship or friend circle, the desire to avoid addressing the issue is what’s holding them back.
Why, if our relationships and the things at stake in conflict are so important, do we avoid confrontation?
The answer is simple: confrontation can be really, really hard.
Confrontation anxiety comes from a desire to avoid the consequences of confrontation that we have observed in previous conflicts. Confrontation is something most of us have negative experiences with early in life, and many people have memories of being criticized, offending someone, being wrong and making mistakes that make us avoidant.
What we’re avoiding in these instances is not the confrontation itself, so much as the potentially negative outcomes from the confrontation—the ones we’ve experienced before and don’t want to experience again.
The mere thought of actual confrontation can create doubt, uncertainty and leave us spiraling through a tunnel of imagined worst-case scenarios, and these collectively negative feelings are the bedrock of anxiety.
According to The National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is typically characterized by panic, worry and other negative emotions towards real and imagined threats and uncertainties.
So, if conflict and confrontation fill you with dread, you’re definitely experiencing anxiety. And just like a fear of success, fear of confrontation can very much lead to anxiety.
Over time, this can have an impact on your health. Anxiety can cause issues with sleep and mood, but it can also cause things like stomach issues, headaches, muscle tension and plenty of other physical and mental symptoms.
If the fear of confrontation becomes extreme, it may even qualify as a phobia—a severely anxious response to a perceived threat (in this case, the consequences of confrontation).
When these confrontations happen, or when we think about the traumatic confrontations of our past, they can raise our cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and can engage our fight-or-flight instinct.
And they can also trigger panic attacks, too, in case you were wondering. We know — confrontation is the gift that keeps on giving!
A fear of confrontation is harmful to carry around.
No matter what arguments against confrontation you make, avoiding conflict can have serious implications for your future, your relationships and your happiness, if only by making you avoid addressing the things that bother you.
When you avoid them, you rob yourself of opportunities for growth.
Here are some tips that can help you address conflict in any area in your life:
Assessing any given situation honestly may help you gain better perspective on what’s really going on, which may include the realization that the conflict isn’t what it seems.
That may mean you’re partially to blame, or that your conflict is imagined.
We get that it can be hard to address conflicts with a third party, but it’s not being a gossip to discuss your concerns about a conflict diplomatically, with someone who knows both parties and may be able to offer some perspective.
A safe person might make it easier for you to discuss your thoughts about a challenging colleague or someone’s inappropriate jokes before the real talk.
It’s also a chance to practice your confrontation skills, and focus on making it a constructive confrontation rather than an angry or emotional one.
Owning your part in conflict is part of getting to a solution, and it’s also a great interpersonal skill to practice, generally.
It may just be a way to put the other party at a bit of ease during the confrontation, but starting a conversation about conflict with an acknowledgment of your part in it is one way to make the conversation more diplomatic.
Conflict is like mold: the longer you leave it, the more it will flourish.
Perhaps it’s redundant advice, but it’s important to reinforce exactly how important swift communication about conflict can impact the issue. Waiting can breed resentment in you and the other party, it can make the conflict feel worse, and it can increase your stress, so just address it.
There are surprisingly few ways to avoid conflict and confrontation in your life without it becoming a burden on your own mental or physical health.
Keeping your resentment or frustration with someone bottled up or refusing to speak your mind in the face of something or someone you disagree with isn’t good for your mental health.
But there are other ways to manage these unpleasant experiences, not by avoiding them entirely, but by reframing your beliefs about the confrontations themselves.
We’ve mentioned a few ways to reconsider the confrontation that’s keeping you up at night, but another way to address these fears might be to speak with a mental health professional about your anxieties and to get professional support for treating and addressing those general fears.
A healthcare professional might suggest medication for anxiety. Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs) are often prescribed for anxiety to people who need assistance in regulating their moods. You can learn more with hers’ guide to medication for anxiety.
But professionals might also recommend therapeutic practices to deal with your anxiety. Anxiety is generally responsive to therapy as a treatment, and whether your anxiety is mild or severe, it can benefit you to talk to someone about these feelings.
Therapy might take the form of exposure therapy, in which you might be asked to practice addressing conflicts to desensitize yourself to those fears.
But therapists might also utilize something like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a form of therapy geared toward helping you reshape your ways of seeing and thinking about confrontation, ultimately helping you better manage your emotions around conflict and stop avoiding confrontation.
The next time you're in a conflict situation, stop and take a few deep breaths. Fear of confrontation can cause us to artificially inflate the importance of things, making a minor issue into a difficult confrontation because of false assumptions.
Having a difficult conversation is not a life-threatening prospect in most cases, and it's healthier than avoidance of confrontation in all cases.
If you're ready to talk to someone about these feelings and get support, psychiatry may be the right thing for you. Whether it's with us or another provider, don't avoid this moment of confrontation with your own issues. Confront your fears. Use online mental health services today.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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