HSP Dilemma: what to do when you can’t stop a conflict no matter what

I think it’s fair to say that we HSPs generally don’t like conflict. Stop the war! Stop the bickering! Stop the mounting tension! Ah, if only we could stop it.

Yet conflict is part of life. If we get too obsessed with resolving it, then we become a stomped-on doormat.

In our desire to create peace, we may be sorely tempted to make the exact wrong choice: avoiding the fights we need to have, and fighting over things best let go of. (More on that here)

That said, a big part of the conflict resolution puzzle is the ability to spot the kind of people who love conflict. That’s right, some people thrive on the energy of conflict. They will do what they can to create chaos and tangible conflicts, get into arguments and fights to blow off steam or simply get energized by frustration and friction and refuse to settle for peaceful solutions.

In our attempt to “make things better” we might unwittingly find ourselves in some kind of real life Monty Python argument clinic:

For us HSPs these characters can be maddening. Why on earth would anyone want conflict? Some people just do, that’s all we really need to know.

In those situations, there is just no way we can actively resolve the conflict. All we can do is stop being a part of it. A peaceful resolution then is not the resolution of the conflict itself, but a dissolving of our own attachment to whether other people do or don’t fight, argue, or bicker.

When it’s time to stop trying:
Standing up for ourselves is needed. Yet it’s also important to avoid getting sucked into conflict-for-conflict’s sake interactions, even if our pride was bruised and our needs unmet. This can happen when we’re dealing with a conflict-addict, or with someone who is desperate to avoid the underlying issue, and is using the conflict as a distraction.

Either way, the best we can do is be aware of what is happening on our end. When we’re aware of our own motivations for getting involved, it’s easier to disentangle ourselves and avoid getting further battle scars.

We can get sucked into endless debates and struggle when:

  • We want to resolve the situation but the other doesn’t WANT anything to be resolved, so they will keep creating new problems and issues just to keep the conflict going. Look at the bigger picture here, look for patterns. They’re hard to see when you’re obsessing over the details of the argument itself. Zoom out and check: are things getting progressively worse no matter what you do?
  • We get really upset by all the dust that is being kicked up and we take responsibility to the point where we just can’t let things be. Let the mess be the mess it is. If things get really bad and intervention is truly needed, then “delegate” the issue, e.g. by involving the appropriate authorities.
  • We are convinced that the other person has an underlying problem that we must help them with. Consider: Are they paying (or outright asking) you to be their therapist? If not, then they are not your patient and their psychological issues are off-limits to you.
  • We start to over-analyze the situation. Stop right there! What are you actually feeling about all of this? What are the plain and simple facts of the situation? (Not the “if only” scenarios)

When well-intended interventions just make matters worse, then “letting the conflict be” is actually the most peaceful solution. What we need to do then is disengage. You’ll never be able to peacefully resolve a war if the other party wants to keep fighting no matter what. So, unless you want to literally blast their head off (not a typical HSP reaction :) ) you’re probably best off just disengaging completely. Walk away if you have to. No point trying to apease a “black knight” if even King Arthur couldn’t do it. (warning: very very fake violent scenes!)

Some tricky things to watch out for:

  • The apparent source of said conflict keeps shifting. When you solve one issue, there’s another one that is now the “real reason” for the struggle. This chain of shifting the blame can continue endlessly. No matter how hard you try, the conflict keeps snowballing further because each new moment offers a fresh source of frustration. Accept that this is a never-ending story.
  • The moment you put your foot in, you get opposition. The “I was just trying to help” gets a response of “oh yes you, always feeling superior, always needing to get involved” or “you never care but now you suddenly think you’ve got it all figured out” etc. You can’t quite figure out how, but somehow trying to solve the issue seems to make it worse. Now your sense of self is on the line and you’re determined to bring all this to a happy conclusion. Just remember: you don’t need to be perfect and others don’t need to think you are. A “suit yourself” and turning away are most in order here.
  • The other person won’t ease off because the argument is a podium for them to display their intelligence and know-how. Watch for any signs of irrelevant intellectual ammunition being brought to the table. Some people really love an agressive debate. It’s like a duel: all about skill and honour. They lost track of what they are (supposedly) fighting about a long time ago. Let them have it out – just not with you. Don’t worry, they’ll find a willing opponent somewhere else. It’s a game: they’re having “fun” but you’re not, no need for you to keep playing.

So while you are clear that you don’t want conflict, do consider: perhaps the other person is enjoying it! If so, are you getting paid to argue with them? If not, I’d suggest going on strike :)

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1 Sarah November 6, 2014

One of my favorite and most helpful articles! Thanks for this insight, Caroline.

2 Caroline van Kimmenade November 6, 2014

You’re welcome Sarah! Glad it’s helpful.

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