Your words aren’t making things better, and you know it. The conversation is escalating. You can feel the tension in your facial expression, and see the impact your words are having on the other person. But you just can't help yourself making things worse. So why can’t you seem to stop digging yourself deeper?

There’s a part of you that knows you’re not helping yourself. You’re certainly not going to look back on this and feel proud! This interaction is costing you, and it doesn’t feel good.

And yet there’s another part of you just can’t seem to stop. After all, you’re so worked up it would look kind of ridiculous if you were to just stop and admit you’re in the wrong.

What happens when you just can’t seem to help yourself – even when you know you’re fuelling the conflict?

Sometimes, the one you’re at War with is you

In a recent flare up with my partner, I found myself in exactly this situation. I knew I wasn’t in a great place, and I also knew exactly what I could do to help shift my mood. I could have taken a break, gone for a walk, listened to some music that would have put me in a better place. And yet, I found myself making excuses – that I “didn’t have time”.

If I was really honest with myself, I’d have admitted that I actually didn’t want to stop being angry. I knew I was behaving in an absolutely vile way, to someone who I really love and care about. I also knew I didn’t want to stop and change how I was being. I was seeing red, and lashing out – and like a child having a tantrum, I was refusing to listen to reason.

Then, something funny happened.

The power of taking a break

My partner left the conversation (and who can blame him? Being in the firing line is never fun!). I was on my own, and after about 5 minutes I realised all sorts of emotions were coming up.

I felt terrible. In fact, I moved straight away into a sense of deep guilt and self-criticism. “You’re a terrible person” I told myself, “How could you have said those things?”.

(Perhaps you’ve felt something similar, if not with a partner then a colleague, or someone innocently trying to help you – like a waiter or shop assistant.)

I felt a deep sense of guilt, and it made me realise that what had been underlying my outburst all along was this feeling of self-loathing. I’d almost go so far as to say that I’d engineered the situation that had triggered my bad behaviour so that I’d have an outlet for these feelings.

Put like that, you might be thinking it sounds like the actions of an emotional teenager – but it’s something more of us do as adults than we’d like to admit.

You are not your behaviour

But beating yourself up when a conflict is over doesn’t help the issue, and here’s why. If we could accept ourselves fully, we’d realise that our behaviour isn’t us. It’s just a symptom of how we’re feeling at the time. And the same goes for your thoughts – they’re not who you are.

Think of a time when you behaved badly and said things you later regret: perhaps by being angry, judgemental or critical.

There would almost certainly have been reasons for the “symptoms” you displayed.
I’m guessing you were either in physical or emotional pain. By emotional pain, I mean you might have been exhausted, hungry, sleep-deprived, grieving or hurt. All the times we’re not at our best.

So if you know you’ve behaved in a way that you later regret, there’s no need to become entrenched in guilt or shame. You can certainly own any harm or hurt you’ve caused, but you can also extend empathy to your past self. Under different circumstances you would have handled it better. When we can show ourselves compassion for bad behaviour, we’re able to do the same for those around us – and it can really change the way things are.

How to stop before it goes too far

One of the most challenging things about these moments is that when they’re going on we’re often very disconnected from what’s really happening. At War to Peace® we call it being “in the Red” and it’s a state where we have very few resources at our disposal.

So here’s something to play with – next time you become aware that you’re getting stuck behaving in a way you know you’re going to regret, just stop and give yourself 5 minutes.

Don’t try to change anything else about the situation, “talk yourself down” or admit you’re in the wrong. When you’re worked up, that can feel like the furthest thing in the world from where you’re at.

Instead, take a few minutes alone just to connect with how you’re feeling. Drink a glass of water, if you can, and let yourself tune in to what you’re feeling. Frustration? Anger? Sadness?

You might find this simple pause allows you to connect to a more resourceful part of yourself, without doing anything more than pressing “pause” for a few minutes.

Try it and see how it goes.

Time to change the script?

If you’re fed up of feeling like you’re stuck in conflicts you can’t seem to change, or just find yourself slipping into bad habits from time to time, why not come along to one of our workshops? Refresh your understanding of what causes conflict and learn simple techniques for transforming the way you communicate, whether you’re dealing with the most challenging people in your life, or the loved ones who bear the brunt of your pent-up emotions. Our next open-access workshop is in October. To book your place, click here.
Over to you

If you’ve ever found yourself in the midst of an awful argument, being perfectly aware that you’re not at your best but feeling oddly unwilling to stop it, I’d love to know: what usually snaps you out of the spiral and back to being yourself again? Share your insight in the comments.
War to Peace® workshops
Our award-winning War to Peace workshops happen a few times per year in London and our final one for 2018 is happening in October. Places are very limited so if you want to join us, book yours now. We also run in-house workshops and programmes for organisations all over the world, so if you want your people to thrive and work better together, click here to get in touch or call us on +44 (0) 20 8191 7072.
To be the first to hear about our new open-access workshop dates, and get free monthly tips and strategies for your relationship challenges, just leave your name and email address below.

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