“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” ~ Ram Dass
Close relationships can be among the best mirrors in which to see ourselves—sometimes unexpectedly.
When we experience conflict in close relationships, it can be extremely challenging and painful.
Our state of mind influences our interpretation and response to our experiences. On some level, we all know this— everyone knows they’ll act differently if they’re in an unusually good or bad mood.
Yet, during relationship conflict, it’s easy to ignore the correlation between inner state and our reactions.
When we’re upset about something another person has done, it’s common to see their behavior as the sole cause of our distress; if only they would be different in some way, then we would have peace.
With this perspective, all our efforts to manage conflict are externally oriented. We try to avoid the other person. We try to change their behavior. Perhaps we work on developing new communication strategies or conflict behaviors. But the intent remains the same—making the external situation different in some way.
We rarely look inward to see how we might be contributing to our suffering.
According to Buddhist philosophy, others’ behavior may indeed cause us pain, but we experience far greater suffering from our own minds: how we perceive, interpret, internalize and react to others’ behavior.
I experienced the truth of this for myself recently, when my husband and I decided to do yard work one weekend.
We spent several hours working harmoniously before things fell apart.
The disagreement was a simple thing: I thought we needed a shovel, he wanted a rake.
It seemed like a neutral-enough topic, but the conversation was strangely tense and I felt upset by his tone and reactions. After we were done talking, my chest was tight and my mind was churning with all sorts of unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
For five minutes we worked in stony silence.
Finally he spoke, noting how miserable I looked. He seemed genuinely confused about why I was so upset, and asked for clarity about exactly what he had said that had bothered me.
I carefully tried to recount as many of the facts back as I could. As I did so, I waited to come across the irrefutable “proof” that he had acted like a jerk—proof that I was justified for feeling every unpleasant emotion I was currently feeling.
Yet, surprisingly, I couldn’t find anything tangible.
But that didn’t make any sense. I was really upset; I must have a good reason!
Upon closer examination, I found the thing I was most upset about was a sound he had made during our conversation—a sudden exhalation of breath.
I heard this and interpreted it as an exasperated sigh—a sign that he was frustrated.
If he’s frustrated, it’s only logical that he was frustrated with me, I thought.
I further interpreted this frustration as sign that he wasn’t respecting me.
I interpreted this lack of respect as a threat to my self-worth, and felt belittled and insulted.
Then I felt angry at him for causing me such pain.
All that from a puff of air!
Upon reflection, I saw that I could have interpreted my husband’s behavior in numerous ways. Maybe he was just tired from the strenuous work he was doing. Maybe he was frustrated about something unrelated to me.
I realized then that I wasn’t really upset by my husband’s behavior, but how I had viewed myself in response to his behavior. And even if his frustration was directed at me, I could have seen it as a sign that he was in a bad mood, or not feeling well.
I didn’t have to take it personally or let it negatively affect my sense of self-worth.
The way we perceive another’s actions largely depends on how we perceive ourselves.
When we identify with our Ego, we lack a steady sense of who we are.
Our sense of worth and identity is largely dependent on how others view us. We’re constantly seeking out love, acceptance, and acknowledgement from others in order to maintain a positive sense of self. When we don’t receive these things, our sense of self feels weakened, even under attack. A criticism, negative judgment, or sign of disapproval (real or imagined) can quickly turn us into an emotional wreck.
Yet, when we identify with our True Self, we know that who we really are is never determined by external events or others’ reactions to us.
Our inner state remains stable. Since our sense of self is not bound to how others see or treat us, we are able to respond to conflict with less reactivity, and with more clarity and compassion. Like a sturdy oak, we can stay calm despite the storms that blow around us.
I saw that my attachment to my Ego-based thoughts was the major cause of my pain, not my husband’s behavior.
Once I identified the primary source of my discomfort, I was able to respond to it more constructively. I was able to observe my thoughts with increased detachment, instead of getting “sucked in” by them. I could more clearly assess how true or accurate these thoughts were, and I could choose to let of go of those that were no longer serving me, and give my energy those that did.
From there, I could better communicate with my husband about the situation.
I was able to let him know how his behaviors triggered negative reactions in me, without blaming or shaming him.
In return, he was able to explain and apologize.
With a little self-awareness, a potentially minor conversation that had turned so sour was reformed as a chance to increase our sense of connection.
Conflicts are not only opportunities to increase connection and understanding with another, but also opportunities for inner healing.
When we are aware of our own internal causes of suffering, another person’s challenging behavior can gift us with increased self-awareness and an invitation to do inner work to overcome our limiting and painful beliefs about ourselves, and become better connected to who we really are.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Emily Bartran / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Barbara Martin/Pixoto