Eve is a stubborn girl. Has been from the moment she was conceived, I'm certain. And yet, she is loathsome of conflict and confrontation. As a toddler, she didn't like to be touched or hugged by those other two-year-olds who long for physical contact. You know - the ones who hug every other kid they see? Eve hated that and would often see them coming a mile away and make her way to me as fast as her chubby, drunken little legs could carry her to hide behind my legs in fear. She had one friend in particular - her dearest, most cherished friend - who was very physical. And from time to time, as kids of that age are prone to, they would both covet the same toy. Miss Flower would see Eve playing with something she wanted and head on over. Eve, anticipating the conflict, would close her eyes, stretch her arm out in Miss Flower's direction and turn her head away in mute acceptance. You want what I've got and it's just not worth it to me to fight for it. Here, take it.
Now, that's not to say that Eve can't put up a fight if there's something she wants. But if something isn't going her way in a social situation, it is pretty rare for her to speak up. I'm trying to change that.
A few weeks ago I had coffee with a friend who was talking about her distaste for confrontation of any kind. She described a housemate who never does her own dishes and, while it was clear that it makes her crazy, she doesn't feel that it is worth it to have the difficult conversation it would take to change the situation. So she goes on doing this person's dishes and fuming about it, looking forward to the day when her housemate moves out. Since then, I've been noticing so many other instances like this in the lives of people around me.
Why are we all so afraid of conflict?
There are times when we all just lose our ability to contain our frustration and an argument or nasty fight ensues. But how often could those major issues have been avoided if we had spoken up sooner?
As a child of the 70s, I was taught not to make waves. Be polite. Accept what you're given. If you don't have anything nice to say, keep your trap shut. Don't hurt anyone else's feelings. I took it all to heart. It got me into a lot of trouble. I found myself in places I ought not to be, in relationships with people I didn't want to be with, all because I was too shy or fearful to speak up. And I wonder, looking at both sides of the equation, if I didn't do more harm than good.
A few weeks ago, Eve was having trouble sleeping. She had been working hard on her final project for school and was stressed that she wouldn't be able to finish in time. She tiptoed downstairs when she should have been fast asleep to snuggle in my lap and tell me that she felt like she was doing more than her share of the work on this project. That some of the others in her group were letting her take all the responsibility and it was weighing heavily on her shoulders. She agreed to talk to her teacher about it if I came with her. And, to her credit, she did. In front of the other members of her group. Not in a mean, spiteful way that accused others. Not with tears or whining. She simply said that she felt overwhelmed with the amount of work she was doing and wanted the others to pitch in some more. A few of the other girls acknowledged that they were letting Eve do most of the work and the teacher agreed to sit down with them and outline equal responsibilities for the remainder of the work.
Last week, after the girls presented their final project to their peers and family members, I pulled the teacher aside and thanked her. Since that discussion, Eve had not said a word about the issue, and had clearly been able to relax and complete the project without further anxiety. I was thrilled that the girls had been able to have this conversation without anger or hurt feelings.
"I think Eve learned a little something about herself, too," her teacher confided. "One of the girls spoke up to say that the reason they let her take over was because she seems to want to be in control. She is vocal, has good ideas, and volunteers to take on a lot of responsibility. When confronted with that, Eve responded that she feels panicky if she isn't in control and we were able to talk about how she can deal with that without it becoming a problem."
Hmmm. That apple didn't fall far from the tree. Maybe with examples of frank, honest discourse like this under her belt, Eve will begin to get more comfortable with confronting difficult issues. My suspicion is that, had she let this simmer a bit, she would have ended up feeling resentful and angry with her group members instead of relieved that the problem had a good resolution. In the end, the girls did some amazing work and Eve was able to articulate out loud her need to be in control.
I know that it was hard for her to talk to her teacher and her group members. I imagine her heart was racing and her palms were sweaty. But, for all of them, this was the best possible outcome, and I hope that the lesson here is that sometimes you've gotta make a few waves to rinse some of the junk off.