Last night, a friend was asking my advice about an issue she was having with someone close to her. I won’t get into the particulars out of respect to my friend, but it involved a bit of jealousy on the other person’s part that was causing her to treat my friend unfairly. At first, I got sort of incensed on my friend’s behalf and suggested she speak to the person directly and get to the root of the problem. But then my friend said something so wise that it made my response seem childish and impulsive. She said, “I just have to work on not letting other people impact my emotions so much.”
Of course, that response got me thinking about myself and the way I am hardwired to handle situations like that, which inevitably arise from time to time in any number of relationships I have with people in my life. And I realized that’s really the heart of so much issues like the one my friend finds herself in: it’s never about the other person, it’s always about me and the way I choose to respond to them. I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations because my own feelings are not shared by all women, but I do think this phenomenon is one that is typically very female-specific. I often envy my husband’s ability to shrug off conflict, to forgive and forget so easily, to speak his mind frankly to another male and then carry on without residual anger, guilt or hard feelings even if the topic is uncomfortable. It’s always seemed to me to be the male way of handling conflict. So why is that that us women have an infinitely harder time letting things go, taking the words and actions of others at face value, forgiving when we’ve been wronged? Wouldn’t our relationships fare better if we did? In thinking more about this, I came to the conclusion that my faults in this area (and many women, I think) can be summed up by two phrases: “It’s OK,” and “I’m sorry.” Allow me to explain:
Recently, I did something insensitive and thoughtless to one of my very close friends in an effort to help out another. I didn’t handle the situation well and I felt really badly about it. My friend called me on it and told me that I’d really hurt her feelings. I hated to hear that because I really pride myself on being a good friend, but it was so refreshing to have her tell me what she actually felt instead of just saying, “It’s OK,” when I apologized. The words “It’s OK” come so easily to me that it starts to feels like the right response, even when, 9 times out of 10, it’s not. I’m always annoyed with myself after I say it because, honestly, sometimes it’s not OK and to dismiss it so easily is to diminish the other person’s genuine apology. It doesn’t mean I don’t forgive the other person for what they did, but it’s a lie to just utter that simple phrase for the sake of ending a conflict, which is what it always comes down to for me. Instead, I’m trying to replace that phrase with, “Thanks,” which is probably a more appropriate response when someone apologizes.
This is one I’ve been working on getting away from using for a really long time but I’m so hardwired to say it, that it just pops out of my mouth unbidden probably 10 times a day. I’m not talking about saying it when I’m truly sorry–which is completely different–I’m talking about the knee- jerk reaction of saying it when something is A) Not my fault B) Not within my control or C) Actually someone else’s fault. I’m talking about when someone runs into my cart at the grocery store and I automatically blurt, “I’m sorry.” Or when someone tells me they got into a car accident and I suddenly find my lips saying those words, despite the fact that I was in no way involved. I even find myself saying it to my son, “I’m sorry that you’re sad.” What is with that? Conversely, when I’m truly sorry about something that is my fault and is within my control, I often do a very poor job of conveying that, trying to make excuses for my actions or skirting the conflict altogether. But when my friend called me out on hurting her feelings, I felt free to just say, “I’m really sorry. I fucked up and I feel terrible about it.” She didn’t say, “it’s OK” in response. Instead, she said, “Thanks. I didn’t think it would help our friendship to just not say anything.” And she was 100% right.
I think both of these responses stem from what my friend sagely pointed out: we’re so used to letting other people’s actions impact our emotions that it translates into the way we speak to each other, too. It makes us apologize for things that aren’t our fault, avoid apologizing for things that are and gives other people permission to not apologize sincerely to us. It’s all so backwards and nonsensical and I know, for me, it’s time to work on changing that because it’s not doing me or anyone else a whole lotta good. In fact, maybe the men in our lives could actually teach us a thing or two about emotions. I think my husband will be happy to hear I’m taking notes from him on this one 🙂
How do you handle conflict, especially with other women? Are you an over-apologizer like me or do you have a better way to deal with it?