I’m the only daughter of an only daughter. The status “only child” is generally met with scorn or pity; and although I think I’ve turned out fairly well, I did grow up almost completely lacking in social skills and the ability to blend into new groups of people. It doesn’t help that I’m also the introvert child (ISFJ, to be exact) of an incredibly extroverted father and an introvert mother. To top it off, the extrovert father had a temper that he only learned to control later in life. I never heard my mother raise her voice, but I grew up watching her master the art of passive aggression to counter his anger. But — they loved each other passionately and completely. And I, their only child, their little girl, was/is the center of the universe.
The percolation and distillation of these personality traits, interactions, and relationships did not serve me well as an adolescent or young adult; I made a variety of decisions that ranged from bad to disastrous. And although as an adult I’ve worked through or learned to deal with many of my issues, I’m left with one that I can’t seem to resolve: an absolute terror of conflict.
A few years ago I was part of my church’s search committee to choose a new minister. At the beginning of the process, the committee went to a retreat center to spend two days learning how to work together. One of the first exercises the facilitator led us through involved conflict. She placed a chair in the center of the large room, and said, “This chair represents a conflict. Go to a place that shows how you choose to respond to that conflict.” One of the committee members immediately sat down in the chair. Others chose locations ranging from next to the chair to spots a few feet away. I was about 25 feet distant, pressed against the door; I placed myself physically as far from the conflict as I could get.
I marvel when I watch movies with enthusiastic families who love and fight at high volume. I’m astonished by friends who speak matter-of-factly of this or that argument at home or at work; they disagreed, and then they moved on to something else. My need for security and harmony doesn’t allow me that level of comfort with conflict. Instead, the smallest disagreement throws me into fight-or-flight mode — but without the fight. Everything in me wants to run.
Looking back at last evening, we had a situation that probably wouldn’t even register as a conflict in most families but that was enough to wreck my night and cause my stomach to still hurt this morning. Take a brother and sister behaving in a typical way toward each other. (Another by-product of being an only child is that I completely do not understand the bickering that goes on between siblings. Why should they be unkind? We don’t treat them that way, and they wouldn’t say those things to their friends.) Add one child’s impatience with a parent, the other child’s stubborn refusal to cooperate with a parental instruction, and the resurfacing of an onoing parental complaint, and toss in existing communication issues between said parent and both children. Now, stand back, listen for the volume to rise, and watch me run for the other room.
Not a big deal. Just another night in many American households. Then why was I upstairs on the verge of tears, my head and my stomach hurting, trying to fix the source of one of the arguments in hopes that I could make at least part of the conflict go away? Why, in similar circumstances, do I sometimes end up closing myself in my bedroom; or, further away, in the bathroom; or, in extreme cases, in my closet? (When it gets that bad, I’m usually having to muster all my control to stop myself from getting in the car and running away to — where? I don’t know.)
When my dad was dying I figured out that going in the dark closet was like crawling back into the womb; small, quiet, enclosed; a safe place to cry. I ended up on the closet floor a couple of months ago when one of my cats developed unbearable habits and I had to take her to the shelter; no one in my family understood my pain, and I went and curled up in the small darkness to escape from the light and the everyday conversation.
I should learn to cope, to stand up to conflict; but I don’t know how.