In my last post, Understanding Relational Conflict through Creative Writing – part I, I wrote about a conflict where an adult son calls to ask his mother for money. The mother was angry about this, but ended up sending him money anyway. I outlined 6 steps to help reveal where a verbal or physical boundary may have been crossed in order to determine what role disrespecting boundaries might have in a conflict. One of the steps involved changing the identity of the two who are in conflict in order to look at the situation more objectively. In this example, I’ve changed the mother to “Aunt Hillary” and the son to “Aunt Hillary’s Niece, Cheryl.”
The following steps are designed to help reveal which underlying beliefs, including values or judgements, might have contributed to the conflict and what to do about them. It is based on the example given in the previous post. You can complete Steps 1-6 in the previous post, with your own example and carry on with the following steps here.
7. Identify the emotions throughout the scene
You may refer to an Emotions wheel to choose a word that best describes the emotions of the main character. Add it in “red.”
Aunt Hillary drove away from the hospital, tears running down her cheeks, (vulnerable, overwhelmed) pulled up to the house and opened the door, the phone was ringing (worried). She dropped her bags and ran to pick it up, bumping into a table on the way.(annoyed)
Cheryl – Hi Aunt Hillary, how are you doing? It’s Cheryl.
Aunt Hillary slumped down into the nearest chair, coat and boots still on. (relieved, tired)
Aunt Hillary – Oh hi Cheryl! I’m so glad to hear from you, I was worried when you didn’t call back last week.
Aunt Hillary looked down at the floor, noticed that her boots were making a puddle of mud and looked around for a cloth and tried to grab for it, but found that she had to get up to reach it. (frustrated)
Cheryl – Oh yeah, sorry about that it’s just been so busy lately.
Aunt Hillary – (Reaching down to wipe up the mess on the floor, take off her boots and fling them towards the door). No worries, glad everything is okay with you. (relieved) (Aunt Hillary unzips her jacket).
….Aunt Hillary – (loudly) You only care about yourself! (resentful) You never call, (hurt) you don’t care about your uncle. (disappointed, disgusted) When are you going to get your life together and stop asking other people to pick up the pieces of your own mess!!…..(disapproving)
…Aunt Hillary opens her computer and types in the password to her bank account and sends an e-transfer for $400 to Cheryl. (guilt)
8. Add the thoughts that occurred with each emotion, in purple.
Aunt Hillary drove away from the hospital, tears running down her cheeks, (vulnerable, overwhelmed – “what is going to happen to me if he dies?”) pulled up to the house and opened the door, the phone was ringing. (worried – “It’s the hospital, something has happened to my husband”) She dropped her bags and ran to pick it up, bumping into a table on the way. (annoyed – “Damn!”)
Cheryl – Hi Aunt Hillary, how are you doing? It’s Cheryl.
Aunt Hillary slumped down into the nearest chair, coat and boots still on. (relieved, tired– “Thank god, it’s not the hospital,” “Thank god, Cheryl is okay.”)
At this point, it may start to become clear that Aunt Hillary is bringing more to the conversation than just her words and actions, in terms of intensity and emotion, and how this may be influencing her response to Cheryl. If the words and actions have not shown clear boundary violations. which account for the intensity of the response of the main character, the hypothetical audience will assume that there is something else responsible for it. Emotions point to the existence of underlying beliefs and the internal dialogue also provides clues as to what is behind this intensity.
9. Identify believes (values/judgements) beneath the emotions
Pull out the emotions and internal dialogue in order to better examine them for clues. Then, if the overarching belief is unclear, continue on the internal dialogue until it becomes clear. Add the belief, below, in orange. Make sure that the belief matches the emotions and the internal dialogue:
….Aunt Hillary – (loudly) You only care about yourself! (resentful- you only care about yourself)
BELIEF: She is selfish. This is a character flaw and a moral failing on her part. She was spoiled and needs to grow up.
You never call (hurt – “She only calls when she needs something”)
BELIEF: She does not care about me. After all I’ve done for her, I mean nothing to her. I’m too old to be of interest. I have become irrelevant. She is disrespecting me. Maybe I don’t deserve respect anymore.
…you don’t care about your uncle. (disappointed, disgusted – “She is selfish, her mother spoiled her”) .
BELIEF: Not calling means she does not care. If she cared she would call. She is selfish if she lets her own life get in the way of doing her duty as a niece.
When are you going to get your life together and stop asking other people to pick up the pieces of your own mess?!! (disapproval – “She is immature, she’ll never learn”)
BELIEF: Young people should not be asking others for help, it shows a lack of maturity and they will not become mature if they do not learn from their own mistakes. No one ever helped me, why should I help her?
…Aunt Hillary opens her computer and types in the password to her bank account and sends an e-transfer for $400 to Cheryl.(resentment, guilt – “I have no choice in this. She has no one else and I am responsible for her. I’m a sucker. I wish I hadn’t said what I did”)
BELIEF: We must help family. I have no choice. This money will fix things between us.
10. Look for cognitive distortions
Look for mind reading, for example, “she is only thinking about herself” and “She does not care for anyone but herself.” Also looks for the words”always,” “never” and “should” for clues about judgments, in this example, “she only calls when she needs something” would be worth re-examining.
Judgments such asf “selfish” or “immature” are broad generalizations that need to be considered in terms of what information is missing. For example, think of the times when this person behaved in a different way that might disprove the judgement or assumption the main character has made about them.
Also consider if these beliefs/judgments are consistent, or if they are being influenced by the context of the situation, or other stressors, unrelated to the conflict? For example, in this case, Aunt Hillary is stressed about the situation with her husband, who is apparently ill, and is in the hospital. Possibly she is feeling alone and unsupported and particularly resentful of someone asking for help from her.
Check out Cognitive Distortions for more on distorted thinking.
11. Determine how these beliefs are serving this relationship
If you find that these underlying beliefs are not always true and may be distorted, consider re-evaluating them and looking for beliefs that serve you and the relationship.
If these beliefs are consistent, but still causing conflict in relationships that are important to you (aka the main character) then it might be worth interrogating those beliefs.
- Ask yourself where you first acquired them, for example, is this something you learned from parents, your community, your religious group, the society you live in, etc. How have they helped you in your life?
- What are the exception to these beliefs, rules, judgments, etc.?
- Are they serving you now?
- Are there parts of these beliefs/judgments that might be worth holding onto and other parts that you’d like to let go of.
Conflict in relationships are complicated but if you can identify what part is your responsibility, in terms of words spoken, action taken, the role of context and beliefs on emotions and intensity, then it will be easier to resolve them. Of course, there are parts of conflict that are not in your control, but knowing what is will help you to draw boundaries where they belong and take responsibility for the parts that you are contributing to.
You might be interested in Passive Aggressiveness