Last night I went to watch the swifts in Portland, who every September on their fall migration roost in the chimney of Chapman School in NW Portland. Watching the swifts is one of my favorite fall activities in this city, as hundreds of people come out with their families and friends and have picnic dinners on the steeply sloped hill, while watching thousands of birds swirl into the chimney at sunset. It’s a beautiful community event and I try to go see it at least a few times during the season.
But, last night turned out to be more than just a nice night of watching the beauty of nature and the strength of community. I learned something about myself that took me by surprise and has left me a bit unsure of where to go next. It came about during a conversation about past relationships, in which I said to my friend, “we broke up because we fought too much…although I have never fought with anyone else I’ve dated…” and then it hit me; I haven’t fought with ANYONE else since we broke up, not boyfriends, not friends, not bosses, not my mother, not anyone. Suddenly I was slapped in the face with the realization that for the past 4 years I have been avoiding conflict at all costs.
I knew that I had changed quite a bit since the summer of 2008, and I often liked my new amicable self, but I also had slowing been losing my path, unable to make decisions, developing patterns of self isolation and becoming even more flighty than before. I had many potential explanations for my behavior; my most important long-term relationship had ended, I was in graduate school, the economic recession was making opportunity sparse, and I was dealing with issues of self worth and confidence. All normal things that happen in life, but for 4 years I had been trying to address these issues so that my life could be better and I could maybe discover some idea of how to live my dreams, but nothing ever worked.
So over the last 4 years I have looked at everything in this quest for clarity; my jobs, my living situations, my diet, my hobbies, my friends, my spirituality, everything. I have sought out therapy, Naturopaths, energy work, new friends, new adventures, new jobs and homes, but still nothing brought me to a place that felt right. It was like I forgot who I was and I was now just trying on different lives to see if they fit. I developed an inability to make real decisions instead opting for whatever presented itself to me in the moment. But, it never occurred to me that most of this might be the result of developing a pervasive avoidance of conflict.
Now I think it is reasonable to avoid unnecessary conflict, but when you avoid conflict at all costs you become willing to give up just about everything in order to keep the peace. You give up your hopes, desires, and the things that are most important to you. You isolate yourself from any situation that might evoke deep emotions. And you find ways to justify people’s bad behavior so as not to have to confront it. Avoiding conflict makes you begin to think that being nice is more important than being authentic.
Over the years I have started to feel successful in my interpersonal life because people began to perceive me as nice and pleasant to be around. I no longer got comments that I was “opinionated” and “bitchy”. People would talk about how kind and diplomatic I was. Which are all great things to be and it felt good to be this way, but it has all been at the expense of pursing my passions and dreams. I have not found a balance; I just swung from one extreme to the other.
And now I can see so clearly how it all started and it had nothing to do with my ex boyfriend that I did all the fighting with (it just occurred around the same time we broke up). It was during my second year serving in AmeriCorps, where I worked as an environmental educator in the mountains of Idaho. For the first three months everything was great, I loved my coworkers, my job and the town. As a group we worked well together and had a great dynamic. We did however avoid any real conflict which left things stewing under the surface, unaddressed. Then, just after winter break everything changed; the group finally let what was simmering come out and conflict erupted into an all out battle. And as an opinionated, stubborn, process oriented person I met it head on with dire consequences. I became the group’s scapegoat for all conflict; everything was my fault, which it sometimes was, but definitely not always.
For months every time the group had an issue I would be placed in the central point of blame and criticized for anything I said or did. It was horrible and I didn’t know what to do to fix it. I was in a constant state of anxiety and defensiveness. It wasn’t until I came down with a fortunate (yes I said fortunate) case of food-poisoning in which I was out of commission for a whole week and the group (in my absence) continued to have conflict and therefore had to acknowledge that maybe it wasn’t always my fault. A few of my coworkers decided to stand up for me and bring the issue of how I was being treated to the group. So, after months of dealing with conflict by making me the scapegoat, we finally had to address the real issues that were plaguing our group and I was finally allowed to move on with my life without constant harassment and negativity.
Unfortunately by this point, I had already completely shut down and must have subconsciously vowed never to do anything that would put me in that position again. I turned inward, began to avoid groups, and quickly lost my ability to make decisions. I became paralyzed with anxiety over doing anything that might upset someone or make someone think I was being contrary. I stopped speaking up or asking for what I wanted. And unfortunately, I was never able to make the connection that my sudden change in personality and behavior came from this very difficult experience and the resulting subconscious coping strategies.
And I now realize that my coping strategies have consumed my life. Being unable to make decisions, I stared to create predictable patterns that make my decisions for me. I go to the same restaurants, order the same foods, do the same things with the same people on a regular basis, wear the same clothes and generally leave the rest up to chance. I have learned to always be ok with whatever anyone else chooses, I no longer am a picky eater, I reserve my opinions for groups of people I know agree with me (and I can always see the opposition’s side and understand why they feel the way they do), I avoid people who I know have strong beliefs and tend to get worked up over them, and I spend more and more time alone.
I even recently decided that I wanted to live alone (even though I have a great, affordable house, with great roommates) because I feel like I’m always having to compromise, never acknowledging though that I never ask for what I want, never being willing to address my concerns or feelings with the people I live with. I would rather move out than discuss something that might not be pleasant. I’d rather run away than make things work.
So, that brings me to today. This whole realization just came crashing down in a torrent of insight and clarity, but now I don’t know what to do with it. Seeking out conflict doesn’t seem like the answer, but I clearly need to face my fear and maybe learn about strategies for effective conflict resolution instead of conflict avoidance. I know I don’t want to go through the rest of my life not authentically living with purpose because I am too afraid of being criticized or attacked for my choices. I want to have the courage to follow my dreams even if it may involve some unpleasantness. And I want to find a balance between being kind and diplomatic and being strong and living with conviction.
It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even know what I want anymore because it has just been easier to go with the flow and let things happen, than to risk being confronted for my choices. The problem is that this is incredibly uninspiring and leaves me feeling lost and confused most of the time as well as dependent on the spontaneity of others to keep my life interesting and fulfilled. And it makes my relationships unbalanced and inauthentic and leaves me feeling isolated from those I care about.
So, I guess my lesson is that sometimes going and watching the swifts is just a nice way to pass the time, but sometimes watching animals live out their purpose in life makes us question our own and helps us better understand our true nature. Fear is an amazingly powerful thing that can bury us under its weight if we don’t keep it in check. If the swifts were afraid of coming home to roost because of the peregrine falcons that prey on them each season, then the whole ecosystem would collapse. The swifts don’t avoid their journey because of the battle that awaits them at that chimney, they show up every year without fail and remind us that the journey is hard, but we have to go on it anyway.