Compassion in conflict: Making peace with but/and

Trauma tricks us into believing that everything is black and white, right or wrong, us versus them. This is our survival instinct kicking in. When our only options to conflict are fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, we become reactive.

This may have worked well in prehistoric times, when our biggest conflict was eat or be eaten. But modern life is much more complicated and layered. Unfortunately, our subconscious brain development hasn’t really kept pace with our prefrontal cortex that controls conscious, rational thought.

This means that, as soon as we slip into a trauma response, we basically become cavemen. This explains why people do “crazy” things when they are triggered. Fortunately, we are beginning to understand how to circumvent our triggers before we slip into dysregulation. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Before we can learn to manage our triggers, we need to back up and talk about culture, brain development, and how they relate to each other.


Historically, the way that the humans have handled our triggers is to stuff them ever deeper, which actually does work, but only in the short term.

The term used to describe “stuffing our feelings” is compartmentalization. Basically, we put the feelings in a box in a dark corner of our brain, lock it, and throw away the key. This works in a pinch, and in small doses is a necessary skill to navigate life.

Let’s face it. There are plenty of times it simply does not work to fall apart and feel all the feels. If everyone walked around sobbing at work, or screaming with rage in the line at the grocery store, all heck would break loose.

Rewarded for ignoring our feelings.

It makes sense, then, that previous generations bestowed high praise on those who could maintain control of their emotions. Humanity has a long history of rewarding quiet stoicism, whether it be straight A’s for the children who sit quietly in their seats and work diligently, or medals for combat veterans for keeping their cool under pressure.

And again, there is most certainly a time and place for stoicism. The trouble is not necessarily that we maintain control of our emotions in order to successfully navigate life. The problem is that we are only now learning that those big feelings must be released at some point, or the pressure will become too great.

We either explode or implode.

Explode happens when we unleash the wrath of pent-up rage or sorrow over something relatively small and unrelated to the task at hand.

And implode happens when our bodies finally fall into illness, poisoned by years of pent-up pain and anger that has been trapped inside our nervous system.

Death by stoicism.

We’ve all heard of people “dying from a broken heart.” Or people having a “midlife crisis.” A guy turns 40 and suddenly buys a convertible and runs off with his secretary. A woman goes full-on berserk and rams her car into the truck in the parking lot at the Piggly Wiggly because he cut her off.

Thankfully, these middle-aged stereotypes are becoming less relatable as gender stereotypes and poor coping mechanisms go the way of decorative ashtrays and cassette tapes. This is thanks in large part to advances in neuroscience and psychology that teach us how to manage our big feelings as they arise, rather than continually ignore them and hope they go away.

Humanity is beginning to learn that eventually – and it really does tend to happen around 40-50 years of age – the locked box inside our subconscious that’s holding all those unexpressed emotions becomes too full and bursts at the seams, spewing red hot emotion everywhere.

The danger of compartmentalization

The biggest issue with compartmentalization is that we never learn how to process emotions in a healthy way. When we believe that big feelings are inherently bad, experiencing emotions in itself becomes traumatizing. This results in stacking additional trauma on top of what was already a traumatic experience.

Let’s say you’re at work and suddenly your boss walks in and announces to everyone that your employer is closing down, effective immediately. Some of the emotions that will immediately arise are anger, sadness, fear, and grief. How will you pay your bills? How will you buy food and housing and utilities? What is your identity if you don’t have a job?

These are very real threats to your survival that will generate a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response, depending on your own unique temperament and coping mechanisms. You might be overcome with the urge to throat punch your boss, or overturn a desk.

You might want to run screaming from the room. You might just stand there, frozen, unable to move. You might run to your boss, fall on your knees and plead for them to change their mind.

Not a single one of these things will resolves the problem.

At the end of the day, you’ll still be unemployed. So what do you do? You quietly gather your things and leave. And then what?

Past generations would tell you to suck it up. Get on the phone or pound the pavement, looking for a new job. Dress in a crisp suit or your cleanest work boots, and head out into the world again. Take it like a man. Be a lady. Pull yourself together.

And where do all those big feelings go? Into the locked box. Until one day, you just can’t take it anymore.

How does this lead to all-or-nothing thinking?

When we stuff our feelings, they don’t just disappear. They are absorbed into our tissues and held for safe keeping as memory in our nervous system. Over time, those pent-up emotions begin to clog our systems, cloud our brains, and seep into all of our interactions, big and small.

With all that pent up emotion, we never really leave the triggered state. There’s always a part of us on-edge, even when we’re sleeping. This is why nightmares and insomnia are so common in those who have a habit of stuffing their big feelings.

Understanding nuance and duality requires a clear mind.

In my coaching work, I’ve learned that sometimes the most triggered people are those who seem to have it the most together. They are like a pressure cooker, just a few stressors aways from bursting wide open.

The other extreme are those who seem to always be in crisis. They blew their top long ago, and they are in a perpetual state of explosion, ready to fight anyone who crosses their path.

In both cases, if these individuals had known how to safely express their big feelings as they arose, they wouldn’t be holding so tightly to the edge of their tolerance. It’s no wonder these folks struggle with duality.

Hearts and minds at max capacity.

Unlike cavemen, the problems we face in our day-to-day lives are very rarely either/or. We face complex issues that often have more than one right answer, depending on personal perspective and unique circumstances.

Philosopher Lawrence Kohlberg created a scenario called the Heinz dilemma that – to oversimplify it a bit – was essentially a guy named Heinz who couldn’t afford lifesaving medication for his sick wife, so he broke into a pharmacy and stole it. Was he wrong, or no?

Either/or, black and white thinkers would say, “Thief! Throw him in jail!” or “Throw the pharmacist in jail for denying him the medicine!”

But it’s not that simple, is it? The pharmacist must make money or she can’t feed her family. Heinz must have the medicine, or his wife will die. What is right, and what is wrong? It gets messy really fast.

Cognitive dissonance

When we encounter a situation that requires duality, we experience something called cognitive dissonance. This is the discomfort we feel in our brains and bodies when we experience internal conflict between two separate beliefs.

When our nervous system is already maxed out with suppressed emotion, we don’t have the margin to process complex problems and ideas. Unresolved cognitive dissonance manifests as indecision, procrastination, self-loathing, and blaming and/or rejecting others.

And because we are intelligent and intuitive beings, on some level – either conscious or subconscious – we know we haven’t given full and fair thought to resolving the problem, which creates a secondary burden of shame on top of the already complicated issue, which results in compounding our traumas.

Heaping trauma on top of more trauma

Every situation we encounter, big or small, every day, has the potential to traumatize or re-traumatize us. The only way to avoid this is to learn to release the existing big feelings we are already carrying around, and then naming and acknowledging new traumas as they arise.

If we don’t learn to manage our big feelings when they happen, they are going to keep coming back to haunt us in all of our future interactions. Every time we pile on more trauma, we risk overloading our nervous system. Eventually, the lock box is going to burst.

The evolution of the human nervous system.

We are, as a species, only at the very early stages of understanding why and how we must release our big feelings. We are only now beginning to understand the internal lock box we’ve been culturalized to keep in our subconscious, and only now beginning to understand how to relieve some of the pressure of stored emotion.

From a cultural standpoint, when we realize that every person you meet is – to some degree – carrying around a locked box of big feelings in various stages of capacity, some about to burst at the seams, it becomes easier to understand why there is so much unrest and conflict in the world.

We are living in the middle of a major shift in human consciousness, fueled by our ever-expanding understanding of how our own brains work. It’s an exciting time, but also a little like walking blind through a giant labyrinth. We don’t know where we’re headed, which can feel really unsettling, especially for people who are living in a constant state of dysregulation due to complex trauma.

What’s the answer?

The single best way to turn off your fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response is awareness. Instead of shutting down your big feelings as they arise, acknowledge them. Say hello to them. Rather than pushing them immediately away into the locked box, give yourself time to really feel them.

Then, once they are named and acknowledged, take three slow, deep breaths. Internally, reassure your trauma brain that you hear its warning, but you’ve got this. It can stand down. It seems a little strange to have a conversation with yourself, but there is increasing evidence that suggests this is exactly what your subconscious needs to halt the danger warnings.

Once you’re feeling more regulated, you can step into stressful situations with a clear mind, ready to take on whatever comes your way. When your nervous system is regulated, you are better able to appreciate nuance and find workable solutions for complex problems.

If you find yourself having to stuff the big feelings in the moment, it’s okay to put them in the lock box temporarily. As long as you step back later, when the moment allows, to revisit the big feelings, name them, and release them.

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