One of my first memories from childhood is the deep fear of an explosion. The fear that something will imminently collapse. I can still feel it: t’s a gut feeling, something I identify in my stomach, followed immediately by the uncontrollable shaking of my body and the impulse of either running or hiding.
This fear was generated by the fact that my parents used to fight a lot. Almost any conversation they had was in fact a controversy, more often than not followed by some argument over who’s right and why.
Things never degenerated in physical violence, but there was a lot of contained aggression and repressed emotions. The air was loaded with electricity and the words were swiftly shaped and shout, like knives or arrows.
And somewhere in the room, having no idea why this is happening and what’s gonna happen if things will degenerate, imagine a kid without any power over the volume control knob. I simply couldn’t turn down the noise of reality.
Decades later I realized that there wasn’t anyone to blame for this, especially not my parents. They were fighting their own fight, trying to survive and to raise two kids in a communist country. By the way, they did a great job raising me and I’m very grateful for that. As one of my friends recently told me, as long as you’re not in jail or in a mental institution, be grateful, your parents did a great job with you.
But still, that atmosphere of constant conflict and tension played an important part in my existence. Because of this atmosphere, I created two auto-pilot answers to reality that made my life a lot more difficult than it could have been. Let me tell you how.
First Auto-Pilot Answer: Spot It And Smooth It Down
If you are a child and your parents are fighting, and you can’t go away, the first impulse is to make them understand each other. It’s an unconscious response, something you do not because it’s rationalized, but because your survival instincts tell you so: “if you’re not doing anything, one of them or both will leave you alone, and you have no idea how to survive, kiddo. So you’d better step up and smooth those rough edges before it’s too late.”
In a nutshell, that’s how I became a very good negotiator. Yes, I am a very good negotiator, but that’s something I realized only after I turned 30. Until that age I wasn’t aware of that. Sure, I was considered a sweet-talker, a guy that has his words with him, and for the most of my time I wasn’t living in a conflictual environment.
But as I grew up I realized that I was doing this negotiating thing a lot. And I also realized I was doing a lot of stuff unconsciously, in order to maintain that status quo of silence and “relational comfort”.
First of all, I was very good a spotting conflict even before it was obvious. People seldom were fighting in my presence because I was always the guy making peace, smiling, telling jokes, “unloading” the atmosphere. For years, I thought this was a personality trait. It wasn’t. As you will see later, I eventually came to the understanding that conflict – creative, assumed conflict – is vital not only in close, personal relationships, but also in business partnerships. My ability to keep a peaceful atmosphere around me was rooted in this skill I built, unconsciously, as a kid.
Second, once the conflict was up in the air, I was the one ready to smooth it down at all price. Sometimes at the price of putting myself at stake, even if it wasn’t about me. If two friends were openly fighting, for instance, I was ready to be the middle man, to do or give some stuff to one or both of them, just so they’d stop. And I did this quite a lot of times, actually.
Second Auto-Pilot Answer: Run Away And It Will Pass
When I was 7 or something, I left home, during ones of these fights. I remember my parents were shouting at each other in the small kitchen of the small apartment where we lived and I thought to myself, that’s enough. I simply went out while the controversy was running, but I couldn’t get farther than a few hundred meters. The fear that I’d eventually be found and punished was bigger than my will to escape.
I also doubt that my parents were aware that I was about to run away.
But, years later, I discovered that this was my second auto-pilot answer to pressuring situations: just run away. Usually, I do very good under pressure. I’m used to it and I am able to cope with extra work, or extra uncertainty pretty well. But when things are over a certain threshold, I burn out. I simply stop and then walk away.
I wasn’t aware of that until I started to run. When you set yourself up to running a marathon, things can get pretty difficult and you need a lot of mental power just to stick to plan. And that’s when I was able to identify a specific moment (during running) when I was simply stopping. It wasn’t related to the degree of fatigue or pain. It was like a situation I rehearsed a lot and, at that specific moment at the race, I was just reenacting it. I was simply stopping.
Needless to say, I did this in many other areas of my life, until I was able to take it out from the mud of my unconscious behavior, brush it up, and accept it.
Then, slowly, I got over it.
So, What’s In It For Me?
Maybe you had a similar childhood, maybe not. Maybe you developed some very good negotiator skills because your childhood environment was difficult. Or maybe not.
But what you did have was some special circumstance – more likely a bad one – that prevented you to respond to reality with a conscious and clear mind. We all had that, there’s no perfect childhood for anyone in the world. We’re all having auto-pilot answers to reality. Only the contexts (and the specific answers, of course) are different.
In my case, these auto-pilot answers created ripples very far away in time. My personal relationships were (unconsciously) built based on this. I had partners who were either fighting a lot (asking from me the exact “soothing” effect I was unconsciously displaying) or who were ready to leave at the smallest sign of pressure (mirroring my unconscious approach).
In time, I started to see some patterns. Then, I gradually went away from the “they’re to blame for that” to the “what the heck am I doing to attract these lunatics” kind of saying.
And then, and only then, I was able to see that everything was in my own behavior. They were doing exactly what I was “asking”.
The moment I stopped trying to smooth things out and accepted conflict, in a healthy and transparent way, things changed. The partners I attracted weren’t into fighting anymore and they were staying even if the pressure was high. Of course, there were some other issues at stake, but that’s a different story.
Some of the abilities you create following an auto-pilot answer may seem very good to have – like the one of being a good negotiator. But if you’re not conscious enough, even that thing can turn against you. Sometimes, conflict is good. Sometimes, you don’t need to smooth things out.
Every once in a while, you need to check out those balloons and see if there’s a real person behind those shapes, or just some hot air. Conflict, conscious conflict, assumed conflict, respectful conflict, if you want, is vital for any relationship. It goes the same in personal and in business.
Ok, I Hear You. Now, How Do I Get Over It?
Observe the people around you. Observe the contexts around you. And accept the fact that YOU created them.
And, since you’re the one who created them, you can re-create another people or another context, just as well.