In today’s essay I’m going to talk about something that will make a lot of sense to recovering people pleasers. It will likely make very little sense to people who don’t have those issues. But perhaps it will still be of utility to those who don’t struggle with people pleasing — but have loved people who do and will get some insight into what goes on in the minds of people they love.
I’ve never heard anyone else really talk about this, but today I’d like to talk about something I think of as “the conflict budget.”
What Is the Conflict Budget?
What is the conflict budget? Simply stated, most people have a limit to the amount of conflict they can tolerate. For some, this is a very large amount; they tolerate conflict well (may even welcome it). For other people, this is a very small amount (some people can tolerate nearly no conflict).
Like any sort of budgeting, there are different bins, too. So — you might have a set amount of conflict you can tolerate re: work, another amount re: conflict with your love life, another for conflict among family members or friends, one for current events/global problems/local area problems, etc.
And probably a universal conflict budget, too — because all that conflict can add up if it comes from different places.
Everyone has a breaking point.
When Someone Blows Your Entire “Conflict Budget”
Okay, so that’s fairly straightforward so far. There’s a particular phenomenon that happens to everyone: Even if you don’t want to, there are times when there is an amazing amount of conflict. You may already feel fairly strapped due to atmospheric forces, and your partner (or someone else close to you) will come to you with a bunch of extra conflict. Maybe new conflict. Possibly stuff that you feel could be delayed — but they’re framing as urgent.
And then you’ll feel like you’re overdrawn.
Again, straightforward. But this might be the place I’ll lose some of you. Because people respond differently to being out of capacity to deal with conflict.
And it’s at this point that a lot of people pleasers simply shut down. Completely shut off.
In my own history, I’ve had times when a partner was actually being really bad, acting out in awful ways, insulting me, doing things that were causing big issues — but because they’d already exhausted my conflict budget, I would find myself freezing, unable to deal with it.
I would continue to try to deal with it. But then, since a lot of times their reaction to feeling overdrawn was to lash out, they would lash out at me and say hurtful things or do things they knew would hurt me — and I would shut down again.
Not only would I have trouble telling them that what they said or did was unacceptable (because the act of raising any additional new conflict felt impossible, even if it was to protect myself from additional harm), it would also inhibit my ability to actually deal with the rest of the conflict that preceded it.
How I’ve Adapted to This
I used to have a huge problem with this, but these days I’m not perfect but do significantly better.
So what changed? How did I deal with this? How did I adapt?
Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make clear that I underwent a course of assertiveness therapy a decade ago. But to be honest, my therapist didn’t tell me what to do. She just sort of set me up so I could figure out what success looked like for myself on my own. A lot of what it actually looked like on a practical level, I had to figure out for myself.
And here’s roughly what I do:
I warn people when I’m getting overwhelmed sooner than I used to. Not once my conflict budget is exhausted but well before the fact.
I have increased my overall tolerance for conflict (that one was a doozy, took a lot of practice and challenging my fears by subjecting them to repeated reality testing).
If for some reason I do get overdrawn, I make a note — in the moment privately — to come back and address it when I’ve recovered a bit.
I avoid people who consistently overdraw my conflict budget. This doesn’t come out of nowhere by the way and is preceded by communication beforehand, for those who are concerned that this sounds like ghosting. But it’s important not to repeatedly subject yourself to people who push your buttons over and over again and don’t seem to care if it harms you. (Seriously, a big part of recovering from people pleasing is learning that not everyone’s opinion matters and you need to qualify people whose criticism you will take seriously.)
I actively check in with my partners to make sure they’re not being actively overdrawn re: conflict (this is something that everyone should do, whether they have people pleasing tendencies or not). I create opportunities for them to raise topics that are important to them. However, if they tell me there’s nothing they want to discuss, I do not pry. I ask once and then give them privacy (that can be aggravating to people who prefer to work through their emotions privately, if you pry when you can see that they are upset).
Do I do any of this perfectly? No. I think it’ll always be something that I have to watch out for. But that’s the case with all recovery — there is no recovered, only recovering.
This post is part of a recurring feature called Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser. To see the full series, please click this link.