Don’t Just Do Something…Sit There! The Power of Disengagement

Nov 1, 2022 | Uncategorized

If you’re anything like me, well, you HATE conflict. Ironic, since I’m a conflict specialist, right? Physician, heal thyself and so forth. There was a day when I would do anything I could to avoid an uncomfortable situation or a conflict. Seemed like a good way to go, even though it meant having porous boundaries, agreeing to do things I didn’t want to do, putting my own needs and desires aside in order to keep the peace. 

The problems with doing that are manifold, obvious to many, and ultimately unsustainable. Eventually, I had to confront the fact that conflict was, in fact, inevitable. And the fact that conflict is not inherently a bad thing. Not all conflict. I am still learning every day how to manage it better. I’m learning new skills and new ways to improve my communication and ultimately, it makes me a much happier person with much healthier relationships.

We all have been told to “pick our battles” – especially if we have children! Most of us can’t live in a state of constant conflict, so we have to decide what warrants our energy, what we will go to bat for, what we will give in on. That’s not always easy, of course, and very often we get it wrong. And most of the time, the stakes aren’t so high that we can’t change our course as we go along. 

A lot of times, we find ourselves in deep with a high conflict person when we ourselves are conflict avoidant. We just pull away, hide, nod our assent and hope that things just…go away. They rarely do, and the deeper we get, the harder it is to pull away and protect ourselves. In worst-case scenarios, we actually develop what some call a “trauma bond” and our identities become fused with the conflict cycles we become a part of. 

Meanwhile, things get more entrenched, more untenable. We find it increasingly difficult to disengage from those “word salad arguments” and our desire to defend, deflect, justify, and explain. 

No JADE, which stands for Justifying, Arguing, Defending, or Explaining.

The problem is that every time you try to engage with the other person or argue about any of the regular things, you add energy to the fight. You perpetuate the conflict, even as you desire to be relieved of it. And high conflict people are notorious for their ability to sustain a conflict for an unbelievably long time. Much longer than most people can handle. 

Sounds good, you say, but how the heck do you break that pattern? Easier said than done, right? Right. It’s hard. It’s a matter of rewiring your brain, breaking patterns and habits, and regulating your own emotions. You gotta work at it. 

In order to start disengaging, the first thing you have to learn to do is…nothing. 

And it’s not easy! If someone walks into the room and knows how to flip your trigger, you’re wired to react, right? Your nervous system reacts, your mouth opens, and before you know it, you’re back in the same argument you’ve had a thousand times. So instead you do…nothing. 

Take a beat. Take a breath. Get curious about what is happening in your body. Does your chest tighten? Does your jaw clench? Observe. We’ve probably all been told to “take three deep breaths” – so, do it. It really does help reduce stress. There are lots of somatic ways to support your nervous system. And like anything we want to learn and become proficient at, it’s something we can practice and get better at doing. 

Somatic: adjective

of the body; bodily; physical.

The cool thing about somatic techniques is that it’s something we can do throughout the day – while we are sitting in a car or a meeting or watching TV. It doesn’t have to take hours out of your day – you can look up right now from your computer screen, stare into the distance, and pick out 2 things you can hear. That’s a somatic exercise that takes a few seconds. It puts you in your body, and as you develop proficiency, it becomes easier to pull out that skill when you’re about to have a talk with your high-conflict co-parent. 

It’s the first step to disengagement. And yes, it’s not “doing nothing” – you are, in fact, doing something. Although you may look like you’re doing nothing.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, trauma isn’t healed in a day either. It takes a lot of self-reflection, practice, rewiring, and effort. But it starts with a breath. An observation. It’s something we can all do that costs us nothing but leads to the ability to take control of a high-conflict situation. 

A lot of the work I do with clients starts with somatic awareness. It helps support the work we do later with communication and negotiation strategies, moving through transitions, preparing for mediation or court, overcoming narcissistic abuse, and, yes, managing conflict. 

To learn more about somatic experiencing, check out the work of Peter Levine, who coined the term.

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