Seek Peace and Pursue It

The Psychology of Conflict

hat do we mean when we say that we are hurt? Or that someone has offended or embarrassed us? What are we

trying to express when we say that someone was rude or disre- spectful, or did something that was unforgivable?

In simple terms, we are stating that someone else’s behavior has caused us emotional pain. But why are we upset by these situations, to begin with? How can the actions of another person””perhaps someone we may not even know, or may not ever see again, or someone we do not even like or respect”” cause us to experience such grief?

You don’t bleed. It doesn’t cost you anything, and you’re not prevented from living your life. Yet it matters, and sometimes it matters a lot.

Why Do We Care?

In order to be happy, have good relationships, and be emotion- ally balanced, a person has to feel good about himself. This means that we need to literally love ourselves. This self-love is called self-esteem.


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4 S e e k P e a c e a n d P u r S u e I t

Self-esteem is a by-product of how you live your life. It cannot be gained directly. It can be gained only through self- respect. Why is this so? If you do not respect yourself, then you cannot possibly love yourself.

How Does a Person Gain Self-Respect1

Three inner forces exist within human beings, and they are often at odds with each other: the body, the ego, and the soul.

Doing what is easy or comfortable is a body drive. Examples of overindulgences of this force are overeating or oversleep- ing””in effect, doing or not doing something we know we should or should not do, merely because of how it feels.

An ego drive can run the gamut from making a joke at someone else’s expense to buying a flashy car that is beyond our means. When we are motivated by ego, we do things that we believe project the right image of ourselves. These choices are not based on what is good, but on what makes us look good.

If we cannot control ourselves and we succumb to immedi- ate gratification or strive to keep up an image, afterwards we become angry with ourselves, and feel empty inside. These

emotions erode our self-esteem and corrupt our self-respect.2

1. The following explanation is excerpted from the author’s book, Real Power

(Viter Press, 2008) pp. 9″“11.

2. The body wants to do what feels good; the ego (yetzer hara or evil inclina- tion) wants to do what looks good; and the soul (yetzer hatov or good inclination) wants to do what is good. Free will is a product of the ensuing conflict between these forces.

This does not mean we should ignore our body’s basic needs. Nourishing one’s body and enjoying physical pleasure are in keeping with Judaism. The Talmud (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:12) states, “R’ Chezkiah and R’ Kohen said in the name of Rav: in the future (after death) a person will give an accounting for everything which he saw but did not eat.” R’ Dessler (Michtav m’Eliyahu, vol. 3, p. 153) explains: we will be called to account for renouncing any permissible

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t h e P S y c h o l o g y o f c o n f l I c t 5

To compensate for these feelings of guilt and inadequacy, the ego engages and we become egocentric. As a result, our per- spective narrows, and we see more of the self and less of the world; this makes us increasingly more sensitive and unstable.

We only gain self-esteem when we are able to make respon- sible choices, and do what is right, regardless of what we feel like doing or how it appears to others””this is a soul choice. In turn, we rise to a higher and healthier perspective, because self- esteem and the ego are inversely related; like a see-saw, when one goes up the other goes down.3

How It all Fits Together

Herein lies the basis for every type of interpersonal conflict. Because human beings are, in fact, wired to like themselves, when we cannot nourish ourselves””by making good choices and gaining self-respect””we turn to the rest of the world to “feed” us.

pleasure that would have helped us appreciate our Creator and improve our ser- vice of Him.

On the other hand, abuse or overindulgence is not healthy and leads to the deterioration of our wellbeing, as the Gemara teaches: “Alexander asked the Elders of the South what a man should do to live. They replied, “˜Let him deprive himself (being righteous).’ He asked what a man should do to deprive himself. They replied, “˜Let him live (in self-indulgence)!’” (Tamid 32a). It is necessary, therefore, to maintain a balance and satisfy one’s physical needs in moderation.

3. Difficult times and tragic events challenge our coping skills. As humans, our perspective is finite; therefore, complete understanding is elusive. Still, we can gain peace of mind and comfort even in difficult times by considering that every- thing is connected and purposeful. Imagine the wings of a butterfly magnified a thousand times. Looking at it from close up, we can’t tell what it is, what it does, or why it exists. We must move back to see what it really is. Then, its design, the details, and purpose become clear. The wings are part of a larger organ- ism. Everything begins to make sense when we utilize our gift of perspective. A healthier self-esteem accelerates the process, naturally widening our perspective because of its inverse relationship to the ego””which blocks perspective.

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6 S e e k P e a c e a n d P u r S u e I t

This nourishment that we need comes in the package of respect. We desperately, but erroneously, believe that if other people respect us, then we can respect ourselves. Self-esteem and ego both pivot on respect. We need it from somewhere, and if we don’t get it from ourselves we demand it from others.

The great Mussar4 leader, Rabbi Simchah Zissel Ziv, writes, “If you observe people carefully you will see that someone who loves the approval of others will, as it were, sell himself as a slave to those who flatter him. He will not even realize what is happening to him, however obvious it may be to an outside observer.”5

The less a person likes himself, the more dependent he is upon the rest of the world to make him feel good. This is why a person with low self-esteem is highly sensitive””because his opinion of himself fluctuates with his ability to impress others. When we are at the mercy of others for proof of our worth, we become tense and vulnerable, as we interpret and over-analyze every fleeting glance and casual comment.

When you enjoy higher self-esteem, you are not as quick to take umbrage,6 or you realize that maybe the person who caused offense has his own hang-ups and issues. Simply stated, if you have higher self-esteem (a) you don’t assume that his actions

mean he doesn’t respect you, and (b) even if you do come to

4. Mussar is the practice of personality development (through exercising moral discipline) within the Jewish tradition, the end goal being perfection of charac- ter, cultivation of morality, and emulation of Divine qualities.

5. Rabbi Simchah Zissel Ziv Broida, Chochmah u’Mussar, vol. 1, p. 219.

6. In his book, Prisoners of Hate, Aaron Beck writes, “Depressed patients often relate irrelevant events as a sign of their own unworthiness or imperfections.” His findings reinforce the idea that those who suffer from low self-esteem and depression have a warped perspective and understanding of their world and those who occupy it. See A. T. Beck, Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence (NY: Harper Collins, 1999), p. 28.

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t h e P S y c h o l o g y o f c o n f l I c t 7

P u b l i c S p e a k i n g

Public speaking is ranked as the number-one fear””even above death. Since the speaker is not in control of how the audience perceives him, he doesn’t know what they are thinking about him, and this makes him uneasy. For this reason, we can speak more easily one-on-one because we are able to see instantly the person’s reaction and so we feel more in control of the situation. But as the size of the audience increases, the ability to accurately gauge the audiences’ perception decreases. Feedback gives us direction and a greater sense of control.

that conclusion, you aren’t angered, because you don’t need his respect in order to respect yourself.7

Why Is anger the emotional Response?

When a person gets angry, it is because he is, to some extent, fearful. And this fear comes from the fact that he has lost control of some aspect of his life””of his circumstance, his understanding of his world, or his self-image. The response to fear””the ego’s attempt to compensate for the loss””is anger.

7. It is fundamental to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing to maintain the healthiest possible relationships with our immediate family””parents, siblings, spouse, and children. While all relationships are important, familial relationships are crucial; strive to make them as positive and healthy as possible. Even with high self-esteem, we desire the love and respect of those who know us best. We unconsciously wonder, If this person treats me like this, and he knows the real me, then what am I worth? Therefore, those who are closest to us rely on us most, and need the love and respect of those who know them best.

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8 S e e k P e a c e a n d P u r S u e I t

All conflicts, whether in personal or professional relation- ships, arise from the following sequence of events:

First there is the event or catalyst that results in an undesirable and unexpected outcome; this produces a loss of control, which make us anxious and fearful.

The lower our self-esteem, the more fearful we become. As a result of our fear, we become angry. This destructive emotion often serves as a mask for other negative emotions, such as jealousy and guilt, and can be directed inwardly at oneself or outwardly.8

Let’s look at a diverse set of circumstances that can lead to con- flict and see how the process unfolds in a consistently similar way.

R e a l – L i f e S c e n a r i o s

Your employee steals (catalyst). This was obviously

not on your agenda, as it clashes with how you expect a

8. In general there are four ways a person can choose to respond to conflict: (1) accept (2) retreat (3) surrender, or (4) fight. The first possible response is the healthiest one: accept. He understands the situation and responds appropriately and responsibly; he does not become angered and emotional. A passive- aggressive person is generally described as one who would retreat to avoid the confrontation. He is unable to face the situation head-on, so he chooses to back down, only to get back at the person in another way, at another time””whether it is by being late, “forgetting” to do something important for the person, or just generally inconveniencing him. A third possible response is surrender. This is where he simply gives up and gives in. This response often produces codependency and a doormat mentality in the relationship. He doesn’t feel worthy to stand up for himself and/or feels that he is unable to advance his own agenda, needs, and wishes. And last, the fourth is fight. Here we have the response that produces direct and unhealthy conflict. This person chooses to battle it out, emotionally charged and enraged.

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worker to behave, and you lose control of the situation.

This causes you to become fearful of what happened to you, or what might happen to you and to the relationship.

Consequently, you are angered.

Someone cuts you off on the road (catalyst). You lose control of the situation

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About the Author

Shira is the Program Director of Camp Sternberg and the former Principal of Shalsheles Bais Yaakov. She is presently stuck on her dissertation with is necessary to finish her Doctorate in Educational Administration. She lives in Lakewood, NJ with her husband her lively kids.

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  1. Valuable info. Lucky me I found your site by accident, I bookmarked it.

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