Learning Conflict Resolution Post Stroke Changed How I View Conflict

No one tells you that after a brain injury there are ‘blank spots’ left in your brain that need refilling. Imagine if your brain was a sketch and someone took an eraser to it. Suddenly parts of your brain that knew how to do very important things no longer function the way they did before. Some of them are smudged and require a complete rework in order to move forward. When you rework these smudges, however, things aren’t the same as they were before. Nothing is ever filled in quite the same as it was.

This is evidenced by my physical body. As far as other people can tell, from the outside, I don’t look all that different. I walk faster than I used to (because it helps me maintain balance) and I grip things differently. It actually requires a great deal of concentration for me to do simple things anymore but there’s no physical evidence to show people what that’s like.

The same is true of other aspects of my life. I went to see a neuropsychiatrist a few months after my strokes in order to determine my cognitive deficits. By the looks of it, everything was relatively normal. I was within average range for most of the tests, above average for some, and superior levels for one of them. The problem is that some things simply can’t be tested for.

Over time I’ve begun to realize where the smudges are in my brain. Relating to other humans has never really been my strong suit, but it’s become insanely more difficult now. I work harder to do it because I recognize I have a deficit in that area, and in some ways that’s made up for the difference. When conflict arises, however, it becomes all the more clear to me that I’m quite literally in over my head.

Conflict is a difficult thing for the average person to deal with. One person inadvertently steps on another person’s toe (metaphorically speaking) and the other person reacts to it. Sometimes they lash out, sometimes they back off, sometimes they want to know why you stepped on their toe the way you did.

Depending on their response to your toe-stepping incident, you now have a choice of how to react. Your brain first tries to determine if their reaction was warranted. Did you really step on their toe that hard? Was there something you could have done differently to avoid stepping on their toe? Were you just being clumsy or should you have paid better attention? Did they side-step and place their foot in the path of yours, therefore making it very difficult not to step on their toe?

After going through all the possibilities of what led to the incident in the first place, you now have to decide how you’re going to play it. Perhaps your brain is telling you their reaction was over-the-top — it’s just a toe, it shouldn’t have hurt that badly, they’re making a big deal out of nothing. I know from experience that if you tell them this, no matter what the circumstances may be, they’ll get even more upset. Maybe someone else broke that toe 10 years ago and it’s incredibly sensitive now. There’s no way of knowing why they reacted the way they did unless they’ve told you about that incident. And then, if it turns out they did tell you about that incident and you forgot because your brain was overloaded with information and couldn’t bring up that particular memory at the time, now you’re the asshole.

So what are your other options? Well, you could simply choose to disengage from the conversation and hope that when their toe stops hurting they won’t be so temperamental, but I know from experience on the other side of that situation that neglect typically makes a person more upset.

You could tell them you’re sorry for stepping on their toes. This seems like a solid option… until you do it, and they ask you why you’re sorry. When you tell them you didn’t intend to hurt them, they ask how stepping on their toe could possibly have done anything but hurt them, and suddenly you’re not sure what to say. You can tell them what was going through your mind and what you were trying to accomplish, but it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. You stepped on their toe. They don’t want an apology, they want to know that you’re never going to step on their toe again, and unfortunately that’s simply not a promise you can make because you’re clumsy.

You could try to nurse their wound, but they’ll probably just sit there glaring at you the whole time, and when you inevitably end up touching the wounded toe (I truly am sorry for the visual) they’ll shriek out in pain and snap at you.

So now you’ve run over all these options in your head and determined that no matter what you do, things will turn out poorly. The damage has already been done. Perhaps you ask them how they’d like you to respond, and you oblige. But now you’ve inadvertently caused someone pain and you’re left wondering what went wrong and how you can better avoid situations like this in the first place. You could ask them, but they tell you something completely different from the last person you got into a similar situation with. Now you have to create an invisible list in your head of how to deal with every single person in your life. Unfortunately your brain can only handle so much and the wires get crossed. You realize that the only way you can deal with people and not go insane is to approach things the way you feel is right, but now people are slighted because you’re not approaching the situation the way they want you to. It feels like you just can’t win. No matter what you do, someone will end up hurt. And what’s worse is that everyone is so caught up tending to their own wounds that no one pays any mind to yours.

The first person whose toes you stepped on reflexively sucker punched you in the gut. The second one slapped you upside the head. The third one kicked you in the shin. The fourth put you in a choke hold. The fifth didn’t do anything at all, and that somehow hurt more than all the rest because at least when the others fought back you didn’t feel so at fault.

Humans continue to boggle me. I feel like I’m finally beginning to understand why they react the way they do to certain situations. I’ve paid very close attention to how my actions have affected other people, in an attempt to relearn communication and conflict management.

Unfortunately in the process I’ve forgotten myself a bit. I’ve become so overloaded by my own emotions that they now tend to explode randomly when something small sets me off. Suddenly the tables turn, and I’m the wounded one. I understand that when someone steps on my toe, odds are they didn’t mean to do it and they’re probably thinking I’m overreacting. They’re probably wondering what they did wrong and what they can do to fix it. They’ve probably run through all the options in their head and decided they should just proceed in whatever way feels best to them.

I just wish I could communicate how taxing this all is to me, and how the more I try the more I feel I’ve failed to truly understand where people are coming from and how they operate. After a disagreement, my friend may come back and apologize for everything they did wrong, or they may claim I was being entirely unreasonable. Now my brain has gone back to attempting to decide whether or not their reaction was warranted. Then it’s another matter for me to decide whether or not I can tolerate that type of behavior. At what point do I draw the line and say that a situation is too toxic for me to proceed any further? When do I decide to forgive and forget? Sure, I care about my friends and I don’t want to lose them, but when does their influence become a burden to me? At what point do I say enough is enough? And when I do, how do I know for sure I wasn’t the one at fault? How do I know I wasn’t being a total asshole stepping on someone’s broken toe when they warned me that toe was broken and I should be careful not to step on it?

Take it from someone with a brain injury — conflict is by no means an easy thing to deal with, and people are so terribly complicated. What’s good for you may be toxic to someone else. Does one of you bend to fulfill the other person’s needs? Do you meet halfway? Do you decide this is an insurmountable difference between the two of you and walk away?

At the end of the day, I’ve decided it all boils down to the feeling behind all of these questions. Does it hurt more to imagine your life without the person or to alter the way you approach the situation? Does it bring you more comfort to know that you have them in your life, or does it bring you more comfort to imagine not having them around? How do you feel when you’re with them? Not when you’re disagreeing, because take it from me, disagreements are more painful when you truly care about someone. How do you feel with them on an average day, when nothing significantly terrific or terrible has happened between the two of you?

I feel like the main “goal” of life is achieving balance. Work and play, pain and pleasure, comfort and discomfort, sorrow and joy. I feel like a lot of people tend to lean toward one end of the spectrum because they’re searching for something that feels inherently good to them, but in so doing, they miss out on a lot of opportunities in life. Relationships are much the same. If you always seek comfort in your relationships, you may miss out on an opportunity to learn and grow from someone who doesn’t fit the mold you’ve created for people in your mind. There’s something to be said about knowing when to walk away from a situation that no longer suits you, but there’s also something to be said about sticking it out with someone you care about. Perhaps the pain you’re feeling is really just a difficult lesson. Perhaps it’s a yearning for something more. Pain is typically a good indicator that something is wrong, but I think we tend to dismiss the possibility that it can also indicate when something is right. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, because sometimes you don’t realize how much you care about someone until they’re no longer around. Sometimes that absence is even felt in their presence when a part of them becomes disconnected from you, and in my opinion, that hurts even more.

I don’t get people, but I understand that the reason it’s so frustrating to me to attempt to understand them is because I want to understand them so badly. When someone is upset, I want to know what made them upset because I want to understand the consequences of my actions. It hurts to know that I caused pain to someone I care about and I want very much not to do that again. When someone upsets me, I want them to understand how they upset me in part because I don’t want to cause them any more pain by lashing out at them in my anguish. I have my fair share of issues too, and I feel like it’s important to communicate that in order to avoid further confrontation.

If you go dancing with someone, I’ve found it’s best to tell them about your broken toe so that they aren’t so taken aback by your reaction when they accidentally step on it. I by no means expect someone to tiptoe around me — that would ruin the dance. But I do want them to know that if they step on my toe by mistake, my reaction is due to someone else having smashed that toe before. I want them to understand that toe is still healing. I want them to know that I still care about them, because that’s what I would want to hear if I stepped on someone’s toe by mistake. Yes, my toe hurts and I’m upset it got stepped on, but I’d rather have a throbbing toe than lose my dancing partner.

I guess what I’m saying is I feel it’s important to start things off on the right foot.

Pretty sure I can blame that pun on the brain injury.

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