Following on a recent post on taking criticism, this week we focus on those times when criticism leads to arguments and how HSPs often struggle with conflict. How is that generally, bright, intelligent, deep thinking people, seem to wilt in the heat of a contentious argument. It’s as if a bit gets flipped in our brains and we shut down unable to keep up with the fast pace of heated argumentative situations. I have often wondered about that in myself. It's as if I lose processing power to fight back or at least contend with the high emotion of the situation. The minute the temperature heats up, my force fields go up and my brain starts to scramble. Yet, my ego won’t let me stay quiet, even if my arguments are a scrabble board of mixed thoughts and my parries fall into almost nonsensical logic.
I have never quite understood what happens to deflate my ability to counterpoint, especially against clever people who seem to thrive in these types of situations. What am I afraid of? Loss of face? Shaming? Am I afraid of losing favor with the person I’m arguing with? Does the overwhelm caused by unbridled defensiveness, a welling up of emotion, and my perfectionism kick in together to create a stew of mush, that causes me to lose control of my thoughts and move from single threading to a kaleidoscope of mixed emotion and thought too incoherent to vocalize? Does my thoughtful manner, and in this case I mean pensive, lead to a type of “ I’m right no matter what,” because I thought a lot about this, therefore I must be right.
Last week I talked about the external testing of our ideas and thoughts, not so much to gain consensus but to test our theories in the real world. Part of that is to hear and debate counterpoints in our line of thinking. But if testing leads to pushback on our ideas, ideas that are a representation of who we are, then does this ultimately lead to avoidance behavior, i.e., for arguing our point, because we are not willing to accept that maybe we are wrong in our thinking. And this shatters an internal mythos about ourselves. If so, I cannot see this avoidance behavior as being a realistic strategy for HSPs in testing our ideas, much less for anyone else.
The overwhelm, nevertheless, is very real. Overwhelm comes from within, especially for HSPs. In the heat of an argument, stressors arise that lead our minds, to recognize that in arguing with someone else, we have a situation with an unpredictable outcome. A very contentious argument is also full of raw emotion. This kindling lit with the emotion of the moment sets off a brush fire in our neural circuitry that can quickly short-circuit our minds.
Moving quickly into defensive mode, the flight or fight syndrome kicks in. Arguing for us is a runaway emotional trap. We are caught in a battle between our flee or fight instincts, mostly focused on self-preservation, and therefore we quickly shut down our brain’s effectiveness in following rational intellectual capacity which is there but cut off. The sting of defeat in an argument is deeply felt. The human brain processes emotional pain in the same way it processes physical pain. The same areas light up in the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex with physical and emotional pain, in an apparent evolutionary efficiency.
I often wonder if the amygdala in HSPs is overactive. The Deep Layer Superior Colliculus (DLSC) area of the brain works in conjunction with the amygdala to regulate emotional response in threatening situations. HSPs response to stress situations seems to predispose us to always be on high alert, based on our unique genetics and our life experiences. This constant flashing of alerts for sometimes exaggerated situations, like arguing, may, in fact, affect our hippocampus and other key areas of the brain in negative ways. This is prominent in situations where HSPs or for that matter anyone who has lived through traumatic life experiences much of which is harbored in the port of our subconscious mind.
The intensity of feeling is no doubt greater in HSPs compounding this problem. Greater feelings of anxiety in response to stress may lead to malfunction of the brain, especially in stressful argumentative situations. The repressed anger ensuing a stinging defeat may lead to increased muscular tension in the body, as we “hold within” our feelings of not being able to make ourselves heard in an argument, and can lead to later side effects within the body.
More importantly, I think this can lead HSPs towards a lifetime of argument avoidance, especially those that are conflictual and highly charged emotionally. This may lead to less expression of opinion in public forums, standing up for oneself in political or philosophical debates, or in work environment discussions. Some friends and family may even feel that we are hiding something from them and can construe negative imaginings about who we really are. Not a good situation.
The Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument defines several types of modes or styles of dealing with conflict. They range from the most aggressive to more avoidant styles, each style with a marker for assertiveness and cooperativeness. The most assertive style, competing is assertive and non-collaborative. The collaborating style is assertive, but as the name implies collaborative. Avoiding style is both non-assertive and non-collaborative. The accommodating style is non- assertive but collaborating and finally, the compromising style is right in the middle on both assertive and collaborating. It would seem that most HSPs would fall in the avoiding, accommodating or compromising style of handling conflict. With the worst case being the avoidant strategy and perhaps, the most successful being the compromising strategy or with some practice and skill, the collaborating style.
In another angle on effects of personality and arguing skills, the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, which is based on Carl Jung’s personality types, can be extrapolated on key personality functions to indicate tendencies during arguments. For example, Thinkers (T)– would no doubt focus on the facts and tangible evidence, whereas, Feelers (F)– would focus on the interpersonal dynamics of the people involved in the argument. People who are Judgers (J) – might focus on temporal issues, how the now impacts the future, where conversely, Perceivers (P) – would focus on inputs and if the conflict is being addressed. Most HSPs tend to be NFs (intuitive feelers), so according to this, sensitive folks would be more concerned with the emotional dynamics of the argument and the impacts caused to relationships, perhaps empathizing with our opponent and deferring to keep the peace.
This, in turn, may lead to internal conflict, between defending self and our position versus feeling empathy towards the person we are arguing with. The internalized stress and conflict may be a leading reason our brains shut down, scrambled by conflicting directives. How then do we slow our brains down, single thread our thoughts and think lucidly during an argument?
Interestingly, as may be noted, that the effects of alcohol and some drugs may seem to achieve this objective. These external agents do affect the inhibition systems within the brain, which, of course, affects behavior. Some of the main attributes of usage are: 1) anxiety suppression, 2) disinhibition, 3)ego inflation, 4)thought deceleration, and 5) emotional suppression. In my own experience, I have noticed this to be true. However, there is a tipping point, where the effects are counterproductive and lead to many more issues that are not productive. Let me say, that in no way am I advocating the use of these substances to enhance the ability to handle conflict. It simply illustrates that the capacity to regulate emotional throughput can be done, even if we are using an external agent.
Far better approaches are handled without introducing external chemistry. This gets back to emotional regulation, which can and should be done internally. Here are some strategies for dealing with arguments:
Bill Allen currently lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.