3 micro-strategies when passivity and people-pleasing are taking a toll.
- Confrontation dread, a state of apprehension and anxiety about speaking up, can lead to anxiety and relationship distress.
- Prevalent phenomena like ghosting in relationships and “quiet quitting” at work seem to show how challenging confrontation is.
- Confrontation dread isn’t a moral failing; rather, it is an indication of a need to develop skills and habits to communicate well.
It’s the 17th time your friend has tactlessly offended you, but you can’t bring yourself to tell them how unsettling their lack of filter is.
Your boss says something cringeworthy, but it feels like too big a risk to confront them, so you remain silent.
Your relationship partner is oblivious to how their behavior affects you. You want to tell them, but fear they will take it the wrong way, leading to a big blowout.
Passivity in these situations can indicate a struggle with confrontation dread, a state of apprehension and anxiety experienced when needing to speak up and acknowledge one’s true feelings, wants, identities, needs, and boundaries. This haunting, nagging form of anxiety can lead to being paralyzed in our own thoughts and fears, rather than taking the action to come clean with our truths.
The prevalence of social anxiety and phenomena like ghosting in relationships and “quiet quitting” at work seem to be indicators of how challenging confrontation is, especially when many of us are overwhelmed and have limited capacity to initiate added stress.
Confrontation dread isn’t a moral failing; rather, it is an indication of a need to develop skills and habits that will help you overcome the natural trepidation of entering into pointed and potentially challenging conversations.
Overcoming this form of anxiety starts by identifying what fuels dread, like the following:
We imagine the worst-case scenario.
Catastrophic thinking can inhibit us from confronting issues. We think our partner will leave us or we’ll get fired if we speak up. Our vivid imaginations conjure up scary scenarios, leading to avoidance.
Confrontation is hard work.
It’s easier to kick the can down the road, to rest on the laurels of magical thinking that we can advance to the light at the end without first entering the tunnel of chaos. While tunnels can be dark and scary places, they must be entered to get closer to where we’d like to be.
We get stuck in mental rehearsal.
Being conscientious about how we approach conversations is noble, but playing out scenarios repeatedly in our minds is unproductive and exhausting. Over-rehearsal can fatigue us to the point of inaction, or also be a wasted investment of time because we didn’t actually need those 35 carefully laid out talking points or to replay every last woe we’ve experienced to get our point across.
We lump everything together.
Overgeneralization and conflation are major dread-fueling forces. We take the adage that history repeats itself as an absolute given in our relationships, overgeneralizing instead of constructively identifying what is possible for ongoing and future change. We lump all the issues together, rather than seeing possible avenues to chip away at constructively. Just because a conversation has gone south before doesn’t mean it indefinitely will. Self-advocacy is generally messy, requiring lots of re-dos. Overgeneralization and conflation cause us to mince words and beat around the bush instead of being clear and direct communicators.
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We confuse being nice with being too passive.
People pleasers can forget to please themselves. Values of kindness and empathy can go too far. Nice doesn’t mean you have to forgo your own boundaries and needs for the sake of someone else. Passivity is often marked by overjustification of someone else’s poor behavior and wanting to make someone else comfortable and happy at your own expense, not exactly a recipe for well-being and authentic happiness.
Reciprocity has gone missing in action.
There’s a marked lack of reciprocity in your relationships—you give far more than you expect. Unhealthy relationships are often marked by too much give and not enough take, or what Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., calls “overfunctioners” vs. “underfunctioners.”
These underlying factors that drive confrontation dread can be renegotiated. While avoidance and passivity are a convenient default, they are merely a triage. The immediate peace avoidance brings is short-lived. Temporary relief isn’t worth long-term distress.
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Here are some micro-strategies to manage the inevitable anxiety of self-advocacy:
- Start small. Pick an area that is less loaded and provocative, and practice stating boundaries and needs. Phrases like “This would mean a lot to me,” or “I think us talking about this could make things better” can help prompt productive conversation.
- Don’t let “worst-case scenario brain” have its way with you. Imagining the worst-possible outcomes can prevent us from taking micro-steps to self-advocacy. Avoid the trappings of anxious imagining and work to create “psychological distance” from distress by writing down your fears. This can help make room for naming your communication goals and intentions. Read literature such as Chatter by Ethan Kross to help you avoid the perils of spiraling that accompany confrontation dread.
- Speak up. Silent passivity is always an option, but it’s unlikely to change your circumstances. Take Maria, who dreaded confronting her husband over his dissociative tendencies, avoiding making him feel bad, all while feeling bad herself. Or Trent, who stayed in a stagnant role at work, underwhelmed and burnt out. Think of Marta, who’s afraid to tell her family she wants to change a holiday tradition that has become too taxing, fearing inciting family drama that feels even more taxing. Self-advocacy is challenging, but hiding can allow others to take advantage of us or to remain oblivious to our needs and puts us in predicaments that rob us of joy. Consider books like Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab or Codependent No More by Melody Beattie to help you further your skills.
Confrontation dread can be confronted by renegotiating worst-case scenario fears, overgeneralization, conflation, and patterns of behavior. Passivity and anxiety don’t have to perpetually haunt us. Start small, and harness resources to help you build your self-advocacy skills that help you clearly convey your needs, desires, identities, and boundaries.
Lee, K. (2022) Worth the Risk: How to Microdose Bravery to Grow Resilience, Connect More, and Offer Yourself to the World. Boulder: Sounds True.
Kross, E. (2021). Chatter: the voice in our head, why it matters, and how to harness it. First edition. New York, Crown.
Lerner, H. (2005). The dance of anger: A woman’s guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships. Perennial Library/Harper & Row Publishers.