This article was adapted from an upcoming edition of Inside Journal®, Prison Fellowship®’s newspaper written specifically for incarcerated men and women.
“You won’t believe what she did!”
“Did you hear what she called me?”
Occasionally a woman walks into my office wanting to vent about a problem she has with her roommate. The conversation usually centers on what the other person is doing wrong; sometimes it’s a long list. Eventually I ask the woman to pause. I draw a circle on a piece of paper, and sometimes the woman rolls her eyes, because she knows what’s coming next.
“This conflict is like a big pie on the table,” I remind her. “How big is your piece? What do you control?”
"Unhealthy conflict has its roots in poor personal boundaries. Without good boundaries, women may feel tempted to control others—an impossible job that leads to codependency, anxiety, and frustration."
THE ROOTS OF CONFLICT
Generally, we raise little girls to be polite and nurturing. We give them dolls and tell them to play nice. These traits have an instinctive basis for most women, but without appropriate self-worth and boundaries, these nurturing little girls can grow up to be women who avoid or mismanage conflict.
Poor conflict-resolution skills manifest when women live together in the close quarters of a prison environment. When an issue arises, instead of dealing with it openly and respectfully, some women keep it behind closed doors. They may gossip to vent their frustration or use insulting language. Or they may be too afraid of conflict to deal with it, and turn their anger and frustration inward, which can lead to depression or self-harm.
Unhealthy conflict has its roots in poor personal boundaries. Without good boundaries, women may feel tempted to control others—an impossible job that leads to codependency, anxiety, and frustration.
To go in a healthier direction, I ask women in the unit to sit down, look at the “pie” that represents their conflict, and draw the slice that shows what they have control over. Then I encourage them to only focus on things inside their slice—their actions, thoughts, and feelings.
By having a laser focus on your slice, you can stop letting your personal growth be hindered by the chaos around you. And within these healthier boundaries, you can find the freedom to act with greater respect for yourself and your community.
LESS TENSION, MORE UNITY
But dealing with conflict in healthy ways is easier said than done. If you’ve been around poor examples of conflict resolution your whole life, you will tend to repeat what you know. But you can get out of the rut of toxic conflict. If you work through it thoughtfully and respectfully, conflict can actually strengthen your relationships.
When we all have healthy boundaries, the results are beautiful. We get past blaming others and shaming ourselves, and we reap a sense of community and unity. Here are some tips for handling conflicts in open, loving, and productive ways:
1.Acknowledge your emotions. Have you ever heard a woman say, “I’m fine!” when it’s obvious she’s not? To avoid conflict and please others, women often learn to bury painful. But you can’t work through conflict without first identifying what you feel and why. In a journal, practice being real about your emotions. Is there fear or anxiety under your anger? Did someone’s offhand comment trigger a sense of shame you’ve been carrying around for years? Understanding your deeper issues is key to successfully moving through conflict instead of repeating it over and over.
2. Use “I” statements. This is part of owning your piece of the pie, and letting others own theirs. When you are working through a conflict, concentrate on your own actions, reactions, and emotions with phrases like “I feel …” and “I think …” As you consciously do this, it will help you to stop focusing on other people’s actions and emotions, which are outside your control.
3. Practice reflective listening. Sometimes in a conflict, you might race ahead to the next point you want to make, without waiting to hear what your conflict partner is saying. Practice slowing down so you can really listen. Then reflect it back to her. You could use a statement like, “I hear you saying that when I said X, it caused you to feel Y.” This shows your conflict partner you are listening carefully, and it also gives her a chance to clear up any misunderstanding.
"If you’ve been around poor examples of conflict resolution your whole life, you will tend to repeat what you know."
It takes some practice and commitment, but having good boundaries and healthy conflict resolution can revolutionize your life. As you invest your energy in the things you can control, and not other people’s pie pieces you can’t, you’ll experience greater freedom, confidence, and personal growth. And when you maintain those boundaries in your community, you’ll develop a more positive, encouraging environment to make the changes you want to make.
Danielle Arnold works with women in the Prison Fellowship Academy, a holistic life-transformation program at Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, Nebraska.