Overcome the Fear of Conflict With Therapy

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The fear of conflict is common, especially among those with social anxiety. You might worry about saying something that others will disagree with or have general fears about doing things that will annoy or bother other people.

Although avoiding conflict alleviates your anxiety in the short term, in the long term it perpetuates your fear that you can't handle situations involving conflict.

Exposure Therapy

One way to gradually overcome your fear of conflict is to face the situations that cause you anxiety. This process is known as exposure therapy and is usually carried out as part of a larger treatment program like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). However, you can practice exposures on your own as part of a self-help plan.

The idea is not to run out and start an argument with the first stranger you see. On the contrary, part of exposure training is to gradually immerse yourself in feared scenarios at a pace that you can tolerate.

This means starting out with situations that cause you the least anxiety and eventually working up to what causes you the most fear.

You can practice these exposures either in real life (in vivo) or in your imagination to start.

If you find it difficult to construct the exact scenarios that cause you fear, visualizing them might be the better option. Eventually, however, you will want to experience those situations in real life.

How to Practice It Safely

Unlike other exposures, those involving conflict with others carries the potential to cause other people to become impatient or irate. Remember to approach each situation using assertive behaviors (rather than an aggressive stance) and choose situations where there is little risk.

For example, don't practice conflict exposures with someone who you fear could become overly agitated.

Also remember that the point of these exposures is to increase your ability to tolerate the conflict, and a likely result is that you will inconvenience others.

Although you might feel like what you are doing is terrible, those on the receiving end will probably see it is a minor issue. After all, these types of things happen every day.

Think about how you would feel or react if these things were to happen to you. Most likely, you would be temporarily bothered but quickly forget about the incident.

Fear Hierarchy

The following brief list gives you some examples of items that you might place on a fear hierarchy related to conflict with others.

You should create your own list that is tailored to your particular fears and anxiety triggers. Be sure that the list starts with the easiest task and gradually works up to the hardest.

  1. Take a long time doing something. Be indecisive when a salesperson is helping you. Parallel park and take a long time doing it. Spend a long time when using an automated teller machine. Use a bunch of coupons at the grocery store or ask them to do a price match with a competitor.
  2. Say no to something. If a telemarketer calls, ask to be put on a "do not call" list. Say no to a friend who asks too much of you. Say no to a coworker who asks you to do more than your fair share of work.
  3. Return something or complain about something. Return an item to the store without the receipt. Tell the hairdresser you aren't satisfied with your haircut and ask for a change. Comment to a server after your meal is done that the service was too slow. Be careful to choose valid complaints that you can realistically convey.
  4. Create a problem. Get to the checkout and realize you don't have enough money to pay for everything so that you have to put an item back. Take an item to the cashier that doesn't have a price tag. Try to pay with a debit card that you know won't work.
  5. Ask someone to stop doing something. If someone cuts in front of you in line, say something assertive. If someone is being bullied, stand up for that person. If you disagree with someone's opinion, tell them in a polite way.

Getting over your fear of conflict with others will take time. Be sure to stay in the situation and fully experience your anxiety instead of choosing to escape. Unless you remain in the situation until your fear lessens you will not learn that there is nothing to fear.

A Word From Verywell

If you find that your anxiety is severe and debilitating, self-help strategies may not be enough. It is important to reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional for a diagnosis and treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication have both been empirically shown effective in the treatment of social anxiety disorder (SAD).

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sars D, van Minnen A. On the use of exposure therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders: a survey among cognitive behavioural therapists in the NetherlandsBMC Psychol. 2015;3(1):26. doi:10.1186/s40359-015-0083-2

  2. American Psychological Association. What is exposure therapy?.

  3. Fang A, Sawyer AT, Asnaani A, Hofmann S. Social mishap exposures for social anxiety disorder: an important treatment ingredientCogn Behav Pract. 2013;20(2):213–220. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2012.05.003

  4. Bandelow B, Michaelis S, Wedekind D. Treatment of anxiety disordersDialogues Clin Neurosci. 2017;19(2):93–107.

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.