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New Perspectives Concerning Interpersonal Conflict and Repair

One of the key themes found in contemporary philosophy and psychology revolves around the recurrent idea, perhaps initiated by Saussure, that we do not employ language to express meaning or ideas, but rather that our meanings and experiences are actually creations of language. Our thoughts don't commence as something outside of words, which are subsequently placed into language to be communicated from one person to another, its the inverse: We have meaningful experiences, that we wish to exchange, because we live embedded in language. And this in turn means that our very consciousness is profoundly social, for language does not exist in the individual, it is transpersonal, arising between us, a set of communally established, self-referring realm of symbols.

This insight dovetails nicely with the profound evolutionary realization that the human brain's size and structure didn't precede societal organization, but rather was a result of the complex processing requirements of communal interactions and exchange. To bond with others we have to use language on one level, largely employing the left hemisphere, while reading each others emotional states, via facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, using the right hemisphere. So our brains were designed by the demands of culture. And this suggests something even more profound:

The human brain doesn't work outside of the social realm; we didn't enter into community, we are the result of community. The human brain starts to decompensate amidst the stress of extended isolation.

* * *

Now let's consider the above in terms of the social rupture; the times we're caught up in relationships that go frustratingly awry, wherein communication breaks down, and we're left feeling unheard, even treated without consideration. These are the situations in which our attempts to convey our needs are blocked, our views dismissed, our interpersonal strategies defeated, leaving us helpless, unable to communicate successfully. Occurences when a friend becomes inexplicably remote, leaving phone and text messages unanswered; the work colleague who fails to cooperate on a project; a 'significant other' growing selfish and inconsiderate; tensions and conflicts within a social group. Perhaps we feel our 'buttons' are being pushed, and we wind up in charged interactions, frustrated, caught up in replaying what-they-said then what-i-said, obsessively strategizing or figuring out what went awry.

These unsatisfying interactions can be maddening as, noted at the start, human beings are relational by design, put together to connect; we are a social production. Our very psychological health rests on being connected; we all dread abandonment from and/or the disapproval of others, as it runs directly against our survival wiring. (British researchers at University College London found that social isolation dramatically increases the risk of mortality in both men and women; they concluded that simply enabling interconnection between people not only alleviates loneliness, but additionally increases life expectancy.)

In one domain, the result of disconnection creates significant underlying feelings of loss, held somatically in the chest or stomach; given how essential connection is to our psychic stability, these deep abandonment-centered emotions are meant to be difficult and unsettling; we're programmed to do anything to avoid experiencing them. We'll spiral out, obsess, scheme and plan to solve the conflict; if we can't arrive at a solution, we'll choose self-numbing through addictive strategies, such as shopping, facebooking, drinking, binge eating, overworking and on.

And so a strategy we rarely consider during such dramas is the possibility of disengaging, taking a time out from solving these interpersonal complications, disrupting the need to figure out, deal with and iron things out. Yes, taking a time out from our struggles is the often the last thing we have in mind, though its often the most important tool in our spiritual toolbox. As Einstein famously noted, we can't solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when creating them; the 'type of thinking' that creates problems is the fixated mind that cannot unhook itself from a drama.

Taking a time out from conflict involves the acquisition of distance from the problem by seeking new social circumstances to restore perspective to the mind. The key to this process is seeking new relationships, learning to establish empathetic exchange with people outside the conflict, exchanges that help us in put aside the relentless planning and worry, the ceaseless concerns about the past or speculations of the future, choosing instead to stay present.

In our times spent alone, we can maintain stability by focusing awareness on what needs to be felt, emotionally, in the body. For while the brain was structured to establish and maintain social bonds, we also have the capability to perform tasks outside of language, in the realm of observing and holding. We can learn to body map our emotions, locating discomfort while putting aside our impulses to fix and settle our conflicts. As we note what arises in the body, very often we'll beam aware of older feelings that have attached themselves to our prevailing dramas; the helpless experience of watching someone pull away can trigger much older feelings of abandonment, rejection and vulnerability. And so we can unpack some of the emotional baggage that's attached itself to our current affairs.

These approaches to time outs are, of course, finite; when the emotional fire, born of defensiveness and outrage have subsided, we return to our conflicts, rejoining the discussions with far less reactivity and defensiveness. We have established new relationships to meet our needs for connection and exchange. We've developed the ability to feel urges to defend or explain ourselves, but can hold them in our hearts. We can choose whether or not to act out on our social strategies or to simply observe how things play out without our need to steer. In so doing we further evolve the brain's programming, learning how to maintain connectivity and presence even during times we feel rejected or excluded.

—Josh Korda,;


  1. I think Wittgenstein said something similar on the relationship between thought and language. For him it was not private thoughts that gave rise to social language, but social language that allowed individuals to construct their private thoughts. In his later work he focused on how meaning and truth arise through the use of language in a particular context. There is no transcendental truth to be discovered. Such speculation for him was a waste of time. This begs the question whether we can discover some innate essence or our true self by internal meditative inquiry. We spend most of our time outside the meditation hall constructing a self to present to the world in the social game we play. Maybe we need to study how this works, like many post modernist thinkers do, with the same intensity as we approach meditative practice.
    Good article.


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