conflict avoidance

Conflict avoidance: An Example.

A couple of years ago, we hired an electrician—I’ll call him Ed—to install a ceiling fan on the front porch and a new wall switch in the foyer.

Because there was a light switch in the living room on the other side of the foyer wall, the new switch would have to be installed lower than usual. My husband explained the situation to Ed, who understood.

Ed’s assistant—I’ll call him Jack—came the following day to do the work. I was in the kitchen when I heard a muffled curse and immediately knew what had happened. When I went to investigate, sure enough, there was a gaping hole in the plaster, exposing the back side of the living room light switch.

The correct and incorrect location of the wall switch. As a people-pleaser, this presented a challenge.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the misplaced hole.

Damn. I hated seeing that hole, but, even more, I hated the conflict it presented. I’d rather scrub a toilet than face a conflict. Conflict avoidance is typical behavior for a people-pleaser like me.

Conflict avoidance and people-pleasing often go hand-in-hand.

There were a number of ways I could have responded:

1) I could have yelled and made a fuss:

This is exactly what I feared would happen! We told your boss the switch couldn’t go there. You’d better fix it and it had better be perfect!

The very thought of making a scene like this gives me the heebie-jeebies. For better or for worse, I’d rather have a hole the size of New Jersey in my wall than yell at the person who put it there. Jack already felt horrible, I assumed, and I didn’t want to make him feel worse. The damage was done, literally, and yelling at him would not patch the plaster.

A people-pleaser is more concerned with another person’s feelings than their own.

2) I could have calmly expressed my anger in tone and words:

Jack, this is really maddening. We explained to Ed why the switch couldn’t go there. Didn’t he tell you?

This type of response wouldn’t patch the plaster either, but it would honor my feelings. A mistake was made, and I had every right to be mad and to express it. Most of my regrets in life–not that I dwell on regrets, but I try to learn from them–happen because I hadn’t honored my negative feelings, and didn’t speak up about them. I wish I had learned early on in life to express anger appropriately, but what I learned was to not express it at all. As you suspected, I didn’t choose this option.

A people-pleaser often doesn’t know how to express anger constructively.

3) I could have squashed my feelings and minimized the problem.

“It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. These old houses are always tricky. The hole can be fixed.”

Sigh. I’m sorry to say this was my choice. No problem! is my default. Face-to-face, in-the-moment, person-to-person conflict makes me so uncomfortable, I often pretend there isn’t a problem. I pretend I don’t care or that I’m not mad or upset or disappointed or annoyed or ready to explode.

I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s the truth.

I’m telling my conflict avoidance story to hold myself accountable.

A hole in the wall rates only a meh in the scheme of life. But by “outing” myself about these minor incidents, I hope to better understand and come to terms with the incidents that really matter, like the story in my memoir. And I hope to outgrow my toxic agreeability.

I tell my truth as a way to hold myself accountable.

I tell my truth in hopes that it will inspire others to explore and free themselves of their own people-pleasing habits.

I tell my truth to inspire other people-pleasers to free themselves.

Do people-pleasers get angry?

The hole-in-the-wall scene is only Part 1 of my wall-switch story. Dealing with Jack was the easy part. Confronting Ed, his boss, was the hard part–the part that left me even more disappointed in myself. You can read Part 2 here where I get deeper into people-pleasers and anger.

If you’re a people-pleaser and you’d like to call yourself out, feel free to email me your story at (just click on “Contact” in the menu bar) and I’ll keep it between us.

If you’re feeling bolder, please add your comment below.

Who knows? If my story inspired you, your story may inspire others. Together, we’ll grow stronger backbones and thicker skins. Together, we’ll be free.

Check this out: Ten Signs You May be People-Pleaser.



  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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  1. Patricia Smith Wood on January 20, 2020 at 4:06 PM

    I’m happy to say I had a revelation the day I DID express my displeasure when we had our kitchen counters replaced back in December 2017. Our house was built in 1984 and we’ve lived here since 1987. The old counters were no longer acceptable so I convinced my husband to replace them. It’s not an inexpensive thing to bring in new quartz countertops and a new sink, and we carefully picked out exactly what we wanted. I’d been plagued by counters with sharp corners and wanted the new ones to be rounded and less painful. It was only two weeks before Christmas when they came to replace the countertops. They ripped out the old ones and brought in the first piece of the new one. My husband called me into the kitchen to see. The new counters had NOT been rounded. They were sharp and deadly. He had already told the installers about the mistake. It was up to me to decide would they stay or go. My immediate reaction was “not to cause trouble” for anybody. I said it was okay, but before they could bring in the next piece, I burst into tears. The installers were so sweet. They begged me not to cry. They said it would only take about 10 days to redo them. My practical side whispered to me, “Ten days! Are you crazy! How can we have our Christmas dinner with no countertops!” Everything was dismantled. We were using the hall bathroom to wash dishes and have a place for the coffee maker. For one of the only times in my life, I asked them to redo the job. They couldn’t have been nicer, but they did it. It was touch and go, but the new sink and counters were installed just two days before Christmas dinner. To this day, I’m filled with gratitude that I ignored my wimpy habit of agreeing to accept whatever was put in front of me.

    • Karen DeBonis on January 20, 2020 at 11:49 PM

      Patricia, I’m so honored you shared this story. Your tears that day in 2017 are a testament to how powerful the need to please can be, and the inner turmoil when we’re trying to overcome it. I’m not a psychologist, but I think of the phrase “cognitive dissonance,” -when our own thoughts are at odds with themselves. It is a tremendous success story that you saw this conflict through to an ending you can enjoy now daily. Kudos to you!!

  2. judy lawless on January 20, 2020 at 9:07 PM

    Ah, Karen, I feel that I know you better with each of your posts! I too have been a people-pleaser for a lifetime, and try to avoid confrontation. I’m happy to say that in recent years I’ve begun to stand up more. I’m not the person of your first possible response, and maybe not quite the person of your second possible response, but I’m getting there. I don’t think that I will ever be the person who yells blame at anyone, because I know that I make mistakes too. I’m more inclined to get angry if I see that the person doesn’t really care how their mistake will affect me.


    • Karen DeBonis on January 20, 2020 at 11:56 PM

      I’ve been better in recent years, too, Judy. Maybe as we age, we just don’t have the drive to sustain the need to please others. I’ve accepted that I’ll never be that person who yells and screams, either. And, y’know what – I don’t want to be. We all make mistakes, as you said! I accept that I will always err on the side of “nice,” and that there will be times that it doesn’t work out so well. But if I leave a wake of niceness in the world when my time is done, will I have regrets? Not as many as I’d have if I always bitched and complained. (I’ll save that for the people who don’t care, who are really obnoxious.) Thanks so much for chiming in!

  3. Patricia Smith Wood on January 20, 2020 at 11:51 PM

    Thanks, Karen. I knew you’d understand!

  4. […] Last week I shared Act 1 of my people-pleasing story. […]

  5. Terri R. on April 14, 2020 at 11:16 AM

    Could have written this myself! LOL it is a never-ending struggle and I’ve been working on it for 15 years!

    • Karen DeBonis on April 14, 2020 at 11:55 AM

      It IS always a struggle, Terri! I’ve come a long way, but just like other deeply-rooted behaviors, people-pleasing doesn’t let go easily. Thanks for your comment and never give up!

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