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"Burning bridges" for the right reasons

As a lifelong peacekeeper who is also comfortable openly navigating conflict with compassion, I rarely "burn bridges." So, in those few instances when it has happened, I have felt quite agitated and disappointed in myself.

A few years ago I encountered such a situation and ruminated on it for weeks. It bothered me to fall out of synch with this person. But our relationship had been singed like a house consumed by wildfire. At the time, there was nothing salvageable left.

While I felt upset, disappointed and annoyed by the other person's behavior. I could also clearly see my own missteps and fixated on what I coulda, woulda, shoulda, done. This is part of a deeper pattern I have for internalizing responsibility whenever anything goes wrong. While I could have handled things differently, I was also not solely to blame - it takes two to tango.

Journaling has helped me shift from ruminating, blaming and judging to finding grace and compassion for myself and others.

In each of the instances where I have experienced burnt bridges, the other person exhibited latent toxicity that only became obvious in retrospect. The latent toxicity included a pervasive negative attitude that led to intense disappointment. A habit of externalizing blame rather than accepting responsibility for one’s actions. And an unwillingness to extend empathy to others while demanding it for themselves. In general, there was a predominantly I-centric approach that went against their espoused values.

When disagreements did arise the toxicity grew into ugly conflict. People that do ugly conflict stonewall, slug insults, project their insecurities and manipulate.

Conflict and disagreements often happen when boundaries have been crossed. Most of the time, those breaches are innocent. It's the classic good person doing a bad thing. Or the absence of shared expectations. But the presence of good intentions does not absolve anyone from being open to working towards a resolution.

In an ideal world, both parties openly work together to heal and find an amicable way forward. Unfortunately, when someone has a habit of doing ugly conflict, that becomes extremely problematic.

Ugly conflict is a self-protection mechanism that's often learned from interactions (at home or elsewhere) growing up. People rarely engage in ugly conflict consciously. It's an automatic response intended to preserve and protect one's self-interests. Unfortunately, the consequences of this behavior don't yield the intended results.

I have since learned to change how I approach situations with someone who does ugly conflict. Inevitably, there comes a point where I am faced with a choice - stand with my values and commitment to the greater good or completely ignore a breached boundary.

I cannot control how other people show up in conflict. I can only control my own responses. And I refuse to be swept up in a cycle of ugly conflict making hurtful quips, standing on a barge of self-righteous indignation and fixating on vindication. I must hold my boundary with grace and compassion.

Over time, I have learned to stop seeing these instances of burnt bridges as a complete and utter failure on my part as a leader or community member. Instead, I now know standing up for my values and doing the right thing leads to drawing a boundary akin to cutting off a toxic person's access to my inner circle.

In these instances, the nature of our relationship has changed. Despite that, I choose to continue extending goodwill. I do that by letting go of judgment, shame, or ridicule and focusing on my heart in the moment. I assume they're doing their best while accepting they are unable to meet my needs for a successful partnership at this time. And so I hold my boundary, removing their access to my inner circle by "burning the bridge."

These are the hard choices leaders have to make - you can't make everyone happy or ignore crossed boundaries. You must stand for something! Sometimes that means "burning a bridge" for the greater good. Just like in a wildfire, with time, healing and a shared openness to reconciliation, bridges can be rebuilt.

Do you need support drawing better boundaries? What if you could find an empowering way forward with just 20 minutes of journaling? Develop the courage to respond to an encroachment of your boundaries at the next Journal Jam on August 19th!! More information and registration is available online here.

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