It is impossible to be productive in any discussion when you are on the defense. When you become defensive you start spewing out negative energy. This negative energy can manifest in two ways; it can project outwards (Total Denial) or it can leak inwards (Total acceptance.) Either way, defensiveness is an all-or-nothing concept, and it places a great brick wall in communication.
Defensiveness is not a productive use of your energy. You spend all your energy trying to preserve your sense of self, that you end up giving away more energy in your reaction, when you could keep it within you and use it to restore your sense of calm, balance and security. Once you find your sense of calm, balance and security, you could then use the left over energy to start implementing changes in your life.
These are the two faces of defensiveness:
Person: You are just so selfish.
Defensive person: No I am certainly not selfish at all. I have never been selfish in my life. Here is a list of reasons why you are wrong. And here is a list of times when I was not selfish. Now, tell me, would a selfish person do that? No. You know what? You’re the selfish one, asshole!
The first and most common way that defensiveness manifests is in the form of total denial. It is the almost instinctual and reflexive reaction you have to say “NO. WHAT YOU ARE SAYING IS NOT TRUE. STOP SAYING IT. STOP THINKING IT. STOP BELIEVING IT, AND LET ME CONTINUE LIVING IN THE WAY THAT I CONSIDER GOOD AND TRUE.”
When you are in total-denial, exploring and understanding what lead the person to make such a remark is the last thing on your mind, nevermind actually changing any behaviour. All you want to do is defend and preserve yourself.
Total-denial is stupid. We are far too complex as human beings to be totally-anything. Our intentions are rarely black and white, good or bad, angelic or evil.
“You are just so selfish.” as much as it hurts to hear it, if you think about it realistically, instead of thinking”No, I am never selfish”, perhaps a more apt thought would be “What have I done to make you think I am selfish? I can see why you would think that was selfish of me. I can be selfish at times and there are also times when I am not selfish. In this situation I don’t feel that I was selfish, but after hearing your take on what happened, I can at least see why you would come to that conclusion.”
Person: You are just so incapable of getting anything right! I can’t depend on you for anything.
Defensive person: I know I’m worthless alright? You’re right. I never seem to get anything right. I guess that’s just me. You are right about me. Things just go wrong, and I am never in control – that’s just who I am. I probably can’t ever change, so why should I even try?
At the other end of the defensiveness-spectrum lies the art of “Total acceptance” or submission. This is where you act as if what this person has said to you is the only information you have ever received about yourself, and you cling to it like some kind of sacred and holy description of you. You play the role of the victim (and deep inside, you enjoy it). Playing the victim is a dangerous and self-fulfilling game to play.
Okay, so what should I do instead of getting defensive?
1. Whenever you feel the urge to react QUICKLY to someones comment or opinion, don’t.
It may be surprising, but there are actually few moments in life that require an immediate emotional reaction. An example of one would be if there was a train hurtling towards your mother – then it’s okay to react QUICKLY. But if you don’t see a train, then stop.
Whatever you heard may trigger an intense emotional reaction within you, but that too, with time, will simmer down. You can’t always control your emotions, but you can control your behaviour.
Whenever you want to react quickly to something, we are overwhelmed with a false sense of urgency. Just as reacting quickly to seeing an oncoming train aimed at your mother would illicit a “Life and death” scenario, when someone throws a hurtful or judgmental comment your way, your ego also illicits a “life and death” reaction regarding your self preservation. But this is a false sense of urgency, and is your egos way of tricking yourself into thinking that what someone else thinks of you is as important as staying alive.
What a false concept!
2. Don’t blindy deny anything.
I know it seems like an almost natural reaction to defend yourself against what appears to be false accusations and unfair judgements or criticisms. Try to resist this urge for a while. Replace the urge to deny with the urge to ask questions. Ask questions to find out why they think the way do they, and how they came to the conclusions they have come to. It may seem that your identity is at stake, but it is only at stake if you put it on the line. Keep your sense of identity and sense of self, strong and powerful inside of you. There is no danger. Relax. Ask questions.
3. Don’t blindly accept anything.
At the other end of the spectrum you may think you are being super helpful by blindly accepting everything you hear. But you’re not being helpful. You’re making things more difficult for yourself, especially if you haven’t given yourself a chance to truly contemplate the information you have received about yourself. Replace the urge to blindly accept comments about yourself, with the urge to look at the bigger picture.
As I mentioned previously, no one is “always” anything. Try to think about this objectively.
If someone says to you “you are mean.” instead of thinking “they are right, I must be a mean person.” try to think “What makes them come to the conclusion that I was mean? There are times when I have acted in a mean spirited way, and there have been times when I have been friendly and nice.”
You don’t even need to say all of this stuff out loud, which is why you need to ….
4. Take time to contemplate the new information you have been given about yourself.
Don’t feel as though you:
- SHOULD know how you feel: It’s okay to not know how you feel about something right away. Take some time to think about it.
- SHOULD prove or disprove what you have heard right away: Take time to gather both sides of the story, taking into account what you know for sure, and what you don’t know for sure, and then say something of substance. Don’t try to just throw everything out there at once just for the sake of self preservation.
- SHOULD have something to say: “I think I need to just take some time to think about what you said, and I will get back to you to discuss it further” is ok.
- SHOULD do something with the information you have heard right away: You don’t have to make any changes or do anything at all until you decide that you feel okay with that. No one has to bully you into feeling shitty, or making changes you don’t understand, just because for that moment, they were more assertive.
5. Make up your own mind.
Our goal is to finally get to a stage where we can judge the accuracy of criticisms and compliments for ourself. Our goal is to rid ourself of our instant aversion against difficult conversations, and instead approach them with an open mind. Our goal is to make up our own mind about ourselves, to think about what people may say about us with objectivity and detachment, and decide how true something may be. After all, we are the best people for the job. No one knows us the way we do. They can offer new information, perhaps bringing to light information that was in our blindspot, and may be hard to face, but it is our duty to decide what we must do with it.
The moral of the story is: Don’t waste your time or energy getting defensive. Lose the ego. If you want to be in an intimate relationship with any other human being, sometimes you just gotta lose the ego. It may make you feel vulnerable as hell but that’s just the price you got to pay sometimes, but the rewards are sweet. In life you will have to face some hard things. Some of those things will be hard just because they are “hard”. But many of them will be hard only because they show you an aspect of yourself that you are not ready to face and accept. Sometimes people can make it easier for you by saying things like “You know, you’re selfish/mean/irresponsible/not dependable/untrustworthy” even though it’s going to feel shitty to hear it, deep, deep, (DEEP) inside, they are actually doing you a favour because they are bringing to light something new to consider. It ain’t always going to be pretty to see darker aspects of yourself that are hard to accept but if you communicate well, and look at things objectively, you will be fine. Stay curious. Define yourself. Make your own decisions about yourself. Think about things and don’t always act out of impulse.