“Self-nurturing: The Hardest Task
You’ll Ever do.”
~Sarah Ban Breathnach
By Cindy Trevitt, Registered Professional Counsellor and Master Practitioner in Clinical Counselling
There are times we need to legitimately defend ourselves, our values and those we love but then there is the avoidant, self-centred side of defensiveness and the toll it takes on relationships. This article explores the latter.
Those who struggle facing difficult feelings may find ways to avoid, displace or discharge those feelings onto others (blaming), often unconsciously. Most of us do. Defensiveness is just such a coping response to difficult feelings or protecting a fragile ego and it’s often learned from our family of origin. (Think about how often you witnessed or received sincere apologies while growing up.) Defensiveness masks hurt, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, being wrong, and being imperfect. To defend against the very real pain of a wounded ego some unwittingly choose to appear unreasonable, difficult or even callous and heartless rather than confess to vulnerable feelings, often without a conscious awareness that this is happening. Often the angriest, ‘hardest’ people are the most fragile and sensitive. Defensiveness can be the illusion of doing what we want without consequence. I can “save face” (although there is still shame beneath the surface). The illusion is: as long as I can defend my actions I never have to feel bad. Defensiveness can also be one of the foremost reasons that relationships will be unbearably strained or even ruined.
“All defensiveness and emotional tumult is a fear response because of your need for acceptance and ruthless control of the territory of your safe fantasy world.”
~Bryant McGill, Simple Reminders: Inspiration for Living Your Best Life
Our self-protection stops us from empathetically hearing the negative impact we have on others; the wounded feelings we may have caused or our how our failings can be disappointing. Knowing we have, even innocently, caused displeasure can feel deeply painful particularly when we have been emotionally injured ourselves or we struggle to self-validate or make a distinction between our own feelings and that of others. To shield ourselves from agonizing emotions we become self-protective and self-involved rather than seeing an opportunity to learn, empathize or elucidate.
Our “narcissism” can range from low self worth to healthy self-value to insensitive self-centredness. The more self-centred and narcissistic a person, the more they’ll defend. Injured by shared feelings, assertions, or feedback, they view these as personal attacks or wicked criticisms. They frequently lack empathy and the fragile self takes priority. It’s too painful to believe they have differences or flaws so they blindly defend themselves.
Healthy relationships mean being able to both invite and express constructive, assertive messages with compassion and respect. None of us are above reproach.
If our only response is defensive, we’re not showing any interest in empathizing with the other. Communication is completely disrupted. We become solely concerned with ourselves and being ‘not wrong’ or ‘not bad’. We would rather be right or safe from thorny feelings than understand, negotiate, support or reflect. It is nearly impossible to have a satisfying relationship with such people as they appear impervious to our feelings and needs.
Swift and ‘knee-jerk’, our defensiveness happens before we’ve given it any thought. Then, we believe we must defend our reaction whether we’re right, wrong or make any sense at all. Our unconscious mind is prone to this and it’s fairly universal. It is a mischievous and exasperating jack-in-the-box that keeps blurting things out. After this we must defend ourselves for things we didn’t mean to say. A functional response is humbly holding ourselves accountable and making amends.
If a loved one is defensive, we can try to lend a kind hand and pause ourselves to allow them the room to rethink their position. We can be empathetic but firm and offer a safe space for them to change direction, and acknowledge them if they do.
“So whenever that brittle voice of dissatisfaction emerges within me, I can say “Ah, my ego! There you are, old friend!” It’s the same thing when I’m being criticized and I notice myself reaching with outrage, heartache, or defensiveness. It’s just my ego, flaring up and testing its power. In such circumstances, I have learned to watch my heated emotions carefully, but I try not to take them too seriously, because I know that it’s merely my ego that has been wounded–never my soul. It is merely my ego that wants revenge, or to win the biggest prize. It is merely my ego that wants to start a Twitter war against a hater, or to sulk at an insult or to quit in righteous indignation because I didn’t get the outcome I wanted.“
~Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
It’s not easy to interrupt our reflexive reactions but to do so we need to first pause, then allow our first impulse to pass by without action; feel compassion and then devote some thought to a chosen response with the best possible outcome that includes holding ourselves both valid and accountable and accepting that others feel differently. It does require mindful, deliberate and constant effort but once practiced enough, it can become easier and automatic.
Defensiveness can range in its appearance from mild evasion to self-righteous meltdowns. Some will attempt to use rationale to demonstrate how you are wrong for how you feel or perceive things (this is either minimizing, dismissing or gas lighting) and others will use the threat of drama to control or silence you. If you voice any dissatisfaction or difference to this personality type, you’ll likely be faced with either a logical lecture; a melodramatic reaction or a full blown temper tantrum. We all have a degree of narcissism, it’s important that we have self-value, but not to the degree of excluding the needs of others and certainly not by methods of manipulative theatrics, minimizing or dismissing. Drama, temper tantrums or raging are almost never justified or constructive.
Ironically, these same people may accuse others of being “too sensitive”, sometimes in an attempt to shame or manipulate, all while they, themselves, are dysfunctionally sensitive while behaving insensitively.
On the subject of healthy disagreements, it’s important to distinguish between having a welcome and agreed-upon debate or argument or expressing a personal feeling. No one has the right to tell you how you feel but we can have different perspectives on the world. It’s also acceptable if occasionally someone offers a different view to correct a misperception – but if it happens frequently, there is a need to explore the source of the misperceptions.
Others might deny any truth to your assertions or minimize, deflect, counter-blame (“You made them do it”, “You’re too sensitive”, “It’s your problem, not theirs”, “You’re defensive” or out rightly stating, “It’s not a problem”) in an attempt to distract you from your points or even outright claim that they don’t understand what you’re saying and leave it at that as if somehow, bewilderingly, the issue has been resolved or come to an end.
There needs to be a shared position of mutual interest and regard. Reasonable responses include having your feelings heard; an attempt at reparations are made (if needed) or mutually agreeable negotiations take place.
Defensiveness only sees one side – their own. We cannot be defensive and understanding simultaneously – it’s almost impossible. If we’re explaining why we did things as we did or denying we did it as accused it’s likely we do not understand the point being made.
Defensiveness, paradoxically, feeds criticism and vice versa. Why? Because if the defensive one never understands, they aren’t demonstrating interest or support. They’re unintended message is, “I don’t care about your feelings.” Sometimes the only recourse with a defensive person is to either emotionally retreat or become critical (sometimes another way of expressing hurt). In any relationship, there is a yin-yang balance being struck. Over the long-term, one problem cannot exist without the other. They feed each other. Only the ability to be fearlessly self-aware, accountable and willing to learn will offset any problems.
Counter-blame is another defence, as in the classic, “You do it too.” It’s important to be willing to candidly reflect on your own self. Perhaps you are doing something undesired or unwelcome and you need to consider change regardless of your intentions (even gifts can be unwanted). At the same time, don’t be distracted from the subject at hand. Stay away from retorts, come-backs or tit-for-tat and only address one point at a time. Personal accountability goes a long way to resolving differences and strengthening relationships.
Avoidance is an additional form of defensiveness. Sometimes it comes in the guise of stonewalling – one more disagreeable behaviour that tends to stress or rupture relationships. While less explicit, it can be just as painful and exasperating to be in a relationship with such types. It is the emotional equivalent of having a door slammed in your face. Avoidant types can feel unskilled in conflicts and sometimes literally wish the other person will just go away or forget. It’s a kind of magical thinking for self preservation. Avoidance is usually learned growing up where the only power (or safety) was silence and becomes automatic and subconscious. As adults, they may be good-hearted but they may not be conscious of their hurtful conduct. It can be difficult to replace a comfortable, life-long habit of avoiding with learning to feel safe facing conflict.
Most people are not fully conscious of their defensiveness or the reasons why. It’s not excusable but it does help to understand it’s not intentional. You can’t make someone change but you can be clear on what you want in a relationship and that problematic defensiveness is not part of a nurturing, enriching bond. Self-awareness, assertiveness and clear boundaries are required with such individuals.
The over-responsible, caretaking personalities can often be found in relationship with defensive types. The resulting bond is often very unhealthy, unbalanced and sometimes abusive or neglectful depending on the severity.
“We often hear of someone saying, ‘So, you don’t trust me’ or ‘Are you questioning my integrity?’ or ‘You don’t believe me.’ They get defensive and angry because someone questions their actions, and they think they are above being questioned or having to prove their trustworthiness. But none of us is above questioning.”
~Henry Cloud, Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t
If we cannot contain and soothe ourselves, we are unable to be a functional part of a relationship. We become incapable of reflecting on our own actions or accepting that not everything we do is ideal for others. Such understandings are imperative to becoming a caring and respectful companion, friend, family member and so on.
Successful interdependent people possess the skill to solicit and receive constructive criticism. They have healthy boundaries and use assertiveness instead of defence.
They recognize the worth of reality testing; self-improvement and the value of seeking out whether they are meeting the needs of their partner, family, children, employers, employees, coworkers, customers, etc.
Skillful response to displeasure, angst, anger, sadness or hurt is one of self compassion and interest, where we seek to hear more and learn before we offer any explanation about ourselves. If we possess self-containment, we’re able to accept and validate our own discomfort but we pause before we react, up to and including not reacting at all.
Reflect on what you feel after hearing feedback or painful feelings – often hurt is at the heart. Where defensiveness is born from feeling unsafe with your feelings, allowing your feelings to arise naturally, with compassion, can dispel your defensiveness. Learning ‘mindfulness’ is very helpful in this regard. When we feel safe we don’t need to defend. Pause. Allow time and space for both you and the other person to feel – hurt, angry, disappointed, afraid and so on. Allow compassion and validation for this hurt. All feelings are as natural as the weather and often just as transient.
“At best, people are open to scrutinizing themselves and considering their blind spots; at worst, they become defensive and angry.”
Practice empathy and reflective listening using an even tone. Emotional closeness and safety is imperative to the health of a relationship and this means being willing to both hear and say difficult things. Observe how the other person responds.
Empathize with the underlying cause of defence as in “it’s hard for you to hear you disappointed me when that wasn’t your intention”.
Challenge yourself to use empathy before you defend yourself. Make yourself wait an hour or a day before you defend yourself. See how it feels. See how the other person may change or soften as well.
“I’m a fallible human being – but if I were
to react to that knowledge with fear/defensiveness then how would
I move forward?”
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Thanks for your friendship.