August 5, 2018
Defensiveness can feel like self-protection. That sounds like a good thing. Is it always?
Sometimes it can be. When we are in real danger, it’s critical to recognize it and defend ourselves appropriately. That may mean walking away (or running) to remove ourselves from a dangerous situation, or responding with a firm statement of a boundary, or something as simple as keeping quiet to end an unsatisfying conversation.
However, in many cases, defensiveness keeps us from experiencing what we want. Which is to be connected. To be grokked. Richard Heinlein, a famous science fiction writer, coined the term ‘grok’ in his classic book: ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’.
To grok means to understand someone or something on a profoundly deep level. Grokking only happens in the absence of defensiveness. When it happens, you know it.
I have a friend of many years who at times groks me and has said that at times I grok her. To get there, we have stuck it out through misunderstandings, miscommunications, and barriers from our histories that at times made it difficult to hear each other, much less grok one another. By sticking it out, communicating with vulnerability, and dropping our defenses over and over, we have come to a place of understanding that at times makes me turn into a puddle of gratitude.
When we are defensive, walking around protected by a wall of negativity, cynicism, or sourness, we make it near to impossible to meet that powerful need for connection. Sadly, we’re usually unaware of being bubble-wrapped in defensive behaviors, though they stand out like a sore thumb to everyone else. While our friends are wondering why we can’t see what we’re doing to ourselves, we’re convincing ourselves that we’re so sensitive we can’t tolerate the natural discomfort that comes with developing human relationships.
Hidden defensiveness comes in many forms. Here are a few. I’d love to hear if you’ve wrangled with them as I have.
We all, at times, want what someone else has. Instead of acknowledging that very human reaction, we sometimes start tearing them down. We look for what’s wrong with them and how they got where they are.
It would be much easier to say: “Wow, I notice I’d really like to have that too!” When I acknowledge my own want, I find I can be happy for you at the same time. This one is kind of magical.
When I judge you as less than I think you should be, I am not in touch with my own vulnerabilities and limitations. I protect myself and make myself feel powerful by finding what’s wrong with you — or anyone in my vicinity — when I feel small and insecure.
Alternatively, when I meet you with the intention to understand you, coupled with a desire to make you feel safe with me, superficial judgments seem to fall by the wayside.
I think of all the reasons why I can’t make a decision. I ideate endlessly because I believe I can find the one right answer. Which of course doesn’t exist.
What I’ve discovered is that when I take a risk and fail and get up — something I have experienced many times over — I invariably learn something that makes me stronger, wiser and more courageous. I know that what some might see as tragedies or failures in my life have saved me – they have been my gateway to discovering who I am.
You’ve probably heard the idea that when you point one finger at another person, there are three fingers pointing back at you. When we are majorly angry about someone else’s behavior or a characteristic they exhibit, more often than not it’s a characteristic in us that we haven’t yet accepted or made our peace with. We can’t see it in ourselves. Painfully, everyone else sees it.
Making a conscious decision to simply pay attention and notice when I’m feeling something uncomfortable and pointing a finger at someone else for creating that discomfort, has speeded up my recovery from terminal blaming.
Venting, or emoting as I call it, is a defense to avoid noticing that I’m feeling something uncomfortable that I don’t know what to do with — scared, insecure, angry, inept, judged. Venting repeatedly about the same problem makes me think I’m doing something when I’m not. It makes me a little less scared or unsure, for a moment. Actually, all I’m doing with repetitive venting is concretizing a misunderstanding or miscommunication, and looking for validation that I’ve been victimized. I’m getting myself deeper and deeper into quicksand with no way out.
I’ve rescued myself from endless venting by asking the person on the receiving end to tell me what they’re hearing. I ask if they’ve heard it from me in the same way before. If they have, that usually means it’s time for me to get some help. Help can be in the form of objective, supportive feedback from someone I respect. It can be research into how others have handled a similar situation. Sometimes I simply need to spend time alone with myself. Quiet time can allow a space for the answers within me to surface .
Worrying is similar to venting. It makes me feel like I’m doing something when I’m actually avoiding doing anything. Worrying is paralyzing. We are focused on a future that is impossible to know. Our worst life experiences have usually shown up as something we never imagined. Seldom do our worst imagined fears materialize. Worry causes us to expend tremendous energy trying to solve a problem that hasn’t occurred. That behavior drains us in a way that makes it impossible to deal creatively or effectively with what life actually hands us.
An easy practice I’ve discovered is to periodically check in with myself to see if I’m present with my current reality or dancing somewhere in a future that hasn’t occurred. I do that by asking three questions:
1) Where am I?
2) What am I doing?
3) What am I feeling?
I immediately come back to today, where everything is usually just fine. Actually, these three questions can be a helpful tool to disengage from all the defensive behaviors I’ve presented.
Please share your thoughts. Have hidden forms of defensiveness gotten in your way? Is there a behavior you would like to commit to dropping right now to make it a little easier for you to experience the connections you want?