Why do we get defensive? Why does this antagonism escalate and damage relationships that did not need to be damaged? Why our relationships are stormier than they need to be? Why is happiness is so hard to come by these days?
“Mike your late” “I’m not late. You told me to come at 8:00”
“No, I didn’t, you’re always making things up.” “No I don’t. I’m right on time”
“Mike, why can’t you admit you’re wrong?” “I didn’t do anything. You’re the liar”
“Why do you get so defensive?” “I’m not getting defensive.”
“You are defending yourself right now.” “No I’m not.”
That is defensiveness. Many people are like Mike. We are predisposed by our past to misperceive a negative, unpleasant situation as if it was an attack on our self worth and we react accordingly. Such a mindless reaction makes the unpleasant anger evoking situation worse for everyone involved. We can give ourselves new choices to use next time. Each time we remember to choose a new, more appropriate response, we strengthen our self worth and crowd out feelings of self-contempt.
Defensiveness is Mike’s well intentioned, but mistaken method of problem solving base don the following misconceptions: • Our request for an accounting of his unseemly behavior is an attack on him, which must be defended against. • That the issue being defended is his integrity, innocence and worth as a person. • That the issue is his guilt, fault, blame, responsibility. (It isn’t) • That his integrity as a person requires defending • That the best defense is a good offense. • That we are putting him in the wrong and that we are attempting to control him. • That we are doing it for our own selfish reasons at his expense. • That we are trying to solve his problems by making him understand the error of his ways.
Like most of us, Mike is vulnerable to taking criticisms, slights, oversights and insults more personally that he needs to take them. When this happens his negative attitudes kick in and control his behavior. In addition, he tends to take his defensive thoughts seriously as if they made sense. He feels honor-bound to assume responsibility for defending his character as if this confrontation was being held in a court of law and he was on trial for his life.
In the real world: • Mike has made the mistake of taking our anger at him as if it were a reflection on his worth as a person. This loss of his self worth is painful. He has become angry at us for causing him this painful loss. • We cannot make this other person understand anything because we do not understand ourselves and what is going on below the surface. • Our good intention to make Mike understand is counter-productive. It misses Mike’s point by a mile. It convinces him that we are the one who doesn’t understand. That makes him angrier at us than he was before. • He is feeling powerless to make us understand his unrealistic point of view. He is feeling out of control. • We are feeling out of control too. Our out of control feeling is painful. We may feel compelled to regain control by defending ourselves against this perceived attack on our own self-worth.
The real issue is that Mike is angry. He is angry at us for being angry at him. His anger is painful and the situation won’t get better until someone understands his pain and provides him with the emotional first aid that the reality of the situation requires.
What has to happen before we can relieve his pain? We must first identify and relieve our own. We must give ourselves emotional first aid. We must stop our own bleeding before we can begin to think straight. We are not used to putting ourselves first in our own lives, but it is entirely appropriate to make ourselves a priority under these combat conditions. We are not being selfish. If we stop to heal our own emotional wounds, we will be more competent to help our fellow human beings than we were before.Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Jun 2015 Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.