With all the crises happening in the world, it may seem strange to talk about overcoming defensiveness, but bear with me. I watched Robin DiAngelo’s talk about how white people get defensive about racism. Suddenly I realized—this applies to so much more than racism. And if we can overcome this tendency in our own lives, what would that do for society at large?
Defensiveness is a pattern I know very well; I’ve struggled with it all my life. Where the pattern comes from, I can’t say. But recently I’ve learned a few things that are helping me move beyond it.
Defensiveness is not much of a protection
Defensiveness is really not helpful in any situation. In the heat of the moment, it’s a knee-jerk reaction that makes me feel like I’m protecting myself, but actually ends up damaging the relationship.
Why do I get defensive? It happens when someone pushes my buttons, my trigger spots: points where I feel vulnerable or inadequate, issues I haven’t examined yet, circumstances where the story I tell myself doesn’t match up with the reality of how I’m behaving. When these inconsistencies are pointed out, I tend to defend the story because admitting the discrepancy is painful.
But, just like pulling off a Bandaid, the quicker I face the truth, the less painful it is… both for me and those around me. It’s much better to face the discrepancy directly and resolutely, rather than pretend it isn’t there and defend a behavior that really needs to change.
Giving it a name
I also realized the other day that when someone points out something I’ve done that was unthinking, hurtful or stupid, I feel like a bad person; I feel like a monster. Maybe what I did was unconscious or maybe I just wasn’t thinking, but I still feel like a monster. And when I feel like a monster, I act like a monster—I take it out on the person who pointed out my behavior.
But here’s what I’ve found: if I can name it, I can contain it and give myself a little breathing room. So I’ve started calling this defensive response “Monster Syndrome.” When I recognize it in myself or in other people, naming it lets me put a fence around the behavior and step out of it. Otherwise, it becomes a downward spiral: defensiveness tends to create more defensiveness. By naming the thing, I de-personalize it and I can take a step back. Now it’s not an issue of me being a bad person, it’s a condition, a syndrome and that I can do something about.
For, if I am a bad person—if I am indeed a monster—there’s not much I can do about it. But if I have a condition, a syndrome, that’s temporary. It’s treatable. I can do something about it.
Overcoming defensiveness not only improves our relationships and our own mental health, it has an effect beyond us. Our inner world and the outer world mirror each other. Whenever we make progress in one, it affects the other. If we want to live in a nation that is honest with itself, we start in our own lives. The ripple effect starts from the center.