I can remember watching the popular girls in my elementary school bully another student, I’ll call her Megan, because they thought she was “weird.” They would say rude things to her all day, making fun of her hair, her drawings, the way she spoke. And Megan would just sit there silently through it all, not even looking at them. She’d keep doing her homework, drawing, playing. Sadly, the other kids and I didn’t make any effort to help her, lest the mean girls turned their sights on us.
Megan was turning the other cheek, but I just didn’t get — not then. I figured they were teasing her because she didn’t fight back. I promised myself I’d always fight back. Of course that only got me into a whole new kind of trouble — Defensiveness.
It’s a knee-reaction, defending ourselves when we feel we’ve been wronged or falsely perceived. And when we’re insecure about something it’s easy to perceive personal attacks everywhere. When someone honks at us because we’ve hesitated to go when a light turned green, we may feel the need to say, “Hey, I’m not an idiot!” But it wasn’t personal. The person behind just wanted us to go. Even if they were actually mad, it truly wasn’t a personal attack on our self-worth.
Defensive walls go up quickly when we feel unappreciated or disrespected. The walls are meant to keep out unfairness and negative evaluations of our choices and behaviors. But what it often shuts out is self improvement. When we spend so much time defending ourselves, we stop hearing anything critical. Constructive criticism is useful to personal growth. For starters, it helps us communicate better, promotes social unity, and builds healthier relationships.
Defensiveness seeks to excuse behavior rather than let it speak for itself. For example, if you ask your neighbor to keep the noise down during a late night party and then you wake up the next day to a 20-page email from the neighbor about how “sometimes you make noise too.”
The thing is, action always speaks for itself. You can tell someone you like them, but if you always treat them poorly they aren’t going to believe you really like them. Words are rather flimsy, and we have to back them up with the action we take.
In my piece “Responsibility Is a Blessing Not a Curse” I explain that using excuses to avoid responsibility robs us of emotional competence and autonomy. A responsible person doesn’t try to lay blame elsewhere. Instead they are open-minded and proactive about problem solving. They don’t perceive their mistakes as devaluing their self-worth. They see mistakes as part of living and learning. But a defensive person sees a single mistake as something that undermines their value entirely. When someone points out a mistake, the defensive person feels a chasm of worthlessness open up under their feet.
When we become defensive we lash out at others and fill them with negative feelings. Then they’re less likely to accept our perspective. We’ve lost our chance to really hear what they have to say and we’ve ensured that they won’t hear us either. So ultimately defensiveness only makes a situation worse. It creates a painful schism in communication. The closer the other person is to us, the greater the hurt.
“We are conditioned to believe that strength means coming out on top and winning the fight,” writes Nancy Colier, LCSW, Rev. “But in fact, real strength means having the courage to put our swords and shields down, and to risk being open and un-defended.”
So next time you feel your blood pressure rise and the defensive barrier starting to go up, take a pause and don’t speak. Knowing that defensiveness often doesn’t accomplish what you want it to, maybe it’s worth not saying anything at all. Just like Megan who refused to say a word while being verbally abused by her fellow students. Maybe it’s time to practice self-compassion by letting it go and turning the other cheek.
Defensive Warrior image courtesy of Shutterstock.