My potential for defensive behavior is legendary!
Recognizing my tendency to become defensive has been a lifelong process. I can remember being a teenager and having strong arguments at summer camp with a good friend whose views felt extremely divisive to me. Back then I felt shame at becoming emotional during an argument. My friend could argue with me and laugh at my rising emotions, always seeming to be able to hold his point of view and still keep his emotions under control.
My current relationship with defensiveness is much more covert. My early years as a critical care nurse taught me NEVER to cry or express strong emotions at work. Crying at work resulted in being treated by other professionals as though I was less competent. I wish I had learned, in those days, to truly manage the flood of emotions I was feeling. Those emotions were a gift; they were signals from body and mind pointing me in the directions of deeply held beliefs. While valuable, they were overwhelming and flooded my central nervous system, making it difficult for me to access the wisdom of my frontal lobe.
Defensiveness is just a coping strategy that many people us to manage discomfort. It is one of my least effective strategies, but a strategy nonetheless. Pema Chödrön tells a story about covering everything in leather, to protect yourself from hurt. Hurt and the desire to protect yourself from being hurt over and over is the root of defensiveness. The problem with covering our tender hearts with leather, or what Brené Brown calls “armoring up,” is that also prevents us from experiencing joy and connection.
As with any maladaptive coping strategy, the first step is to notice how often you use defensiveness and how ineffective it is in solving problems. In noticing how often we become defensive, we give ourselves the opportunity to make changes, choosing a coping strategy that is more in line with our authentic self. This is often the primary goal of therapy for my clients, developing new and effective coping strategies that are in line with their personal values.
The primary reason I would encourage you to notice a tendency toward defensiveness and cultivate a new coping strategy in place of defensiveness is that it can increase the presence of joy in your life. Being defensive requires us to assign blame. Assigning blame is an attempt to offload pain to whoever or whatever we blame. It changes nothing for us. It attempts to numb the pain we feel from disconnection and discomfort. If we can learn to face it, manage it, and look at discomfort as our teacher, we increase our ability to connect to others and experience joy. The increased ability to experience joy is what I hope for all of us. Creating a bit more muscle memory for experiencing joy in your life can result in greater fulfillment, even if the actual circumstances of your life do not change significantly!