Monday, September 15, 2008

Defensiveness is a strange animal

The babysitting incident below was a relatively small one in the great scheme of things. I dealt with it with my friend, but I've continued to work it below the surface. Like the climatologist who learned that he could save himself the trouble of tramping about on wet cloudy mountains* by setting up a weather system in miniature in a lab, I am using the experience as an opportunity to gain insights on a larger Pattern.

A recurring theme in my life has been that people important to me have often not fulfilled their responsibilities and then refuse to be held accountable. To question their actions (or inactions) is to 'accuse' them, no matter how gently or neutrally I try to frame my questions. And then I'm punished with their anger and resentment. Not being able to pursue the matter to closure with them, I turned my scrutiny inward to see if I was at fault. Maybe something was wrong with how I'd perceived them. I usually gave others the benefit of the doubt.

I hate the specter of victimhood a statement like that implies, but it is true. As it is true that the same pattern shows up in all kinds of different places. From the mundane (calling Gary on having taken the trash out but having not re-lined the can so that I have to set down the armload of trash--I'd gathered up in a hurry because the baby's crying-- to take the liner that he's left folded up inside the lidded can, unfold it, line the can, pick up the trash I'd had to set down and put it in the can while listening to the crying get more urgent--to tell him that this was a real stumbling block and had cost me generated his anger toward me and added to the general resentment) to the larger life-affecting stuff, this has recurred.

I had thought the babysitting incident with my friend below was another variation on that pattern and I could gain some insight by studying it. Then I had some more insights that shook that assumption and I'm still thinking about that.

But it did give me an opportunity to meditate on the curious nature of defensiveness. I realized that when people are conflict-avoidant it is generally because anticipating the defensiveness it will raise in another person is daunting. And then to have one's own defensiveness triggered and so have mutual defensiveness is excruciatingly uncomfortable. To me it has felt like an electrified fence, a kind of repelling force field. Or like a feedback loop. Only with a twist, or a sting.

And it's funny how exquisitely tuned humans' defensiveness can be. My father said something to me once that was both painful and inexplicable. I had to mull it over for several days before I could bring myself to approach him about it. From the moment he answered the phone it was as if he could sense something was coming from me that would seem critical of his behavior--I could feel the alarms beginning to sound in him and I could feel the defensiveness. The electrical field of defensiveness seems to force ANY exchange into the mold of accusation--even if the purpose of that exchange is to seek understanding and connection. And it seems to arise instantaneously.

I wonder if there's a correlation between a person's tendency to become anxious and how readily they become defensive.

There really does seem to be a lot of it about though. It's so common it's the stuff of comedy shows and dramas--person a does something; person b is hurt but won't approach person a because person a "might get angry".

So I'm just curious.


* from Bill Bryson's book, A Short History of Nearly Everything: on page 161 he recounts the story of a British scientist C.T.R. Wilson who studied cloud formations at the top of Scottish mountain Ben Nevis. Looking for an easier way he built an artificial cloud chamber.


Lori said...

I think I am a defensive person at times. I would like to learn how to defuse my tendencies.

Aunt Becky said...

I work very hard on my blog to not allow the trolls I get to make me defensive when I write. It's a good exercise for me.

Douglas W said...

Human beings, like other creatures, naturally become defensive when they feel or sense they are about to be hurt or attacked. We all do it.

The question is how to express to the other person that we have been negatively affected by something without being seen to be attacking them.

There are two things that I try to do.

The first thing I try to do is to decide whether something is really worth worrying about - does it really matter? Some things really do not matter.

Certainly, the road might be smoother if it didn't have potholes in it, but does it really matter if I have to step over or around them occasionally? Does it even matter if my house burns down, or if a burglar breaks in and steals my possessions? It might be nicer if these things hadn't happened, but life goes on and I'm not going to allow myself to become depressed and angry because of such things.

The second thing I do is to try to encourage a mutually listening to and respecting of the feelings of others. "I know you didn't mean to do this but I feel unhappy about what has happened", rather than "What you did has made me really unhappy."

One is a simple and truthful expression, without blame, of how you feel as a result of the action, while the other is blaming the other person for causing the unhappy feelings.

In a situation of mutual respect the first approach will be received and thought about and hopefully remedied by appropriate words or actions. The second approach is more likely to arouse defensiveness and counter blame.

As for being defensive, it sometimes helps me to look beyond the words being said and try to understand the feelings that are going on behind the words.

The words themselves might sound abusive, accusative, blaming and a whole host of threatening things - but what is the person really trying to express? Is their choice of such angry accusative and threatening words simply an expression of some other feeling - like frustration, or unhappiness, or inadequacy? I try to ignore the superficial words amd enquire about the feeling - "You sound like you're angry", "You sound as though you're feeling hurt". Once the feeling has been identified it can be accepted and responded to.

crazymumma said...

Yes, but ones back is up against the wall is it not natural to be defensive.

Not very.....evolved i know. But I am saying that sometimes defensiveness has a reason.

excavator said...

Hi! Thanks for commenting.

I think I come from a background of people who must have been punished very severely for any mistakes with the consequence that no matter how insignificant a mistake their very worth and souls feel threatened. So they are rarely able to admit when they are in the wrong, and are furious or hurt when it's brought to their attention, however gently and respectfully.

I suppose part of managing defensiveness is in being able to be "wrong" AND worthwhile at the same time. I suppose that gives a person the freedom to weigh the merits of an "accusation", make a decision as to its legitimacy, and either apologize or attempt to clarify.

Internally it's kind of an unpleasant sensation, though.

crazymumma, I agree that there are definitely times when defensiveness is appropriate to some situations. We need to be able to defend ourselves if we are unjustly accused. Doug, I think some people's defensiveness is set so sensitively that a question or implied disagreement can trigger it.

aunt becky, I hope you don't get too many trolls.

lori, I know what you mean. That's why I think e-mail is so helpful. The sensation of defensiveness can be so distracting that it only adds to itself in some face-to-face encounters. Email can screen that out.