Learn how to reduce defensive behaviors and nurture your relationships (published originally on the Your Tango relationship website in 2012).
When we react defensively to loving gestures and shared thoughts, it is often because wounded or insecure parts of self are triggered.
These wounded aspects of self are often hidden from our conscious minds and lead us to imagine that others are being critical, such that we feel a need to be protective and defend ourselves.
Furthermore, the ego tends to see things only in black and white, good or bad, attack or non-attack which can create faulty logic and incorrect conclusions about other people’s motives or intentions.
For example, a person with hidden wounds around shame, blame and guilt, will tend to interpret conversations around assessing the relationship as, “You are telling me that you’re unhappy with me and that everything is my fault.” Any sort of commentary on the relationship around needs for growth or change tend to be interpreted as a personal attack and criticism.
It can be challenging to have a conversation with a person who is in a defensive space, and move the relationship forward because much energy is required to reassure the person that they are not being criticized or blamed versus actually exploring how to further the relationship. It can be draining energetically across all levels, physical, emotional and spiritual to reassure such a person over and over again that you are not intending to put them down, criticize or harm them in any way by expressing that you need some things to change.
People who are self aware and in touch with their internal issues are able to embrace the process of positively exploring the behaviors or situations that need to change to better the support each person’s needs.
The process of discussion, when the ego is in check, is light hearted and easy, compared to the tense energy that is the hallmark of conversations when one or both people are feeling defensive and triggered.
How can we recognize that we have fallen into egoic defensiveness? One hallmark of defensiveness is the use of over generalizations in how we describe our experiences and perceptions of others.
Language of the Ego: Use of Over Generalizations
Over generalizations that include absolute words such as “always,” “everytime,” and “never, are indicators that the egoic part of self is driving the communication.
Since the ego cannot discern temporal aspects of experience very well, it tends to experience life in absolutes and cannot distinguish that experience is ever changing and rarely the same over time.
So listen carefully to the language that you use when you are upset.
If you hear yourself using over generalizing language, you might want to stop and ask yourself, “Is that true?” Does this person “always” behave, respond or express certain things 100% of the time?” That is what “always” means.
For example, if you tell a person, “You are always criticizing me. You never are happy.” You are saying 100% of the time the other person is sharing critical information. You are saying that 100% of the time the person is unhappy with you.
By taking these extreme perspectives of others, you discount the times when the other person is sharing loving and praising words.
It is like throwing away the energy of all that love and replacing it with a feeling in your mind that all that exists is criticism or the person’s unhappiness.
You are allowing a generalized thought pattern to create a feeling and belief within yourself that you are unloved, criticized and not capable of making the other person happy — all of the time. No wonder you feel you have to defend yourself–after all, it’s not you -it’s the other person who is constantly needling you, attacking you, finding fault with you. All the time.
Over Generalizing Leads to Self Fulfilling Prophecies
Michael, 47 years-old, has challenges with creating long term, intimate relationships. He shared, “Women are always criticizing then dumping me.”
Michael’s first love was a highly volatile woman who criticized him at the drop of a hat.
Years later, he met Sarah, an emotionally mature and kind woman, who spent a lot of time communicating what she enjoyed about him and how he made her feel wonderful and happy.
They were great activity buddies and everything was fine as long as they both only focused on fun times and never talked about the relationship.
Yet, as time went on, Sarah began to notice that each time they shared greater levels of intimacy, Michael would pull away for days and sabotage their dates by demonstrating little romantic effort or derailing plans for spending time as a couple. Effectively, they spent less and less time together.
When Sarah shared her observations about what she noticed in the relationship and communicated what she needed (more romantic time and less distance), Michael quicky replied, “See you always are unhappy with me–why does it always have to be this way? You are never satisfied.”
Michael’s defensive use of the words “always” and “never,” effectively discounted all the times that Sarah had expressed that she was happy and satisfied.
Sarah, in Michael’s eyes, had become this ever complaining woman who was never happy–essentially the qualites of Michael’s ex-wife. Thus, he created a perception of her that fit his belief that women always criticize and then leave him.
When people engage in negatively projecting qualities on us that are not who we are and do not fit our actual behaviors, it is a subtle type of energy attack.
Thus, often times, it is important to not only step away from the person engaging in this kind of behavior but also perform qi gong cleansing massages (click here to view video of calming self masssage) to rid one’s self of the negative energy.
Sarah felt it challenging to express what she was feeling about the relationship without triggering Michael’s defensiveness. She also felt less seen for who she was, and more seen for who she was not–the specter of Michael’s ex-wife.
Over time, Michael effectively pushed Sarah out of his life by leaving no space in the relationship to cherish the true, loving person that Sarah was–instead Sarah experienced an indifferent and sometimes hostile partner who treated her more and more with frustration –as if she was his ex wife–the enemy.
Sarah decided to end the relationship and later met Ron at a dance class. She was delighted to discover that Ron welcomed relationship talk as a natural part of discovering more about each other and their potential as a couple without being triggered. He could hear her requests for change as a reflection of her commitment to improving the relationship versus as a personal attack and vice versa.
Avoidance and Denial
Sometimes we avoid or deny our feelings because we are unaware of or not willing to deal with the underlying pain, fears, insecurities or doubts that exist within ourselves.
Susan had an ex-husband who abandoned her and her two small children. As a result, Susan was fearful of progressing to deeper stages of intimacy with a man. She always worried that men would leave her.
After several dating relationships ended, Susan started dating Jerry, a very kind and expressive man who adored her. Six months into the process, Jerry wanted to explore the idea of a shared life in the future, but didn’t want to scare her off.
He expressed casually after they made love, that he thought it would be cool if she slept over more often at his place and maybe even keep a few things at his place. Susan responded with avoidance, laughing or changing the subject.
After dating nearly a year, Jerry asked Susan what she thought about moving from a more casual dating relationship to a more committed relationship.
Susan responded angrily, “Why do you always have to make such a big deal out of everything? Why can’t we just keep things the way they are and stay in the moment? Why are you always trying to force things?”
Instead of owning her own fears around abandonment and commitment, Susan attacked Jerry by making it seem as if there was something wrong or unnatural with him wanting a more committed relationship.
Yet, it is a natural desire to want a more integrated shared life when you deeply love someone and you feel secure, confident and open to welcoming another person fully into your life.
When people cannot get on the same page about moving forward in a relationship past the casual dating stage, it is usually not a matter of “missed timing” but the result of unresolved doubts, insecurities and fear on the part of one or both of the people.
Thus, Jerry decided that he deserved to be in a relationship with someone who was on the same page –someone who felt comfortable and confident to move forward as the relationship deepened.
He set a love intention (“I am in love with a woman who has healed her wounds and creates with me an integrated and loving shared life”) and manifested meeting Donna. They married a year later and now run a non-profit business together, nourishing shared dreams and creating a shared life that allows them to travel around the world helping others.
Susan still believes that Jerry was the problem in the relationship and feels that he ruined their relationship by not being willing to keep things at the casual dating stage longer. She has yet to deal with her own wounds and finds it elusive to have a long term relationship with any man because of denying her own internal issues.
Impact and Cost of Defensiveness
Defensiveness can take a serious toll on relationships. Some of the impacts can include:
*Erosion of trust and sense of safety in the relationship. It is challenging to feel safe and trust that a partner will meet you with positive energy if he or she is regularly defensive.
*Erosion of self esteem. People who are defensive will unconsciously discount your fair, understanding and loving nature. When they are upset, they will accuse you of being just the opposite. Over time, this can erode your self esteem.
*Erosion of the joy of the relationship. The energy of defensiveness is heavy and naturally diminishes the lighter energy of joy.
*Discouragement of sharing authentically. When we have to alter our natural flow of expressing ourselves to accommodate the defenses of others, this kills spontaneous conversation and the high level of authenticity that come from speaking straight from the heart and in the moment.
*Erosion of physical health–there are several famous studies that show that when water or plants are exposed to critical descriptions over and over, cellular damage occurs such that the water turns brackish and plants die. Since we are mostly water, our human bodies on a cellular level responds similarly.
Mending the Damage that Defensiveness Causes
What can you do to repair the damage that comes from defensiveness? How can you change patterns of defensiveness in yourself?
Step One: Own and Take Responsibility for Your Behaviors
Acknowledge the impact of your defensive behaviors and go a step further to demonstrate an action to help mend the relationship.
For every action and behavior that erodes a relationship, there is an action and behavior that can mend, restore and rejuvenate the flow of energy.
Go that extra mile to reach out to the other person with loving gestures and expressions such as flowers, cards, or planning a wonderful night out. Make effort to care-take your special person well. Express gratitude. Stop blaming them for your negative feelings and understand those feelings are coming from inside you.
For instance, one of the most effective relationship menders that I ever received, after a friend was defensive with me, was a cheerful pot of flowers with a beautiful card owning behaviors and expressing how much the person valued me. This simple gesture certainly healed the erosion in the relationship and paved the way for a new chapter in our friendship.
Step Two: Take Action to Heal and Resolve the Roots of Your Defensiveness
If you have old wounds rattling around that are creating insecurities, fears, or anxieties, be willing to get some counseling either as an individual or as a couple.
If your response to the idea of counseling is, “Oh no thanks–I don’t need counseling. I can handle this by myself,” understand that this kind of response is part of the egoic pattern of denial. It is part of your defensiveness.
Medical qi gong energy sessions and acupuncture can also help to heal and resolve the energetic patterns that are the result of old wounds, and remove blocks that prevent you from truly accessing your ability to give and receive fully in relationships without defensive energy.
If you are not comfortable seeking counseling, at minimum, take some time to explore these works with an open mind and commitment to growth.
Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix
Sealing the Deal by Diana Kirschner
Emotional Alchemy by Tara Bennett-Goleman