During coaching sessions, certain questions come up repeatedly. One of the most interesting ones to me is, “What makes me act defensively, even though I don’t like it, and I know other people are annoyed by it?”
I love this question because it goes directly to the contradiction at the heart of defensiveness. The person asking it knows nobody wants to be around someone who is being defensive, even themselves. And it acknowledges that defensiveness still happens, no matter how much you know about it.
If you’ve spent any time around me, you probably know that I’m no fan of doing something solely so other people won’t be annoyed. Acting this way creates situations where you are consumed with trying to deliver what others want. If you fail at this, you don’t get the reward of their love. If you succeed you only get approval for being someone you are not. We don’t want to avoid defensiveness just because it annoys others.
So let’s focus on the fact that nobody likes being defensive. The fact that nobody has ever said, “I had a great day at the office today. I got super defensive and it was amazing.” Because we don’t like the feeling, one of the most common reactions to being defensive is to hide it from ourselves. If we know we’re being defensive, we often reflexively try to hide it from others. If we’re called out on it we often can’t admit our feelings.
So why do we continue becoming defensive when we dislike it so much? Here is the journey I took to understand that question.
One of my most powerful experiences with defensiveness happened early in my marriage, on a day Tara was angry with me for missing an important event. She came into the house upset and disappointed. Normally I would have become defensive, but thanks to some grace, that day I didn’t. I also didn’t lose myself in an apology trying to get her to calm down. I was just with her. My heart stayed open. I didn’t want anything to change. She had a good reason to be angry, and that was okay with me. I had made a mistake, and that was okay with me. I had nothing to defend.
The feeling was amazing. I felt empowered and clear with a deep respect for both Tara and myself. I felt profoundly internally aligned. This is how I wanted to be in every fight.
In that moment I saw that defensiveness could only ever be counterproductive and that this alternative would yield much better outcomes. I resolved to rid myself of it from that point forward.
Of course, despite my moment of understanding, I found myself getting defensive again almost immediately. In fact, over the next few months, my struggle to let go of it was the thing that made me most defensive. Still, I had tasted something different, I knew what I wanted, and I was determined to find it.
First I tried to accept defensiveness. But that felt like putting up with it. Like saying “I want you to go, but, oh ok, if you really need to be here it’s fine.” To try to change that I experimented with trying to love and welcome my defensiveness. And that’s when everything changed. When I started loving it, my defensiveness began to speak to me. And I realized it was usually a perfect pointer to what I criticized in myself.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve found my defensive instincts to be unnervingly accurate at diagnosing where I am not loving myself. I invite you to check it out. The next time you get defensive, instead of criticizing yourself, welcome it in and get curious about what you are getting defensive about. What is the wisdom in your defensiveness?
Here is an example of how it worked for me.
One area I kept getting defensive about was my anger. The more defensive I was, the more I’d try to justify it by making others wrong. And the more wrong I made them the more we’d fight. And the more I fought, the more I judged my anger and the more defensive I became.
It was a shitty loop.
Once I started looking forward to my defensiveness, I saw that I wasn’t making room for my anger. So I tried loving that too and found there was also wisdom there. Looking for the wisdom in my anger always led me to something I cared about beneath it. The more I saw the thing I cared about, the more I could just ask for what I wanted without the anger.
Eventually, I saw that my defensiveness could not exist when I was in touch with what I really wanted. Go back to anytime you were defensive and ask yourself, “What did I really want at that moment?” Find the core thing your heart wanted. Now imagine asking for it in a clear and empowered way. What happens to your defensiveness?
So, “What makes you act defensively when you don’t like it, and you know other people are annoyed by it?” The first reason is: so you can find the parts of yourself you do not love and love them. The second is: so you can get in touch with what you really want and ask for it.
I regularly get this question from the people I coach, which is what made me include it in the Art of Accomplishment Master Class. In fact, an entire section of the Master Class, called Love over Defense, is based on this realization. If you want to learn more, I hope you’ll apply to join us.