How often do you Draw your Weapon and are Ready to Fire, when there is no Battle?
In a non-war zone, such as in our home or community, we may find ourselves in battle against others, using the weapon of defense mechanisms against those we find unreasonably critical. We may fear that our integrity is at stake when we feel unjustly judged by others and/or want to protect ourselves from someone else’s control. To make matters worse, when one responds with conflict by being defensive, the other oftentimes joins in and the battle ensues. As the walls go up, the underlying reason for the argument becomes irrelevant as the focus turns to a matter of winning or losing.
Being protective of ourselves is a God-given trait, and we are hard-wired to defend ourselves when legitimately threatened (e.g., being chased by a bear, a break-in, etc.). However, oftentimes we react to illegitimate threats and become defensive when, in fact, what is called for is being more open and forthcoming.
Conflict is normal. It helps us communicate and work through issues so that reconnection can occur. During a struggle, all of us at some time or other become unnecessarily defensive. It becomes problematic when our defensive posturing remains stuck and we have a hard time letting it go, even when we realize what we are doing. It can also become habitual, especially if there is that strong need to protect ourselves.
Our responses to criticism depend on several factors. Some people struggle with disapproval by others due to brain chemistry or how their brain is wired. They may have a nervous system that is over-sensitive and a temperament that reacts to perceived danger more readily. Some people refer to this as being “thin-skinned”.
Our childhood history also has a lot to do with how we respond to criticism. If parents or caregivers oftentimes shamed their children and punished them harshly, it’s likely that, as an adult, their impulse is to quickly self-protect whenever they see someone upset and angry about something.
Regardless of the reason, self-esteem issues are a common thread that impacts our level of defensiveness in relationships. With self-doubt comes either reactive defensiveness and belligerence or, the opposite, someone who takes on the role of a “people pleaser” to avoid any possible criticism. Reactive defensiveness keeps people away and “People pleasures” don’t allow conflicts to occur, so honest communication is replaced by underlying resentment.
Relationships give us the opportunity to be more loving and accepting of one another. Learning to hear the others’ complaints with curiosity and openness deepens our connection and puts away unnecessary defensiveness and any potential illegitimate war.
Claudia Liljegren, MSW, LICSW
Psychotherapist at St. Williams Mental Health program