We all know the term, and we all have experienced it—both in ourselves and in others—but I want to suggest that getting to understand ourselves better also involves a better understanding about why we get defensive.
Why is a far more important kind of question to ask than what defense are you or that person using? Let me explain.
Psychology has talked about defensives for a long time, and here is a good list of the commonly used and understood defenses of our time. Spend some time with them and you will start to see them everywhere. But beyond the cataloging and identifying of defenses, I want to suggest something far more relevant for you to pay attention to.
Behind every use of a defense is the urge to protect an emotional vulnerability. Specifically, we act defensively in order to NOT feel a particular emotion or have a particular kind of experience.
That would be why it’s called a defense: we are protecting ourselves from coming into contact with an emotion or experience that, consciously or unconsciously, we are trying to avoid.
This is also where all that mindfulness you are practicing is supposed to come in handy. Acting mindfully will allow you to witness yourself while being defensive.
The most commonly avoided emotions are going to be a pretty familiar list. But don’t think this is by any means a comprehensive and inflexible list. What you or someone you know may be reacting may be something not on this list.
Emotions or experiences one may avoid by way of defenses:
Men, speaking very broadly, can have a hard time admitting helplessness, vulnerability or sadness, so they act out all blustery or full of testosterone. It’s a smokescreen, my friends. Pure theatre. But psychologically important. Exposing that experience of vulnerability or helplessness at that moment, when a person does not feel safe, can cause a lot more complications. But the smokescreen is just the first piece. There is something else underneath it all, and that is the puzzle for you to unravel.
Obviously, women can have just as much trouble with helplessness, vulnerability or sadness as men do, but the defenses they may use can be quite different. That’s social and gender roles for you. And for women, from that socially acceptable perspective, they may have much more trouble admitting feelings of anger or aggression than men do.
Men, unfortunately, love to Hulk out way too much.
Still having troubling knowing what your defenses are? Ask those around you: your spouse or partner, your best friend, someone who will be honest and compassionate with you. They have seen it, even if you have not.
This is going to be it for this post, as it is too damn hot to keep writing in this heat (don’t know how southern writers did it before A/C—but I think all the gin and moonshine helped). The follow up post will be on expanding your understanding of your defenses and what emotional issues are lurking underneath.
Happy summer to all of you!