People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.Thich Nhat Hanh
The defenses that we put up in our lives.
You are in a conversation with somebody you care about. Things aren’t going well, and no matter how much you talk together both of you are only getting more angry, more flustered, and feeling like starting the conversation at all was a bad idea.
Somebody offers you a recommendation for something you care about and you immediately have to explain why that wouldn’t work, you’ve already thought of it, yours is the best way even if it doesn’t work. You recognize that they are trying to be helpful, but you aren’t accepting help right now.
A person mentions something about you that you are sensitive about. It changes everything. Now you are deciding whether to tell them off, tell them all the things that are wrong with them, or to simply shut down and walk away from the conversation. The voice in your head is going bonkers as it revisits what they said over and over and over again.
The defenses that we put up in our lives are different for each of us. Maybe I can’t hear somebody talk about my alcohol habits, and you don’t want your employees telling you how to do something at work. Your sibling is sensitive about mom getting old and whether she goes into a home, your spouse simply doesn’t hear you when you talk about that thing you asked them to do.
Anatomy of a defense
There are some common traits that most defenses share though.
- There is a trigger. They
don’t come out of nowhere(even though they sometimes feel like it), and they aren’t all that mysterious. The triggers vary, but there is almost always something that causes us to throw up the defenses.
- They keep us safe. These defenses are custom-tailored to keep us from questioning whatever the topic is.
- They shut other people out. Defenses shut down conversations, build aggravation for all parties, and prevent collaboration.
- They usually leave us in a bad mood. We are left going over the conversation again and again. Or we sit and think of all the things that we should have said
atthe moment. OF we judge the other person as less than because they triggered our defenses.
- Other people don’t know where our defenses are. They can’t read your mind (and sometimes you don’t even know where these defenses are), so people often stumble into our sensitive topics and trip the defense measures.
Why is it worth taking the defenses down?
When we think about lowering defenses we often think of being open to attack. The very word ‘defenseless’ implies a sense of helplessness, a lack of control, and being at the mercy of those with more power.
We get scared when we think about taking down the defenses. So why is it worth doing?
- It’s only scary until you get better at it. It’s scary because it’s different than what you’ve tried before and because it means change. Being scared stops when you start to see how much you learn when you aren’t crouched behind the defenses.
- Besides learning a LOT more, you will connect more effectively with anyone who you take the defenses down around. Think about it, if you walk into a room and there are two people – one who is withdrawn and looks at you like you are a danger, and the other who is warm and inviting; which one do you want to talk to? Even though we don’t like to believe it, we all know deep down that people can sense when we are defensive. This is because we can sense when THEY are. So when you aren’t putting defensive vibes out, people want to connect with you more readily.
- Growth is the biggest reason to try taking them down. You might have to give up being ‘right’ some of the time, but when you can do this effectively then you can choose the best action instead of the existing action.
- Learning and growth lead naturally to an increase in self-confidence. You will automatically become surer of yourself which creates a positive feedback loop leading you to even greater accomplishments.
How do you do it?
Great, so you see the reasons for putting down the defenses, even if only for a short while. Now, how do you do it?
The first step is to recognize when the defenses come up. This won’t happen overnight, but you can start building the mindfulness muscle right now. Notice what you are holding onto, what makes you feel stressed, what gives you a headache, what do you dread? All of these are places to pay LOTS of attention and see where and when you defenses show up.
Own that it is defensiveness. Don’t try to call it something else. When you recognize it just go ahead and own it. In conversations I’ve literally stopped and told the other person “Hold on, I feel myself getting defensive about this. Let me see if I can put that on hold for a moment.” This is great because it automatically helps the other person be mindful with you.
Challenge if you want to stay defensive. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, whichever it is – make sure that it is intentional. Take just a moment to ask yourself “Is this worth being defensive about?”. Sometimes the answer will be yes. Most of the time the answer will be no.
Choose a different way. Ask a question that helps you understand the situation better. Get the other person’s point of view. Write down what you are defensive about and why before continuing on.
Be powerful in your choice. Soon you will recognize that taking down the defenses actually makes you more in control. It gives you options that wouldn’t have been available to you before. You can still choose to be defensive after all the options are on the table, but you won’t have to. This means that you can decide which option gives YOU the best outcome. That’s a win.
So where are your defenses? What would you gain by pulling them down for a day, a week, a year?