Defensiveness, a Very Bad Habit that Destroys Communication

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Defensiveness is a powerful way to reassure yourself. Everybody does it almost every day if they have relationships. Defensiveness is a knee jerk reaction that says “Oh,no that’s not me, you don’t get what a good person I really am! I am so misunderstood.”

The irony is that the misunderstanding is usually yours, not theirs. It’s very hard to jump into the cold water of the deep end & recognize the bits that are true about your own dark side. The only way to grow & change is to do the hard work of swimming around in these very dark waters.

Defensiveness is worst than chewing your nails or pulling your hair or grinding your teeth because this bad habit stunts your soul’s ability to grow.

The opposite of defensiveness is being vulnerable, which is avoided by most people in our culture. Vulnerable is that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that says “oh,shit did I really do that?” Facing up to your mistakes & mistreatment of others is the only path there is to building character within yourself.

Defensiveness is the constant fragile rebuilding of the false reality that you have done no wrong nor ever would!

Defensiveness is creating Disneyland for the soul which is a bad idea. Bad because it obscures truthfulness (like all those smiles the land of Mickey coaxed from their employees). The soul is capable of facing hard truths & then willing yourself to be different because you value growing up.

I use Fritz Perls definition: Growing up is honestly facing painful situations

Our defense mechanisms are triggered by wanting to avoid the harshness of reality. Using denial to avoid painful things is an epidemic in the world (as Russia & Turkey jail journalists who don’t follow the party lines of false reality) not just the USA.

Reality asks a lot from us. I remember in 90 & 91 helping my best friend Patrick who died of AIDS in 92 recognize that AIDS was a full-time job. Defensiveness is about creating false realities and adds problems to all partnerships & marriage.

People come in to my office & say they have a communication problem 99 times out of 100. I propose that the communication problem is really defensiveness with a lack of ability to face the truth about how you contribute to the problems in a relationship.

We far prefer the old, tired circles of blame that go nowhere!

Defensiveness is a way to stay comfortable & blame the other person instead of being uncomfortable & looking at ourselves. Try jumping into the deep end of the pool, taking responsibility for your contributions to the problems & watch the communication improve massively!


Boundaries & How to do them

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Defenses @ Fort in India

Boundaries require you to risk being uncomfortable. Every relationship is about respecting the differences. The differences will not be respected if they remain unspoken. The discomfort is worth it because it’s how you grow.

You can’t grow without being uncomfortable.

This post is being written at the request of a reader who is perplexed by the how. We live in a culture where saying hard things is avoided & deflected with great expertise. Lovers & spouses don’t explain why they are leaving…..they just leave.

Finding the courage to describe the truth of who you are & how you are wired is an onerous responsibility. We generally are silent & then scream about what we want when we reach our very own mysterious tipping point. Screaming only creates defensiveness in the other person so it really is a fruitless pattern.

You begin with courage, then you acknowledge where the other person is coming from. “You are someone who is full of life & sometimes you don’t realize you take up a lot of space. I am someone who finds it hard to speak up, I want you to like me & I’m afraid when I feel differently & know you may not want to hear it.” Saying this respectfully & with a dignity that allows time for a thoughtful response.

Acknowledging the other person (you are full of life) will help them listen a bit better, because they feel truly seen by you, that you do get them & like them.

If the other person is not interested in what you have to say, when said respectfully, then maybe they are being manipulative & you are allowing yourself to be manipulated. Then you must look at yourself through a more difficult lens because you are participating in erasing yourself.

Of course this still might invite defensiveness because we all are dripping with buckets of it. So then it’s important to try to stay calm & respectful, not getting caught up in the simple drama of “I’m not a bad guy, you are”. Relationships are complicated and understanding each other requires time to listen to the differences.

Another part of How? could be writing letters in a notebook that is exchanged back & forth, because it might be a less emotional way to learn about each other. Of course, this requires time, and you have to make time for what’s important. Texting about hard things does not work & is a mistake. Words on a page allow time for thoughtfulness by both parties.

We may wish to be in love with a clone but that is not reality, which is why relationships require work. I had a friend once who said “Friendships are so important to you, I don’t even think about friendship much.” I tried to explain why it was true for me but quickly realized she was giving me a boundary that her time was consumed with family & I needed to accept that which was difficult to accept.

Courage, acknowledge (or accept) where the other person is coming from then speak up. It’s not easy & it will be hard work. The differences complicate relationships & make them more fascinating, rich & interesting. It would be just as boring to live with a clone as it is to live with a drama queen.

Relationships, Communication & Sharing Power

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Think about all the arguing couples you know and ask yourself, how many of them are good at sharing power? There are many couples where one person caters to the other. Often men cater to women to make them happy in the beginning of relationships.

Then there are many couples where a power imbalance is par for the course so they don’t fight. Things are easier that way. I’ll ignore your irritability, your drinking too much, your selfishness etc. so we just get along. The path of least resistance sometimes turns into the mushiness of codependency.

Then there are those rare couples that pursue the work & struggle that sharing power requires. Couples fighting is ok if they are on a path of sharing power and learning to be a team. Relationship problems require two people who can present their point of view.

Many fighting couples come into my office and begin with; “We don’t communicate well”. I think that often means one person has too much power & takes up all the space. The other person gives up their power by not saying enough or not taking up enough space. Both people collude in this pattern.

The too much person has to learn to edit, put their finger over their mouth, shut up & listen even if you don’t like what the other person is saying. They would effectively be sharing the power by recognizing they are not always right & by having a value on fairness.

The too little person has to find their courage to be authentic and address what they want & don’t want even if the other person disagrees. They would be taking more power by standing up for themselves & believing they deserve more respect for their differences. Often they are too afraid of the wrath or disappointment of the other.

It is ironic that many times when the too little person admits they are afraid of the other; then the too much person is furious at feeling portrayed as “Darth Vader or a Wicked Witch” (though this is not the case). This then becomes another reason to be completely unreasonable & ballistic with the agenda that the too little person regrets saying their truth. Caving in is precisely the result that the too much person desires.

This effectively maintains the status quo & the power imbalance remains. When the too little person gives up then they are allowing themselves to be manipulated into continuing to shut up. The too much person blows up to manipulate the other person into permanent silence.

Sharing power requires a heap of respect. Divorce is because respect has evaporated. Dialogue instead of monologue means recognizing two points of view exist in most situations. Dialogue is far more interesting and does not happen very often because it takes time.

We are a frantic, hurry up culture. There is no time for the layering of the many conversations that creates a depth of understanding. It is the norm for couples fighting to be so defensive in the first conversation then they don’t really hear what’s important to the other person.

When couples fight, it is unfortunate that most people give up too easily after the beginning conversations because of defensiveness.

Defensiveness is built on someone being too sensitive, feeling attacked too easily or insecurities. The other person is too insensitive, too self righteous or judgmental. Defensiveness pollutes hearing both sides to every issue. Only honest dialogue leads to sharing power through negotiation, problem solving and feeling like a team with your partner.

Read more on my website on the relationship page.

Couples Fighting & the Movie Before Midnight

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This movie offers a glimpse of real life in the fighting between Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy after 20 years of being together. In the first 6 to 9 years there is a lot of catering that goes on in the name of love. Then the illusions fall off & there is more work that goes into the true infrastructure of respecting the differences.

Fighting is a part of any authentic relationship after 6 years because the differences start to bang into each other. Only in the beginning is love all about the mushiness of being clones & catering. Then developmentally there comes a time where you bail to stay in the mush with someone else or you do the hard work of learning to meet in the middle.

I was in a master class at Chautauqua with the author Margaret Atwood (7/24) and she talked about the problems of life being in the extremes & how important the middle is….it made me smile to be validated by someone I so admire.

Ethan Hawke is a writer & lives in Paris to make his partner happy. The movie opens with him in an airport, saying goodbye to his son who lives in Chicago. He is clearly suffering with the pain of not living in the same country as his son. He begins to wonder about moving back to be near by which is a normal thing to wonder about….

Unfortunately his partner is completely ordinary & reacts with tons of defensiveness when he brings up the possibility. She has been offered a new job that scares her but she finds herself upset with even the idea the job could be yanked out from under her.

This is what happens in real life. We are so quick to react defensively that we erase any opportunity to meet in the middle to explore ideas and we don’t hear each other out. She is threatened by the idea & shuts down the conversation; this is what people do.

It’s as if only one person can be heard because only one person can win.

Couples are too often caught in the trap of: it’s either you or me. Dialogue where each person shares their truth is very rare. Truth can’t be hoarded until you feel entitled to one giant ugly dump.

In the movie the hurt & pain linger in the air between them….it is so palpable & burdensome that words are extinguished. The conversation stops because someone walks out or someone is absent emotionally. This is the norm with arguments because energy is closed off not open.

The movie demonstrates exactly what is required to continue the conversation after the uglies. He finds her sitting at an outdoor table & she hardens at his approach.They begin to talk & you watch her begin to melt her defenses & open up.

It’s this very crucial moment of softening that is exactly what restores hope the relationship will survive after all. So when you find yourself crossing your arms in defensiveness, thinking & saying ugly hurtful things try really hard to find your ability to soften up to hear another point of view.

It’s so easy to harden yourself against someone who loves you simply because you don’t like what they’re saying because you are determined to stay right & not be vulnerable. A couples therapist tries to wiggle into that softening & vulnerability at every opportunity. There is always merit to both points of view which can clearly be seen in the movie.

The extremes of hardening or constant submissiveness are what defeats longevity in relationships. Ethan Hawke says “I just want to talk about it.” She shuts him down “She’ll never give you 50% custody & it’s not worth the move to only have every other weekend.” Instead she could be courageous & vulnerable by saying “I don’t believe it’s worth it because it scares me to lose my new job.” If she owned her fears the conversation could continue.

RELATIONSHIPS: One Simple Step to Improve Them Part 1

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Relationships are the most important part of our life and improving them matters. Making just one simple change could make a huge difference.

When something bothers you our first instinct is to avoid & deflect talking about it in all our relationships. Then in our silence our self-righteousness grows. Then as time goes by we feel grumpier & grumpier about it until we feel entitled to do a GIANT dump of our inner monologue on the other person…..who usually acts very defensively.

There are usually two characteristics about the dump that happens in relationships:

1. It takes the other person by surprise

2. It is filled with “You did this” and “You did this” and “You did this”.

This is a typical pattern of most adults and it is poisonous to relationships.

Relationships are not about the magic of a love affair (Though we may long for that). Relationships are all about the work of effective communication.

So one way to work at better communication is to edit out most of the “you” statements. One example: “You never appreciate me” is part of a dump that gets ignored & is defended against.

Instead try saying “I’m not feeling appreciated. I recognize I might be unreasonable about this sometimes because ……..” This is more of an invitation to the other to really listen.

We all get easily drunk with a love for the easiness of blame. It’s like downing mint juleps on the porch on a hot summer day. It’s a whole lot more satisfying in relationships to focus on how it’s the other person’s fault.

We ignore figuring out the want or hurt buried underneath the anger that we are responsible for sharing. So in our relationships we defend ourselves with a big pile of “You did this” and “You did that”. It’s really all about you when you attack by saying “You” “You” “You”. Using “I” statements instead requires a whole lot more self-awareness.

In our relationships it is our job to communicate our needs and to make ourselves understood. This requires greater openness & the strength of vulnerability. Defending ourselves is such a knee jerk habit it can be hard to change.

Dumping can take a huge toll on the other person. They may even give up trying to make themselves understood in relationships. Making “I” statements leaves more breathing room for the possibility of dialogue.

Dialogue is a very rare commodity in any relationships these days. It will be a real effort to interrupt the “You” statements. Yet one change could make a huge impact.

(PS My weekly blogs have not been consistent because I’m working on a book for kids about anxiety.)

Boundaries are about Respect in Relationships

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What are boundaries? Boundaries are communications in relationships about what’s not ok & what’s ok. I tell people when they see my vast library at home, “I don’t lend my books. I would rather buy you one than risk never seeing my book again.” That communicates a boundary.

The boundaries that are most often shared are about what you don’t want.

Because people are so full of avoidance,  often boundaries are not communicated until people are really angry. Usually they have waited too long & suppressed how they really feel. Boundaries are really important because it is a way to demonstrate respect.

Often parents feel very entitled to ignore boundaries. They believe that If you love me, then I should just be able to show up on your doorstep & be welcomed. They don’t want to hear the ordinary boundary “Please call & let us know you are coming.”

Someone I know wrote a terrific letter to his parents. He has been a people pleaser which means he has not been authentic for his entire life. He is healing & working very hard to get mentally healthy. So part of his progress is to write to his parents & be more real about boundaries.

He gave his permission to share the letter he worked so hard on which asks for greater respect for his decisions different from his parent’s expectations:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I love you both and I know you love me. All of my life both of you have always told and shown me love and caring. You provided me with a college education, a wonderful home, full of memories, laughs and amazing food.  No matter what, I could and can, always count on you to be there for me.

I never want that to change. Both of you brought me up to show you respect and love for family, which I do. You are great people and great parents and I hope that the rest of this letter will help you to see the son you raised is now a man and how things have to change.

I am a man capable of making choices for my life and future. I began lying as early as six years old and people pleasing even before then. People pleasing means I lie to make you happy. I cared more about catering to you. By not being real to myself. I erased my feelings.

That is what I have done all of my life, always worrying about appeasing others and neglecting myself and my feelings. This enables both of you to have control over me, because I would always go along with what you would say or feel, for fear of making you upset with me.

Now, I am changing this about me. Now I’m more honest with myself and now I am trying to be honest with both of you. Lately I feel sad and angry with our relationship. Our communication is extremely poor. Recently, I have tried to communicate in a hearable way and I was treated the same way that I have always been.

I took a small reasonable boundary requesting a phone call notifying me when you would be coming over to my house and both of you played the victim and turned this boundary around as though I never wanted you to visit again. Boundaries are reasonable and you acted as if they are unreasonable.

Another example is telling me I should not live in limbo in regards to the state of my marriage. That is not respectful. I get to make my own choices even if you don’t like it.

Another example, you need to stop blaming my wife for all of the problems in my marriage. I contributed 85% to our problems.

She has loved me enough to be honest with me and I am doing the same with her. Both of us will take as long as we feel is necessary to decide our future. Those are examples of things that violate boundaries. It has always been difficult to voice what my real feelings are.

Relationships without boundaries lack respect.Boundaries mean respect to me. Even if you have felt that you have respected me or the boundaries above, I have not felt that. I understand that you treat me the way that you do because you love me, you want me to be happy and you want me safe.

This is what I need to be happy. I need to feel respected and heard. Long term boundaries make all relationships work better. I love you both; your son

It’s Easier to be Self-Righteous When You Avoid Communication

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The longer you can go without input from someone else, the easier it is to convince yourself that your point of view is the only one that really matters. We all love nurturing our own beliefs.

We go over & over & over something that bothers us and slowly build up greater certainty over time that we are right. Who wants the messiness of another point of view?

Communication requires work. Communication requires vulnerability. Communication requires the complicatedness of incorporating at least 2 points of view.

Self righteousness is all about maintaining one point of view. Self Righteousness is all about being impervious. Self righteousness is black & white and therefore simple.

It’s easier to be self-righteous when texting. It’s easier to be self-righteous and not answer the phone. Who wants the uncertainty & confusion of listening to someone else?

Oh, how we love to hoard our own ideas about what happened. Often in therapy I make suggestions of another possibility or way to look at something. Therapy is not about the self-indulgence of being self-righteous. (Most people have friends who can help out with that.)

Communication is a risk. You are opening yourself up to understanding things in a different way.

Communication that has depth over time means it’s possible to influence someone else or to be influenced by someone else. This is why I miss doing group therapy. Groups offer so much more in healing because of the quality of communication. The possibilities for new connections to yourself & others are powerful forces. People in groups share a humbleness about life’s struggles.

My experience in real communication is that there is often humbleness because there is vulnerability.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned that most couples have what I call parallel monologues instead of true dialogue. A monologue is a way to be self-righteous, it’s how to maintain the status quo in your head. “I love it when I can do both sides of the conversation because then I’m sure to be right!”

Self righteous dumps are frequent in relationships. “I’m not going to give you the respect of asking what happened, I’m going to enjoy the deliciousness of assuming I know instead. Then I’ll just blow you away with all my hoarded, distorted truths so you feel bad and don’t bother me anymore.”

Communication combined with openness & vulnerability can add so much depth to every relationship, if you are willing to make the time for it.