Yesterday, I talked about a fundamental principle that I try to employ as much as possible when I face questions about who I am and how I am in the world. I was inspired to share that “assume right intention” principle because a blog reader recently wrote with this question, “Have you ever written about being defensive? I find myself reacting defensively in my personal relationships and have no clue why I go “there” so fast… “Snapping” back if you will :/ something I would like to and need to work through but don’t know where to start?!”
Defensiveness. I wish I could say that I’ve never gone there. But I have. And the interesting thing is, like the blog reader who asked the question, I don’t ever really go there in my extended life. I mostly get defensive in close relationships; not the ones that are less familiar. I guess that’s because I figure who cares what Joe Bob thinks when I don’t see Joe Bob all that much. But I do care what, let’s say, my mom thinks and so it’s more natural to get defensive there because there is a daily relationship banking on whether or not I feel how I am in the world is understood and respected. So, here it is, my approach to trying to work through my own defensiveness in a way that keeps my relationships sound and me sane.
1. Assume right intention.
First and foremost, I try to give the closest people in my life the same benefit of the doubt that I extend to strangers. I mean, they are naturally in my life (they are my parents, my siblings, etc.) or they have chosen to be in my life (my partner, my BFFs, etc) for a reason and so, clearly, for the most part, they are down with the things I do and the way in which I do them. So maybe, just maybe their observations are more observational than they sound and feel to me (Maybe when they say, “that’s an interesting way to do that” that is really all they are saying). Maybe they are just noticing how I am doing things or gently trying to tease to build rapport and not begin as awfully judgy, judgy as I think they are. And, so, I try as much as I can, to start by assuming right intention.
2. Take a moment before you react.
But, then, sometimes, it just sticks in your craw and you are certain that how you think you heard them is totally how they meant to sound and, well, it just peeves you. In those cases, I encourage you not to do what I did the other day when a close person in my life called and started the conversation with an awfully judge and bossy observation. What I did was got ticked, said “I’ll call you back,” and hung up. Or, maybe, actually, that is exactly what I want you to do but a little less reactively than I did. You see, if I had just taken a moment and breathed two or seven times, I probably could have said something more mature like, “What do you think we should do here?” or “Let me think about that and I’ll call you back.” But it is the relationship in my life that feels the most bossy and frustrating at times (and the easiest at others, oh the irony) and so I just knew I had to get off the phone or I was going to blow but I kinda blew while getting off the phone– it would have been much better to not blow until I’d hit the off button on the phone. Next time, my aim will be to take my moment of silence in less dramatic fashion (perhaps I can say, “let me change phones” or “Happy needs me, let me call you back” or anything that makes my sheer annoyance less obvious), and I am encouraging you to do that same. When I do take a moment of silence (and I am terribly comfortable with silent pauses as I find them to be a really effective teaching method), I always find that I get my center and graciousness back and don’t act like such a little firecracker. So, take a moment. It will serve you and the situation well. And do as I say with this one, not so much what I do.
3. Practice offense.
Practicing offense is the strategy I resort to the MOST often. I call people who might not be inclined to be okay with my decisions, and I let them know about them beforehand and share why it is that I need their support in this situation. Then they know how valuable they are in my life and how much I need them and don’t want to judge me, they want to help me. I also am the first person to make jokes about my quirks or to announce that my quirks are about to affect more than me. Most people just want to be informed and not caught off guard. They want to be honored, respected, appreciated, and validated. So, I’ll own up to my quirks that I am about to force on others. For example, every year (when my addled brain can remember) I have family members write little “I wish for you” notes to Happy on his birthday. It is dorky, I know, but I do it, and I start by reminding BF (who ABHORDS this type of thing) that “you know I am going to have to bring out all the paper and have everyone write a note for Happy because that is my sort of crazy” Then, it’s not a surprise and if he teases me about it, whatever, because I am capable of teasing me, too. So play offense, a lot. It diffuses what other people have to say and the snarky way in which they might say it.
4. If all else fails, create boundaries. I have talked before about how it is important to teach people how to treat you, but I can’t stress it enough. You have to create boundaries. Every boundary I have ever created served me well, even the ones that I perhaps didn’t do with as much grace.
Case in point, when I was in college, I was in charge of booking and bringing bands to campus Once, for our big winter concert, it started to sleet during load in. The band’s manager was noticeably stressed about their thousands of dollars of equipment being carried in dire conditions (what if one of our volunteers slipped and fell and broke an instrument or an amp?) and was verbally abusive to everyone, as if that might somehow motivate them to be even more careful with the equipment (and, trust me, everyone was being super careful).
As someone who cared deeply that her volunteers were respected, I was infuriated. But I was a good girl and I didn’t “do” mad. So I politely asked the manager, again and again, to show my volunteers some respect and assured him that they were all being extremely careful and professional in a bad situation. He wouldn’t let up. And, well, I finally just snapped. I think it was the first time in my life that I ever snapped. After one more catty remark said literally behind my back as I was walking to get more equipment, I spun around, marched up to him, got eye to eye, put my hands on my hips and hissed, “When we show you that we are f-ing incompetent, you can treat us like we are f-ing incompetent, until then, you will back off and treat every single one of us in green t-shirts (our event staff shirts) with respect. Are we clear?” His mouth literally gaped open. It was, perhaps, the most fully possessed of my power I had ever been at that point. It was also only the 2nd and 3rd time I had ever said the F word, just to make the point of how out of context this particular boundary setting moment was. And he apologized and changed his attitude. It was like a whole new man appeared once I told him clearly how he was going to treat us.
Now, in general, I don’t think you should wait to set your boundary at the point when you are ready to explode. I also don’t think you should F Bomb your way through your boundary setting. But I do know that every single time I have set a boundary (and enforced it which is perhaps harder than the setting of the boundary), it has worked. Every semester, I have my students write down the comments they sometimes hear from friends and family about their lives and/or bodies and then come up with responses. I have them practice those responses right then and encourage them to keep practicing them so that when the time comes and Aunt Sue makes her comment, “I just don’t know any woman your age who would be happy without a husband the way you say you are”, you are ready to say, “Aunt Sue, partners don’t make women happy. Women make themselves happy,” without skipping a beat. So, today, take a few minutes to write down the things that are said to you that drive you bonkers. What boundary can you set to let people know the conversation is a non-starter? And then practice that response so you are ready when the time comes.
Do you get defensive in your life? If so, who and what work you up? How do you handle your defensiveness? What advice do you have for others? In what ways have you set boundaries?
Image is from The Love Yourself Challenge.