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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

How to Be Less Defensive

The trait we should perhaps be keenest to vanquish in any attempt to become that most elusive but most commendable of beings, a proper emotional grown up, is defensiveness – a pattern of response that lies behind more broken relationships, distraught families and dysfunctional workplaces than any other.

What defines the defensive person is their recourse to demoralising aggression, denial and irritation in the face of any unwelcome pieces of information about their character or habits. Sometimes, what we are trying to tell them will be discounted on the basis that we ourselves are not, in all areas, invariably without fault – and therefore that we have no right to try to improve anyone else (neatly missing that we only ever have insight into the fragilities of others because we are not personally beyond reproach). Or else our remarks will be undermined by a cynicism as to our motives: we might be told that we are only saying something because we are jealous or sexually threatened or inadequate or have a pre-existing bias against a certain race, class, or gender, anything other than the more troubling notion that we might be trying to share an insight because we care.

Medieval drawing of jousting warriors on horseback.

Alternatively, our analysis might be shredded with an appeal to an imagined arbiter or judge who, though not in the room, would adjudicate matters from a very different and far wiser standpoint. Without time for opinion polls or interviews, we are told that: ‘Your friends wouldn’t agree…’ ‘Your mother doesn’t think so…’ Or more grandly and definitely, that: ‘no one thinks that way nowadays…’

Then, if the mood grows yet more tense, we might be told that we are unkind for speaking as we have: ‘after all I’ve done for you…’ ‘when I’ve been so nice all weekend…’ ‘when I nursed you through your cold…’ There might be an appeal to etiquette: the point that’s being made might well be interesting. In theory, the person we are speaking is open to it, but they won’t explore it now because the way that it’s been phrased is too ‘rude’, ‘hostile’ or overly agitated (and won’t be considered until, and unless, we have calmed down, a rule with an exceptional power to excite us all over again). Lastly, to ensure that any chance of dialogue can properly be terminated, we may be buttressed into silence by the hammer of weakness:  ‘I’m too upset to hear any more of this…’ ‘You’re going to give me a heart attack if we continue…’

To work our way out of the cul-de-sac, we need to start with an understanding of the true cause and underlying fuel of defensiveness, namely, self-ignorance. We flare up in response to the comments of others because we are operating, deep down, with an unclear picture of who we are. We are angry because we have no reliable map of our virtues and vices, because we are oscillating between a brittle faith in our accomplishments and a bleak terror of our flaws. 

The self-aware person has overcome any such uncertainty. They will long ago have exchanged perfectionism and self-loathing for a more stable and judicious assessment of their natures, as much in their positive as in their negative dimensions. They will have gone around their minds at their own pace, without the intimidating presence of an angry partner or accusatory colleague and made a proper audit of their psyches. And there will as a result be nothing that their worst enemy can tell them that they have not – with realism – either bravely taken on board or serenely rejected already.

Some of what they have recognised will be truly sombre: yes, they really are quite silly. Unfortunately, they truly are very bad in bed. Lamentably, they haven’t necessarily been a good parent. Horrifically, they have aged a lot… But these ideas are now well-known, they have been raked over and digested, there isn’t any need to insist spitefully or nervously on their opposites. 

At the same time, self-knowledge sets useful limits on how much we need to despise ourselves. The self-aware explorer will recognise that they are imperfect in so many ways, but they will also know that they genuinely aren’t wholly monstrous either; they truly have never set out to harm anyone, they don’t want to triumph over their enemies, they sincerely have no interest in undermining their friends, they have never stolen anything…

We will be past defensiveness when every nagging insecurity that we had previously banished to the periphery of consciousness has been pulled squarely into the centre and there examined and defused; when we have considered every harrowing possibility: that we are indeed a poor friend, a dismal worker, a narrow-minded traveller – and overall a thoroughly shortsighted and dimwitted human. Thereafter, we might hear much that is negative but we’ll never need to bite in response to a remark, because either it will be false, and therefore can be discarded without fluster. Or else it will be true, and we’ll be able to remain even-tempered because we’ll be as aware as our angriest opponent of its justice and validity. We’ll know who we are – and so will never need to greet a challenging idea about us with weapons again.

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