Defensiveness is the good intention of correcting others’ mistaken method of problem solving.
It’s a good intention to straighten others’ out, but only makes things worse. We are not responsible for straightening out others. All the bitter defensiveness and exaggerated hostility is a big smokescreen to fight a perceived threat. Our defenses are building a protective wall around our heart, so we can seal off our emotional pain by lashing out in attack.
What can we do Instead of invalidating our loved ones anger? We must, first of all, disengage from their antagonism, their hollering and screaming, name-calling and sarcasm, or sulking and pouting. We must take away the power to provoke us into overreacting, defending, protesting, denying and so on.
When we take things personally we plead our case to defend ourself against someone’s false accusations. Our mistake is to take these accusations literally, personally, and serious. When we do, we make the mistake of choosing to plead our case in an imaginary court of law with a judge and jury of one. We make the mistake of defending our innocence to avoid being convicted as guilty and deserving punishment.
Instead of reacting emotionally on their terms, we can choose to respond appropriately on our terms. We can choose not to take their hurtful behavior personally, as if it were a reflection on our worth as a person. Our antidote to taking it personally is our self respect, which we define as the feeling that we are a worthwhile human being in spite of our faults and imperfections. Even if their anger at us is entirely justified, we require no defense.
Their anger and antagonistic behavior has a subtext to it. There is a covert and implied message saying that our imperfection has caused them pain. They are trusting us to relieve their painful problem as we would comfort someone with a broken arm. They do not expect us to solve their anger problem perfectly, but they do not expect us to make it worse!
We must also disengage from our own antagonism- our predisposition to invalidate others feelings . We can catch ourselves saying meaningless, well-intentioned platitudes such as, “Don’t be angry, he didn’t mean it,” or “You have no right to be angry at me.” We cannot relieve their anger if we forbid them to experience it.
After we have disengaged from their antagonism and our own, we can choose to say something empathic and reassuring. Here are some interventions:
1. “You must be very angry.”
They may say, “I am not angry.” This is called denial. We do not debate with them about the truth of these defensive retorts. “I hope you aren’t” (agreeing with them), “because anger is a very painful emotion. But if you want to talk about it, I’ll listen.”
We are standing our ground, letting them know that we have no intention of forcing our emotional first aid upon them. We are not deceived by their denial or distracted by it. The issue here is not the name of their emotion. We know what we know. We are not required to force this knowledge down their throat. We do not say, “Yes, you are angry! Admit it!” The issue is that we are prepared to cooperate with them in an atmosphere of mutual respect if they are interested.
2. “You sound very angry. Did anything happen to make you angry?” Or, “What happened to make you so angry?” This intervention has the advantage of skipping the issue of emotions and focusing on the precipitating factors that caused it. It offers an invitation to get relief by verbalizing the event in a non-threatening, non-judgmental context. The issue is not who is right or wrong, the issue is their painful anger which needs to be drained and cleaned so the wound can heal properly.
3. “That must have made you very angry. I’d be angry if that happened to me.” By using the word “anger,” in our intervention, we are giving his out-of-control emotion a handle they can grasp. We are also giving them tacit permission to experience the emotion that they are experiencing. We are not trying to deny it out of existence, just because we dislike having to deal with unpleasant situations.