I’ve noticed that I can be defensive. A little. Just sometimes. Mostly, I feel that I am really nice – given the circumstances. But yes, sometimes I can be a wee bit touchy.
Like the other day, I was doing push-ups in the living room. My wife, who I thought would be impressed, suggested helpfully from her chair, “Do you realize that you’re only moving up and down a few inches?”
“Oh really…” I said.
“Yes, I think a push-up is supposed to get nearer the floor.” That’s what she said. What I heard was, ‘a real (man’s) push-up is supposed to…’
“Like this,” I said, doing one very deep, nose-close-to-the-floor rep. (I guess I showed her)
“Yeah, like that,” she said cheerfully, going back to her book.
When my arms stopped wobbling from the one push-up, I decided to finish my workout in a different room. And there it is: my ‘Option #1, Go-To-Defense-Mechanism: Distance.’ If there is danger here, I will go over there. If I can’t go there physically, I will go there emotionally. Rather than a push-up, I pull-in. The decision was reflexive and automatic. I was in the other room without even realizing that I had made a choice to leave.
But I still didn’t feel safe. So, while ostensibly doing planks, I exercised my ‘Option #2, Go-To-Defensive-Mechanism: Pretend Conversations (in which I win.) These are mental conversations where I convincingly come out on top. ‘Well, I’d like to see you do a push-up…a real push-up.’ ”I don’t criticize your work outs.’ Or, ‘Why do I even bother?’ I can go on on and on like that, until I feel better about myself. But honestly, feeling better about myself rarely happens. What really happens is that I then feel guilty for my overreaction and embarrassed for my cowardice. And the initial hurt feelings are still there.
“Are you alright?” I hear from the living room.
“Fine,” I reply, breathing heavily. I am lying, of course. I am not ‘fine.’
But I want to pretend that I am. I feel even more like hiding – so I interrupt my workout for a snack – which defeats the purpose of the workout. This is not going well, I think, munching the chips. Ironic, the more I try to feel better about myself, the worse it gets. Round and round the cycle goes.
So this brings us back to the original question: why am I so defensive? Why can’t I hear a little constructive criticism and simply benefit from it? Or if I feel a little hurt – why can’t I just say something productive? Why choose this defensive cycle?
Here’s why. Deep down, I believe that my worth is up to me. I carry the burden of earning worth by performing well (i.e. a proper push-up). I try to convince myself that I can actually perform well enough. But the strategy is a house of cards – an illusion for two reasons. First, I don’t perform all that well anyway. But secondly and more importantly: you can’t ‘earn’ worth. It comes from being loved, it is therefore a gift and can’t be earned.
Inevitably, someone gets close enough to see something askew. They might breathe a little constructive criticism against my house of cards and I get really nervous. Intuitively, I know how fragile my self-worth actually is. So my nervousness turns into defensiveness. My defensiveness is not so much about the definition of a proper push-up; it is about the real definition of self-worth. I am reflexively defensive because I am desperately afraid; my strategy is being exposed as an illusion.
The only way to break my defensive cycle is to build my worth on something more solid. I have to build my house on the rock of God’s love. My worth is a gift, because He chooses to love me. So when people breathe a few words against my house – I can take it. If their words are helpful – then I can be helped. If they are hurtful, then I can respond healthily.
But I don’t have to panic, because the One who holds me up doesn’t have wobbly arms.
Roger Edwards is a counselor at The Barnabas Center (1991-present). He works with both with individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is married to Jean and they have seven children and nine grandchildren.