In the classic comedy, What About Bob, there is a funny scene in which Bob, a chronically anxious patient played by Bill Murray, takes a bus to New Hampshire to find Dr. Marvin, a psychiatrist played by Richard Dreyfus.
When Bob arrives in New Hampshire, he manages to find Dr. Marvin by pure chance at a local store. Dr. Marvin is shocked and frustrated upon seeing him. Bob senses that he is upset and says “you’re angry.”
Dr. Marvin expresses in a somewhat defensive way, “I don’t get angry.”
“I don’t get upset.”
I’ve always found this scene humorous for a number of reasons. Mostly because this psychiatrist who is supposed to be trained in human behavior, isn’t sharp enough to see or admit when he is beginning to feel worked up and defensive.
But I’ve realized how we all are a bit like this… somewhat blind to the obvious emotional changes happening in us. Others often see these things in us before we do. Sometimes, like in this situation, they try to tell us that we’re becoming worked up. We may deny it defensively. How can we be so unaware? It seems to be because the changes in us happen gradually.
We’ve all heard the metaphor of the frog that sits in water until it slowly reaches a boil. In a way, this describes how we can be in our defensiveness. By the time our heated emotions become apparent to us, they have already been evolving for some time. Our first indication that we’re worked up is when we find ourselves wanting to punch a hole in the wall.
A large part of that battle for us is to simply learn what it is that triggers our defensiveness, and to notice when it has been triggered. This will drastically reduce our chances of doing damage to our relationships in the heat of the moment.
Maybe you start to become defensive when you feel you aren’t being listened to. Maybe it’s when you feel disrespected. Maybe it’s when somebody around you, either at work or at home, treats you in such a way that reminds you of a poor way you used to be treated a long time ago, even though there may be no threat present.
And, once your defensiveness has been triggered, there may be certain ways you start to respond. You may become short and snippy. You might respond sarcastically. Perhaps you form a nervous twitch or you shuffle your feet anxiously. Whatever it is, it’s good to notice what is happening as soon as possible, because this is the sign that your proverbial pot of water is reaching a boil.
It would be a very good practice for you to write down your list of defensive reactions and keep that list handy so that you train yourself to start looking for those reactions in your day-to-day life. And if you really want to make some large strides, then here’s an even more daring Idea that I recommend: ask some people who know you well to tell you how you act when you become defensive. Allowing them to have this type of input and influence will serve two purposes. 1. It will help you overcome your resistance to hearing criticism from others, and 2. It will provide you with some valuable information about yourself.
The next step is; learning what to do with that valuable information. Notice those defensive reactions when they start happening, and form a plan of action. This would be a good time to practice some self-soothing techniques, to help bring you to an overall state of calmness and being less likely to act out of defensiveness.
Turn on your favorite classical album and listen to it through headphones. Take a five minute break to meditate and focus on your breathing. Do some physical exercises that give you a healthy distraction and help you re-center your mind on a positive focus. Taking these small intentional actions during crucial moments can have the most amazing, noticeable results.
For more on defensiveness, click HERE: