Battling defensiveness

There’s been a minor car parking issue in our street of late, where some of our neighbours have had some alternate views to that of me and my housemates. Whilst the current Ballina Shire Council regulations regarding 45 degree angle parking in residential streets is somewhat fascinating when it concerns your own Mazda 2, what is more interesting is how the people have been reacting. Myself included.

Almost automatically, I became pretty defensive about the whole thing.

We all get defensive in different ways to different things. Some of us may be triggered by particular things and emotionally over-respond when it comes to specific areas such as our religion or appearance. For some of us, it might have to do with aspects of our sense of self, like when we feel challenged or threatened by perceived criticism.

Most of us have probably experienced some form of defensiveness in our close relationships. If we’re not defensive, then we interact with people who are. It can be like the relational disease that has the power to imprison and destroy intimacy. It can prevent love and connection between partners and friends. And neighbours.

Defensiveness refers to a situation where we are feeling personally attacked. It is usually some aspect of our sense of self that is being attacked. When we are feeling attacked by another person, the alleged attacker may deny the attack; and an observer may or may not see the attack. In other words, often we may feel attacked when there is no attack intended.  The sense of being attacked may originate within oneself.  When we defend ourselves against a felt or perceived attack rather than a “real” attack we become defensive. We are protecting our sense of self.

One of my favourite definitions comes from the  author Sharon Ellison: to be defensive is to react with "a war mentality to a non-war issue." In other words, defensiveness is often an impulsive and reactive mode of responding to a situation or conversation. Rather than listening with an open heart, we respond with our metaphorical shields up and weapons drawn.

And these signals of ‘war’ come about when we witness defensiveness in action.

When our neighbour bought the parking issue to my attention, there were a number of things I did pretty automatically:

  • The voice in my head runs through a list of reasons why negative feedback isn’t true.
  • I began talking quickly and run through a series of points without taking a breath.
  • I pretty much stopped listening to what my neighbour had to say.
  • I found a lot of justifications for the situation that may have had something or nothing to do with the actual situation.
  • I used the word ‘but’.
  • I crossed my arms and closed my body off to my neighbour.
  • And eventually, I submitted to smiling and nodding in the hopes that he would stop.

Being defensive is a sign that we’re in fight or flight mode, and it’s not often a place where we can accomplish anything constructive. Defensiveness battle mode also sends terrible signals. When we indulge in it, we’re likely to be seen as insecure, closed-minded and overly emotional. None of these labels is usually going to help us be successful or build stronger relationships.

We’ve made some minor adjustments to our parking out on the street. But not many. We still sort of reckon we’re right. The big learning for me was about being more aware of my own defensiveness signals so I can nip these combative reactions in the bud. It’s suggested that defensiveness can be suppressed with deep breaths, with listening and curiosity, and with demonstrations of accountability and willingness to learn.

And maybe with less meddlesome neighbours.

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