2 min read

On Defensiveness

If we are to grant words any power at all, must they also have the power to wound? It is tempting to declaw them, to cater to the union of my aversion to pain and my self knowledge, to give them only the power to do what feels right in the moment. Even if such a thing could be done, I am dubious about the attempt. It's not from some aesthetic principle, "balance in all things", so much as a pragmatic one: that which cannot be touched cannot be changed.

So often it seems the parts we most deeply want to change are the very same ones we work so hard to hide. Which is to say defensiveness is a lie. It is an envelope marked "Do not open" with a plea inside: see me.

And yet when I encounter defensiveness in another I am fool to rush in, "Don't you see? Don't you see?" before I wait and listen. In my eagerness I forget how to trust that my turn will come. That hearing someone first does not mean my perspective will be passed over. Perhaps, for me, therein lies the wound. Defensive words might introduce an authority I cannot challenge, or dismiss the validity of my question, and I fear I will not be heard.

Why does it break my heart when someone becomes defensive in conversation? The obvious answer is that it feels like an abandonment. But I think there's more to it. It's the feeling of talking but not communicating, of trying to paddle upriver towards shared understanding, and drifting backwards. It's the realization that words don't always work, and that invitations to connect may go declined, or even unreceived.

And usually it's all of these things happening inside of a context which is not explicitly recognized. It seems like the nature of defensiveness is a failure to be open to the experience of the other. And haven't we all been there, know what it's like, even find it perfectly reasonable in the moment? Someone says something which hurts, and we close up around it.

So who do we trust to let through long enough to see those sensitivities which, in the moment at least, we'd much rather leave unperturbed (read: be blind to)? Who do we bring in to the process of our becoming?

I don't know. I'd say a therapist is a good start, but even a trained professional can be hit or miss. Not to mention the people in our lives who take it upon themselves to change us.

Yet if I am to grow I must try, risk being hurt, and learn. Only after I pass through the little deaths of the ego will I find what I've been looking for.