why am i so defensive?
Taking things personally is my spiritual gift. It doesn’t take much to “activate” my special ability. A driver cuts me off in traffic; I flinch in indignation. Someone doesn’t notice what I do; I take it as rejection.
The circumstances vary, but my reaction is predictable. I feel/perceive a relational pinch, identify it as a threat, then launch one of my defensive postures. It’s all very seamless and takes mere nanoseconds to dive into it. It takes longer, however, to come out of it.
I’d like to think that my defensiveness is all internal and hidden to the outside observer. But I am told that it shows. My body goes stiff, I get quiet and cold. If I do talk, I give some tortured explanation or veiled blaming. If I don’t talk, I retreat into silence mumbling, “I’m fine.”
Here’s an example.
Let’s say my wife innocently asks, “Why are you late?”
Bile rises up my neck, pupils narrow. I might say something helpful like, “Well, you were late yesterday.” The conversation flows from there.
“Okay, I was just wondering…”
“It takes a lot to get out of the office, you know.”
“Okay, I was just…”
“Hey, I’m here now, aren’t I?”
And thus starts another blissful evening at home. It happens so fast, I don’t always know how I got there, but I know that I feel lousy. Why did I get all flustered, I wonder? Over being asked about being late? Confused and in denial, I try to regain equilibrium.
“Tell me about your day.” I’m trying to recover by changing tone, but this usually results in an awkward silence.
I might try to get a little distance and reorganize my closet. Still awkward.
I’m scrambling. Almost always, I end up in my head, trying to mentally fix it.
– Blame: “I wasn’t that late. Why can’t she just accept things?”
– Quick fix: “I’ll just be always on time.”
– Change the Subject Schemes: “How ‘bout a movie?”
– Evasive maneuver: “I need to go to the store tonight.”
You see the pattern. I feel that pinch, I identify it as a threat, then on to my defensive tactics until I retain equilibrium. It’s activated in seconds, but could take hours to reset and by then the damage is done. I have a hard time accepting responsibility for it. The “threat” feels so real, something did pinch me. I’m merely trying to deal with it, aren’t I? I mean, I wasn’t trying to be defensive.
But, honestly that “threatened feeling’” is latent within me all the time, waiting for some situation to activate it. Which is to say, I carry the insecurity with me. Which is to say, “I’m insecure.” Okay, there, I said it. But why? Why am I so insecure that even small pinches active such reactions?
Biblically, the answer is this: I am insecure, because I am naked, naked and cast into a world of thorns and thistles.
Seen like this, it makes a kind of crude sense that I am continually nervous. Threats are all about. Anything might cut or even lacerate my vulnerabilities, so I hide them behind the various fig leaves of defensive tactics. I am like Adam, who said, “I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.”
I carry a sense of fear because I am vulnerable to what the world can do to me. Threats all about, and here I am: a bundle of vulnerabilities. I can be hurt. I can be disrespected. I can fail. I can lose someone. (If you don’t learn this early, you will in middle school.) At any moment I can be shown that I am not what I think I am.
Yes, there are threats all about. Most of them are small, like a driver cutting me off or a spouse asking a question. But there are big ones too. Say a pandemic. It comes along and exposes my greater depths of vulnerability. I can get sick, lose my job, or die. COVID exposes vulnerabilities in a life and death kind of way. Now, this virus is just one specific way that my vulnerability is exposed. Now, this virus is just the current threat, but my vulnerability has always been around. My vulnerability, though I try to pretend otherwise, is a fact of life.
Currently, I look warily at others from six feet apart and wonder if they could pass a virus to me. But I have been socially distancing for years. Currently, I wear PPE, but I have been wearing a mask for years. I’ve always been wary of people both because they may come too close, yet also because they may go too far away. I am afraid of being seen; I am afraid of not being seen. I am afraid, because I am naked… and so I hide.
I want to re-wire my spiritual gift so that I take God’s grace personally. When God asks me, “Where are you?” I want to hear that question as God’s loving pursuit of me. He wants to find me, not so He can expose me, but so He can cover me.
If I believed I was covered with God’s grace, maybe I could exhibit more sanity on the highway. That’d be a contribution. Maybe I could do good without having to have recognition. Maybe I could listen to a different political point of view without getting angry. Maybe I could even answer my wife’s questions.
Maybe I could be a sort of good infection in this frightened world.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both 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 a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean; they have seven children and nine grandchildren.