By Adam J. Pearson
I recently noticed something fascinating about fear and defensiveness:
Other people’s judgments of me can only hurt if they connect with a secret fear I have that I am what they are judging me to be, that they are right.
For example, if someone were to tell me that I don’t know how to cook when I knew that I cooked fairly well, then it wouldn’t phase me. I wouldn’t feel hurt and I wouldn’t get defensive. I’d likely laugh it off. In contrast, however, if someone were to tell me that I’m too angry when I was afraid that I am too angry, then I would likely feel hurt and get defensive as a result. Why? Because they are pointing my attention directly at an aspect of myself that I would rather not see. If I had dissociated and projected this disowned quality in me onto others, then I’d be even more likely to get emotionally triggered by their comment and lash out with something ironic like “No, you’re the angry one, not me!” Because yelling that I’m not angry doesn’t make me look angry at all…
Here’s the thing about defensiveness, though: Defensiveness is the first act of war (Katie, 2002). As such, it invites counterattack. By getting swept up in a conflict, we get to temporarily avoid looking at this thing in us that we are afraid to face. By blaming the other person, we get to temporarily deny the shame in us. Until the next time the shame gets triggered, that is. And it will continue to get triggered until we look at it and inquire into the stories about ourselves that drive it. Our psychological system is set up for us to choose healing and integration eventually, or just keep playing out the patterns until we do. In this sense, contrary to the suffering-generating machines that they seem to be, our minds are quite beneficent.
The practical implication of these dynamics is that, generally speaking, whenever I get defensive, it’s a reliable sign that the other person has said something that I’m afraid is true, something that connects with a story or thought I have about myself being some way that I don’t want to be, that I feel ashamed of being.
As it turns out, however, this is not depressing information, but very empowering information to have. Why? Because it means that my reaction has nothing to do with the other person; it has its roots in the stories about myself that I’m believing and in the fear and shame that are in here in me, not out there in them. Thus, I can work on the reaction by investigating my own thoughts and fears rather than by trying to change or get something out of the other person, a much more difficult and often futile task.
Building on this point, Dr. Joseph Burgo (2010) comments that:
One of my favorite theorists, Roger Money-Kyrle, looked back over his long career as a therapist and the different ways he had conceived of defenses; in the end, he came to think of them as lies we tell ourselves to ward off truths too painful to accept or unbearable emotions and feelings. What makes them so difficult for us to recognize ourselves is that we’ve spent a lifetime believing those lies and we want to go right on believing them because the alternative is to feel pain.
If you think about your friends and family, I’ll bet you can identify someone with a defense that you and others around him can easily see but he can’t. For example, I have an acquaintance who regularly falls out with her other friends and becomes indignant about the insensitive ways they treat her. The other person is always to blame for the disagreement. She isn’t my client, and I’ve never talked to her about this pattern, but I’m fairly confident she suffers from deep-seated feelings of shame and unworthiness. She can’t face those emotions and wards them off with an indignant sense that others have treated her badly.
Thus, indignation becomes a way of covering up our shame. If I feel a need to be indignant at someone for criticizing me, then I’m likely afraid that they are right. And that means that there is some part of me–some quality, feeling, or way of thinking–that I’ve been avoiding seeing and acknowledging. If I want to be more free and more integrated, then, I have to begin to face what I’ve been avoiding. I have to walk towards and through the fear rather than away from it. Thankfully, as it turns out, this is both a simpler process and a far more harmless one than it sounds.
So much for the theory part, but what does this all mean in practical terms?
Let’s suppose that we go through the motions of this dance of hearing a comment, feeling triggered by it, and becoming defensive about it. How can we grow from this situation, how can we turn it into something constructive rather than destructive?
The good news is that the other person’s triggering comment, which seems at first like an attack is, in fact, a great blessing, because it reveals that we have some fear or shame that we might not have known was there before. The seemingly pugnacious comment made something conscious that may have been unconscious and thus paved the way for greater peace within us. If I’m willing to see this situation as a learning and growing opportunity rather than a call to war, then I have much to gain from something that could otherwise lead me to risk losing a great deal.
In short, thanks to the other person’s words, we have been able to locate a fear within us. What good fortune! We might feel vulnerable right now, but in this vulnerability, we get a chance to practice courage, to grow and be authentic. Far from a terrifying attacker, this fear can, therefore, be seen as a helpful guide that is showing us something within us so that we can look into it, re-own a disowned quality, examine our behaviour, investigate our thoughts, or transcend our limitations.
This fear that seemed to threaten me really only invites me to freedom. When I investigate the fear, I may find that the thought on which it is based is unfounded and untrue. In this case, it will fall away on its own under the scrutiny of inquiry. I won’t even have to consciously drop the false belief; it will drop me. Alternatively, I may find that the thought points me to some harmful pattern of behaviour that I’ve been acting out for which I can take responsibility. In this case, I now become open to changing my behaviour, for instance, through an anger management process in the case of anger. Either way, letting the fear become my teacher takes me to greater freedom either through dropping a false belief or learning a more adaptive, healthier way to function.
Love Your Fear and Investigate Your Thoughts
Contrary to what everyone ever told me, I learned that it’s possible to love my fear. I also discovered that when I love–that is, embrace, invite in, warmly welcome, meet with an open attitude, and accept–my fear, I find that it’s quite harmless. Why would I love my fear of all things? Because fear is here for my own good; either it’s just looking out for me by alerting me to a legitimate danger–like a human-hungry hippopotamus bounding towards me, for instance–or it’s showing me where I’m stuck and limiting myself unnecessarily. Either it’s trying to keep me safe or it’s inviting me to grow. How kind fear is! The truth is that fear is biologically useful; if it wasn’t, evolution would have phased it out a long time ago.
If a fear is showing me where I’m unnecessarily limiting myself, as in the cases we described above for instance, then it’s offering me an invitation to push through it into greater freedom, an authentic chance to grow. When I find the courage to accept that invitation, something shifts in me. There’s an openness to reality where before, something was closed off. New possibilities emerge like newborn stars in a nebula. My world feels a little bigger because I’ve dropped an inner barrier that was closing off spaces of my inner and outer universe from my awareness that I didn’t even know were there. Uninvestigated fears blind; investigated fears reveal.
Practical Tools for Working with Fearful Thoughts
When we find a fear, it’s often helpful to see if it is connected to a story. In my experience and that of many others, fear and shame often tend to be connected to a thought like “I am not _____ enough,” or “I am too _____” or “if I can’t do ____ then _____” or “if I fail, then _____” or “if ____ happens, then it will mean _____” which leaves us feeling in some way bad or deficient. In many cases, this thought is simply an assumption.
I wrote an entire article on how to find, express, and question the thoughts at the heart of shame, which you can check out here if you want an in-depth breakdown: “The Heart of the Void: Finding the Assumptions at the Core of Shame.” This method is based on investigating our fearful thoughts to find out if they are really true and turning them around to see what they look like from the other side of what they seem to say. Shame itself, as Brene Brown found in her research, is a form of fear, the fear that we will be abandoned because we are in some way not good enough. It may not be possible to intentionally drop a thought, but as Byron Katie (2002) points out, when we investigate our thoughts we often find that we don’t let go of them; they let go of us.
In addition, if you want to transform the thoughts at the heart of your fear, you could also consider playing around with these strategies from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Boyes, 2013). These tools are part of what CBT calls ‘cognitive restructuring’ or changing the shape of your thoughts. They include things like tracking the accuracy of the thought, behaviorally testing it, evaluating evidence for or against it, practicing compassionate self-talk, or observing it non-judgmentally via mindfulness meditation.
Furthermore, if you find a fear that is, more specifically, a phobia or an exaggerated version of a normal concern that impairs your ability to function in the world, this article by Dr. Jonathan Fader (2014) offers some useful techniques for overcoming it. Of course, if you can find clear thoughts driving or underlying the phobia, you can use the aforementioned CBT techniques on them or Byron Katie’s the Work to investigate them. The key thing, for me, is to keep in mind that fears are lovable teachers that are inviting you to greater freedom, not the menacing monsters they seem to be. If you can see them as quite harmless rather than as threatening harm, it can be a lot easier to play around with them and see how you can grow from the process.
In my experience, comments that make us react defensively reveal fears within us that are worth looking into because looking into them tends to draw us in the direction of greater freedom and more meaningful emotional growth. These fears are often linked to thoughts that can be investigated to find out whether or not they are really true. Fears that reveal how we are limiting ourselves unnecessarily aren’t walls; they’re gateways. They invite us to walk through them and find out who we are and what our world looks like on the other side. And in that sense, these fears are new and exciting tickets into fresh experience.
Boyes, Alice. (2013). Cognitive restructuring. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-practice/201301/cognitive-restructuring
Burgo, Joseph. (October 1, 2010). Psychological defensiveness and self-deception. After Psychotherapy. Retrieved from http://www.afterpsychotherapy.com/defenses/
Fader, Jonathan. (2014). Three ways to face your phobia. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-new-you/201405/three-ways-face-your-phobia
Katie, Byron. (2002). Loving what is. Ebury Publishing: United States.