Self-Protection and Defensiveness

I began life as an open affectionate child, as most children do. I shared and I gifted. I included and participated. I enjoyed solitary time without being lonely. I began hearing “No” and noticed that my actions weren’t always reciprocated. I noticed that friends broke things or never returned them. I noticed that people enjoyed manipulating me into doing things and taking the blame for things that I hadn’t done. I learned to be wary. I learned similar skills and how to use them. I learned to protect myself and defend the important people and things in my life.

I didn’t have a lot of trouble negotiating grade school, but my best friend moved away right before junior high school when her parents divorced. I spent much of 7th grade able to go home from school at the end of the day and replay it as a movie in my mind as though it happened to someone else. I made a few friends and things got better, but I learned distrust. Finally, when STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE came out in 1979, I understood. I wanted to become Spock, bury my emotions and remain in control of my reactions at all times. I wanted to master Kolinahr (an advanced Vulcan discipline that results in a state of complete emotional stability).

Over time, this resolve cut me off from my emotions. My life was mainly intellectual and I excelled there. I had a 12th grade reading level in 6th grade. Moreover, many of the adults around me viewed change not as an opportunity but as an invitation to disaster. Asking for help or even accepting it when it was offered was dangerous because you never knew what they’d want in return. In other words, nobody does anything for free.

Over time, I modified the behaviors that resulted enough to apply for and complete my freshman year of college, find a job and get married. I detested crying when fighting and still tend to get more cold and clinical the madder or invested I am. Moving with my now former husband as his Army duty stations changed, we developed an “us against the world” philosophy which gradually became toxic as “the world is out to get us.” When I began to reconnect with my emotions and throw off this mentality, my marriage was adversely affected. While not the only factor in the divorce, it was a big one.

I learned to relax and to ask questions. I no longer dogmatically followed the rules or remained content with the status quo. I returned to an older fascination with mythology and comparative religion. I began to identify as pagan and Wiccan. I cared about social justice, truth and ideas. Post-divorce, I made a conscious decision to become more social and then to date. I began to trust my instincts and renounced the philosophy of suspicion. Instead of entering each new situation or relationship intending to protect myself until they’d earned my trust, I set a low middle ground and the person or situation could move up or down. Whatever happened, I believed it. I tried not to make excuses or jump to conclusions and I tried not to behave in ways that I didn’t like in other people.

I am not perfect … because nobody is. I still dislike confrontation and will avoid emotionally taxing people and situations. I care a lot less about being perfect or changing anyone else’s mind than I used to. I know when I’m right and don’t require others to confirm it. Conversely, I often find my resolve not to let bigoted or racist behavior, false assumptions or lies, or even plain negativity and cynicism pass unchallenged challenging. And sometimes, I make a “cost effectiveness” choice … especially with family.

Stress, however, is something that adversely impacts both my health and the health of several family members. I therefore try to avoid creating stress for others and minimize it for myself. But I do not see this in all or nothing terms. When I have to remain in those situations, as often happens at holiday gatherings, I set limits for myself both in advance and as events unfold. I evaluate my choices and decide whether they’d make an immediate positive difference and their long term consequences.

Sadly, I had to make these kinds of choices regarding a family member over Christmas. I have to believe that she either doesn’t understand how rude her behaviors seems or that she just cares more about getting her own way and “protecting” herself. I made a list to vent, but will refrain from sharing it anywhere except my journal. Distilled down, it amounts to: if you wouldn’t act that way as a guest in a stranger’s or casual friend’s home, don’t behave that way in a relative’s home either. Taken too far, defensiveness becomes stressful for and offensive to others.