Have you ever had the experience of telling someone that they are hurting you only to be met with hostility, accusations, shaming and ridicule? Yeah, me too.
Have you ever been the person who responded to a hurting person with hostility, accusations, shaming and ridicule? Yeah, me too.
There seems to be something very deep in us that reacts to even the mildest suggestion that we are less than completely perfect in all our ways by becoming defensive. I used to think that this was somehow related to being punished and shamed as children, but having been a mother to 6 kids for 19 years now, I’ve come to the conclusion that being defensive is our default position.
I suspect the issue lies in the fact that we humans are so vulnerable to each other. We are vulnerable to our parents who may or may not have the skills to raise us without causing severe damage. If they are willing to raise us at all. Humans have a long, pervasive history of infanticide.
We are vulnerable to those who we are in community with. If they tell us we are worthless, selfish, lazy and unlovable, we will absorb their ugly lies as our reality. Throughout most of human history shunning was a death sentence and our psyches still process rejection as a form of severe physical pain.
A spouse that rejects us could result in the loss of position, community and even our ability to survive. Being turned out by family can cost us relationships with those we depend on and even an inability to care for our own children.
All in all, it’s really no wonder that there’s something very deep in us that recoils at the possibility that we will be condemned or rejected. In fact, it’s one of those automatic responses from our reptilian brain, much like fear, anger and shame. All it takes is someone pointing out that your shoe lace is untied and you find yourself launching into a ridiculous litany of explanations about how you like having your shoe laces untied because unlike the sort of person who goes around pointing out untied shoe laces, you aren’t a brainless sheep.
The problem, of course, is that when we allow our reptilian brain to send us into a self-defensive frenzy, we hurt people. We fail to come to the aid of those in need, we stunt our own maturation, we destroy relationships with those we need most. At some level we are often so ashamed of our behavior that we can’t face it and so get stuck in our defensive posture until we have alienated those we most want to be in relationship with. It’s very hard to be in relationship with someone who has not learned to manage their instinctive, defensive response. Ask any marriage and family therapist.
I suspect that this is part of the reason that Jesus’ message of forgiveness and an end to condemnation is so central to the New Testament. Being on the defensive makes it hard for us to repent of our sins. It makes it hard for us to hear those we may be hurting. It makes it hard for us to see the injustices around us. It makes it hard for us to grow beyond where we are at the moment. Far from protecting us from condemnation, our tendency to be defensive makes it next to impossible to live out of the redemption and freedom offered in Christ.
The thing we Christians need to understand is that we have no need to defend ourselves. Because whatever other people may think of us, Jesus has declared us innocent. Our mistakes are simply mistakes. Our limitations are simply a reflection of the growth which still lies ahead of us. Even our worst sins need only for us to confess and repent of them to be set free from.
Whether the people around you understand this or not is irrelevant. God has declared it so and will walk with you through the fires, if need be. We have no more need of shame and fear. If others want to continue condemning you for what God has declared you innocent of, they are heaping condemnation on their own heads, not yours.
I would challenge you to become more aware of your own tendency to be self-defensive. Usually it shows up as an urge to argue, to set the record straight, to protest that we are being treated unfairly or a need to lash out. Because it comes from out automatic, reptilian brain, we often find ourselves doing these things before we even realize what’s happening. Even if we don’t lash out immediately, our brains automatically start ruminating over the story we tell ourselves about how unfair and misunderstood we are.
If you’re not actively seeking to spot your self-defensive reactions, you won’t even realize you are doing it. Eventually you will be left wondering why your faith walk doesn’t have more power and why your relationships aren’t working. So learn to recognize the signs that it’s happening. In fact, anytime you feel a flare of self-righteous indignation or anger, you would be wise to stop and ask if your defenses have been triggered.
When you start to recognize what you are doing, make yourself stop. End an argument abruptly by saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this right now.” After a while you will have the maturity to simply say, “I’m sorry. I was so busy trying to defend myself that I wasn’t able to really listen to what you were saying. Could we start over?” And then make yourself listen without interrupting, arguing or correcting. Be sure you have understood what the other person is saying before attempting to respond. Feel free not to respond at all if the only response you can think of is, “you’re wrong.”
If you recognize that you are struggling in this area, you need to repent. Take it to God and ask for help in overcoming this bad habit. Confess to a friend you trust that you’ve recognized this tendency in yourself and your need to move beyond it. When you are able, seeking the forgiveness of those you may have hurt by being self-defensive may be both appropriate and freeing. Remind yourself as often as needed that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus and therefor there is no need for you to defend yourself.
Because this bad habit is so deeply rooted in us, changing it doesn’t happen all at once. Usually it’s a process of starts and stops and may be something you will need to be aware for the rest of your days. And that’s fine. The most important thing is to commit your will to overcoming this tendency.
In time, you will discover that there is a whole realm of growth, intimacy and freedom that comes from letting go of your self-defensive reaction. You will actually like yourself much better when you can admit and own your imperfections without shame. Instead of being a difficult person to be in relationship with, you will become someone people know they can trust. You will learn things about the world and the people around you that you never knew. You find that the path to becoming someone who loves freely, forgives freely and acts courageously has been opened to you.
Overcoming our deep seated need to defend ourselves is not easy. But you will never be the person God intended you to be or have the relationships God desires you to have if you don’t let go of this destructive impulse. Besides, there’s no condemnation if you don’t do it perfectly. Just get up and try to do it better the next time. That’s all anyone can ask of you.