Curiosity and Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling threatened, but it can be hard on relationships. A posture of curiosity allows you to empathize with the other person.

Most of the time when people start therapy, they are approaching life- relationships, change, work- with a defensive stance.

A defensive stance is natural. Our responses to new situations are usually fight, flight, or freeze. The instinct of self-protection is key to our survival. It’s important, and we can’t completely ignore it.

But when we carry this defensiveness into familiar situations and routines, it can create relational problems. You may have the experience of feeling defensive at work, perhaps you had a bad week and now the boss wants to talk to you- or in your close relationships, when your spouse is washing the dishes angrily and you’re wondering what you did wrong this time.

I’m sure you know the feeling of defensiveness. Your breath is shallow and tight, you start to notice the tension in your neck and chest. You may start to feel something in the pit of your stomach.

When you’re feeling defensive, your body tightens and closes up to protect you from danger. Often, people who feel defensive show it by crossing their arms and leaning back. Your thoughts and emotions close up too. Your mental focus is on analyzing possible threats and making sure you have a way out. Emotionally, you may balance your fear by getting angry or crying.

In contrast, imagine a picture of curiosity. When you’re curious, you lean forward to look. You may reach out with your hands, you may move closer. Your thoughts are open, your mental energy is exploring. Emotionally, you are prepared to discover.

Curiosity defuses closed off defensiveness. Imagine the earlier scenarios. You’re called into your boss’s office after a terrible week at work when everything seems to have gone wrong. Your spouse is angry at you and you don’t know why.

If you go into these situations defensively, you’re looking for threats. And when you look for threats, you’ll either find them or connect the dots to create them. Humans naturally look for patterns, whether they’re there or not.

It takes effort to overcome the natural sense of fight-flight-freeze when we feel like we’re in danger. And of course if you’re truly in danger, you wouldn’t want to shift to an open and curious posture. But in relationships, whether at home or at work, curiosity helps maintain your connection to the other person. You’re able to take a step back and look from the other person’s perspective. You can only empathize with them if you’re first curious about them and their needs. And you can only admit your mistakes when you’re not trying to protect yourself.

In difficult situations, like when you’re sure your boss is going to want an explanation for your bad work week, defensiveness works against you. If your boss sees you justifying poor work or blaming others for mistakes, they may not feel confident that you would be able to do things differently in the future. In contrast, if you can admit it was a down week and take responsibility for your part in the problem, your boss may develop trust that you are aware of the situation, your part, and possible solutions. Curiosity shows you’re teachable.

And when your spouse is angry, defensiveness calls up all the ways they wronged you. Defensiveness is ready to attack or blame. Curiosity recognizes that they are feeling angry and is ready to listen to their perspective. Curiosity can hear the unmet need behind the anger and is willing to work to meet it.

So how do we shift from defensiveness to curiosity? The first step is recognizing defensiveness when it comes up. Notice the physical sensations. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Then challenge those thoughts by shifting your focus to the other person. Wonder to yourself what they might be thinking or feeling. Change your physical breathing patterns. Deep breathing calms your vagus nerve. Stretch your body to break out of any tightness. Notice any tension and deliberately tighten and then relax those muscles.

This shift takes time, especially at the beginning. If you notice yourself getting defensive, take a break. Give yourself a few minutes alone to get into curiosity before going into a situation where you usually feel defensive. If you can, ask for a break. Start with easier situations before trying to get curious around a hot button issue.

What do you think of the idea of curiosity? Do you notice when you’re in a posture of defensiveness? How do you think defensiveness and curiosity have played a role in your relationships?

If you find that your relationships have been severely affected by defensiveness or you aren’t able to shift into curiosity, therapy can help. Even a few sessions of guided curiosity can help you create new patterns of relating.

Narratives of Failure

The stories you tell yourself about how and why you fail are important. You can reshape your meta-narratives to tell a story of fullness instead of blaming, brokenness, and victimhood.

Your meta-narrative is the way you think about life, the story you tell yourself to interpret what’s going on in the world and how it connects back to your own life.

In general, if your meta-narrative is positive, you will be happy and go through life focused on good things and covering over or explaining away the bad things. Similarly, if your meta-narrative is negative, your focus will be on the bad things instead of the good things.

Your meta-narrative can also be passive or active. When you think about your life, do things seem to just happen to you or are you in control of crafting your path through obstacles?

This is best seen in terms of the narrative you tell yourself when you fail.

When you fail an important test, lose a bid on a contract, have your hours cut, get passed over for a promotion, or get rejected romantically, what is the story you tell yourself about how and why this happened?

Let’s look at some of the most common failure narratives people use.

Blaming. Many times, you can comfort yourself through failure by justifying it as another person’s fault. You failed the test because the professor wrote the questions poorly or didn’t teach well enough. You weren’t chosen for the special team or project because the boss hates you or because another, less deserving coworker did something to suck up to the boss to get chosen. The problem with a Blaming failure narrative is it takes all the responsibility off of you. If it’s not your fault, you don’t have to look at the ways you may have contributed to the outcome.

Broken. Instead of passing all the fault to others around you, a Broken narrative assumes the fault is an intrinsic part of your character. You had your hours cut because you’re the worst employee and it was only a matter of time before your boss found out. You were turned down for a date because nobody could ever love you. Again, the problem with the Broken narrative is it takes responsibility away from your actions and puts it on your character, or who you are as a person.

Victim. This narrative feels chaotic since your life is completely out of your control. Things just started happening to you one day and since then it’s one thing after another. Nothing seems to go right at home or at work. Like the others, this narrative also takes the responsibility away from your actions but instead of putting it on yourself or others, it’s just that Life or the Universe or God has it out for you.

Do you see the common thread? All these bad narratives deny personal responsibility. A healthy narrative looks at all aspects of a situation. You, your thoughts, and your actions have a part to play in your failure. Regardless of what others do or don’t do, the contributions of your character and personal history, or your external circumstances, a healthy narrative centers around what you do in response.

Life will always happen, and your meta-narratives about life and your part in shaping it will affect the way you respond to events. Do you notice Blaming, Broken, or Victim stories when you think about your life, particularly your failures? If these have become your habitual responses to failure, therapy can help you untangle your unhelpful meta-narratives and create new ones that support you in thriving through life.

Couples in Conflict

Do you feel like you and your partner fight a lot? Not at all? Check out this definition of healthy conflict and see how you measure up.

Many couples wonder if they’re fighting too much or not enough. There are many pop psychology articles that make wild claims about fighting- you need to fight to be healthy, you should never fight before bed, fighting in front of kids is bad for them.

But most of that is not true, or at least not validated by science.

According to research by the Gottman Institute, 69% of conflict is not going to be resolved. Many conflicts are created by personality differences that don’t go away.

So how often you fight isn’t the most important thing. What matters is how you deal with conflict and how your conflict affects the relationship.

What does fighting mean for you and your partner? Your family of origin and the way they handled conflict informs what you think of about what it means to fight. Many couples who say they don’t fight really mean that they never yell- so for them, yelling defines a “fight” versus a “disagreement.” Take a moment to think about how you and your partner were taught about conflict in your family of origin and how you have followed or deliberately chosen not to continue those patterns.

If conflict is inevitable in relationship, couple’s therapy doesn’t mean helping you fight less. Instead, therapy helps you unpack your generational patterns of conflict and teach you ways to intentionally have conflict well.

What is a good conflict? Healthy conflict respects each person’s opinion and hears their values. At the end of the fight, your relationship is still strong. In the end, you’re still friends. You can hear and honor the other person’s stance even when you disagree. You are able to speak calmly about the conflict, not getting heated, accusatory, or shutting down. If you find yourself not able to keep calm, you can ask for a break and your partner respects your request.

Does this sound like the way you and your partner fight? If not, couple’s therapy can help you learn new skills to handle conflict well in order to maintain your relationship and allow each of you to thrive.

What is ACT?

Curious about ACT? Check out this overview to see if it’s right for you.

ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is a kind of cognitive therapy that works to help you live your desired life by identifying your values and aligning what you do to make sure your values come out in how you live.

ACT is best explained through a metaphor. One of my favorites is the metaphor of the backseat drivers. Imagine you’re driving a car toward the life you want to live. But fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, and all their friends are piled in your back seat talking over you and pointing you down different roads.

You can pull over, stop the car, and work on trying to get the backseat drivers out of your car. But it takes a lot of effort to get rid of them, and while you’re doing that you’re not moving forward in your life. And when you get back on the road, those backseat drivers will eventually find their way into your car again.

ACT believes that the most effective way to get to your desired life is to keep driving. Focusing on the backseat drivers only leads to a crash. And stopping to get them out of your car is a lot of effort for not much payoff. It might be difficult to learn how to tune them out, but the important part is that you keep going where you want to go, not derailing your dreams because of anxiety, not taking a different path because your low self-esteem says you don’t deserve to get what you want.

This takes effort. The first part of ACT is based in mindfulness. You need to know how to tell the difference between your unhelpful backseat driver thoughts and your core self and its desires.

Once you can separate your unhelpful thoughts, you’ll learn skills to simply observe your thoughts as they come up rather than reacting to them. Observing in the present moment is a key skill.

Then we’ll start looking at your values. Everyone has different values, but because they’re such a core part of who we are, it can be hard to recognize them and put them into words.

Finally, your values will turn into committed action. You’re probably already living out your values in some areas of your life, but we’ll look at where you need help reshaping your life. We’ll identify specific action steps for you to take to transform your life to align with your values so every day feels purposeful and meaningful.

ACT helps anyone who feels like their thoughts and emotions are out of control backseat drivers who are derailing you from living the life you want. It works well for both individuals and couples. ACT has special workbooks for anxiety, depression, couples’ issues, and even chronic pain. But like most cognitive therapies, it can be helpful even if you don’t identify with any of those categories.

If you’re interested in ACT or in learning more, text, call, or email me for a free consultation.