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.