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.

Therapeutic Journaling

Keeping a journal can be very beneficial for your mental health, but not all journaling gives you the benefits you’re looking for. If you want to make the most out of your writing time, try these tips to make sure your journal is a therapeutic part of your day.

Know your focus. Journaling for therapy benefits is different from simply keeping a daily diary. Dedicated therapy journals should focus on the issue you’re dealing with. If you’re trying to be more outgoing to improve your dating life, your therapy journal should focus on your thoughts, feelings, and dreams about dating as well as reminiscing about past dates, family attitudes about dating, and your ideal dating life.

Keep it secure. One of the major drawbacks of traditional journaling is that your intimate details are open to the world. Whether you lock it up, hide it away, or use a private online journal, it’s important to keep things secure. Journaling for therapy is most beneficial if you can be completely honest and get everything out, but you won’t want to do this if you’re worried about someone else getting access. Find a secure place to keep your journal so you can get the most by being the most honest.

Stay in the habit. Just like traditional therapy is most effective when you go weekly, therapeutic journaling is most beneficial when you practice often. Regular journaling is the key to noticing trends in your thoughts and emotions. This is most important if you’re using journaling to help track depression or anxiety. The more you can observe yourself and your processes that might be fueling your negative emotions, the easier it will be to learn how to interrupt those processes and overcome the cycle.

Check in with how you feel. For the most part, therapeutic journaling is highly beneficial. But if you notice yourself feeling more angry, tense, or sad after you spend time writing, you might be using your journal time wrong. If your journal is just a repeat of the negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences you had in your day, it might easily make you feel worse by the end. This is a sign you need to change up your focus. Instead of writing down why everything is the worst, use your journal space constructively to challenge your negative thoughts and reframe them to something more positive and helpful.

 

Was this helpful? Look out for future series on journaling tips just for anxiety, depression, parenting, and relationships!