Most of us learned to develop defensive structures and strategies to protect ourselves from painful situations and relationships in our past. But what happens when those defenses emerge years later, in the midst of intimate relationships with close, trusted others? Here I write about how intimacy and vulnerability invite us into a new way of being, one marked more by courage and goodness than by insecurity and defensiveness.
When you come from a broken home, broken feels like home. Chaos is the norm and normal feels like chaos. How do we fight back? Those of us who have made such home in dysfunction? I know for me I have no idea, which is why I write, to try and unwind ways of being that no longer serve me.
One such way of being is my insecure defensive posture when I am confronted with any sort of critique or something that even smells a bit like it. My guard immediately goes up and I stop any form of impact from being made on me.
This shows up most in my own marriage. The irony of marriage is that Christy (my wife) gets the very worst and the very best of who I am. The very heights of heaven and the depth of hell all bound within one relationship.
The simple answer is “I learned it.” The more complex answer is that it continues to work for me. I learned it from my family of origin: recovering from my parents’ divorce without any emotional processing, we turned on each other—survival of the fittest, or survival of the meanest. I developed a sharp wit and a mean bite. It protected me, kept me safe from harm. It also still works for me. If I can defend my insecurity from my wife, then I won’t feel exposed. One of the greatest fears for an insecure man is exposure of what we most want to hide and protect. We want to hide our futility, our powerlessness, and our young tender places within our souls, unconsciously thinking that if these places were exposed we would be less likely to be loved. Rather the opposite is true: the more we expose our innermost vulnerabilities in trusting relationship, the more others are drawn to our goodness.There are times she will ask me, “Would you mind picking up your clothes?” or “Would you mind cleaning the kitchen?” and many times my default is to attack—not physically but, much worse, emotionally. “Well I did take out the trash, take the kids to school, make breakfast…” My justifications go on and on. I already have my guard up. I am already unconsciously looking for a fight. Why? Why do I do that? I actually don’t want to be mean to my wife, I like her (most days I really do), but why do I return to a young way of being?
It happens most in our most intimate relationships because we know that our partners see right through us, they know our truest self. My unconscious fear is being revealed by my wife who already comprehends my deepest insecurities. I choose to defend rather than have the courage to be scared in front of her. To be vulnerable with her about my fears of not being enough, or not having what it takes to love her or be a good father. The irony of this process is that I defend most where I need love most. These vulnerable places inside of me are the very places that need tenderness, love, and deep care. What I find when I lean into those raw places is that I am actually more terrified to be loved well. It is easier for me to push her away than receive her holy love for my tender places within.
I defend most where I need love most.
So back to the how question. How do I (and maybe we) stop reenacting this insecure defensive way of being? A few categories come to mind:
Awareness & Vulnerability
A new awareness starts by asking yourself the tough questions and beginning to tell yourself the truth of who you have become in light of your own story. When I feel myself beginning to defend, I must stop and ask, “What am I defending right now? What am I scared of? Do I trust who I am with right now enough to show my heart instead of my anger?” If I can center myself back into what is true, I can begin to create a new way of being that is rooted in courage and vulnerability.
As I learn to let my defenses go, I first must bless the way my defenses have saved me and served me. I must bless my story. “Thank you, sharp wit and defensive posture, you have kept me safe from harm and injustice. I am now safe, and an adult, and no longer need you to protect me, as I can now protect myself.” When we bless our insecurities and defense mechanisms, we can find the strength to release them.
Developing a New Way of Being
A new way of being must take the old one’s place. You must practice this new centered, non-defensive posture with kindness and grace toward yourself. As Malcolm Gladwell says, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a professional at anything. It is no different with new ways of being; you spent your entire life living out of your old way, and it will take time for a new way of being to emerge.
As I become more aware, choose vulnerability, bless, and step into a new way of being, I can love with deeper hope and a richer courage. I know I will still fall into old patterns. I actually responded defensively again to my wife last night as I was reading aloud this article on “overcoming my defensiveness.” Geez… Yet I am confident that as I have the bravery to name and bring my own sin to light, glory and goodness will soon follow.