There you go again, overreacting to a situation.
Let’s face it: As evolved as we think we are, we still resort to certain behaviors when our backs are against the wall — especially in stressful times like this.
Last week, I allowed something to get to me. I reacted to the tone of a voice and became defensive. It wasn’t the communicator’s intention. On an intellectual level, I knew that. On a gut level, though, it triggered something in me. And I allowed it to get the best of me.
Fortunately, this only lasted a few minutes. That’s the thing with our “living laboratory of life.” When we get lessons over and over, we’re able to spot them more quickly. In my case, I processed it with the other person and we both learned some things. It turns out she was unaware of how her tone came across, and I was unaware of being hypersensitive.
Did you know that only about 30% of your communication has to do with the words you speak? The rest has to do with your tone of voice and other nonverbal communication — eye contact, body language, etc. You can completely negate your words by giving off competing “messages.”
When you fall back on familiar patterns — defense mechanisms — you think you’re defending your position. And you’re probably not even aware you’re using them.
The three most common defense mechanisms are denial, rationalization and projection. Whether these terms sound familiar or not, I’ll bet you’ve had some experience with the following examples, either as a sender or receiver of communication.
Are you in denial?
Denial is the refusal to accept reality. Many people use denial to avoid dealing with problem areas in their lives. For example, an alcoholic may deny he has a drinking problem by pointing out how well he functions at the office.
Do you rationalize?
Rationalization means providing reasons other than the real reason. Over time, these other reasons can seem perfectly legitimate and they serve to draw attention away from the real reasons.
Here’s a fairly reliable rule of thumb: When someone offers more than one reason for doing something, they’re rationalizing. Usually the true reason for an action is a single one.
Wow, that speaks volumes to me! I’ll be playing detective by watching my communication — and listening to that of others — to find clues.
Because rationalizations sound reasonable, they’re very deceptive and anyone can be taken in by them. You may see some familiar patterns in these examples I’ve encountered along the way — either directly or from my research. A particularly helpful resource is the book “Addictive Thinking” by Abraham J. Twerski.
Lisa, a recent college graduate, was reluctant to apply for a position because she was afraid of being turned down. However, the reasons she gave her family were different: they’re probably looking for someone with years of experience; the office is too far away to commute; and the starting wage is unsatisfactory.
Brian, a 29-year-old man, was unsuccessful at holding a job. Brian typically did very well at work. However, when his performance led to advancement, he would leave the job. Brian claimed to know exactly what his problem was. His fiancée had broken off their engagement, and he wasn’t able to get over the rejection (although this happened five years earlier).
As painful as romantic rejections are, people usually get over them eventually. For whatever reason, though, Brian was terribly insecure. On one hand, accepting advancement at work might result in failure, and he didn’t want to take that risk. On the other hand, he couldn’t accept that his stagnation was due to his fears, because that would mean admitting he was not brave enough.
As a result, Brian unconsciously used the defense mechanism of rationalization by tying himself to an event in his life he felt was holding him back. Because being rejected is painful and depressing — and because people often lose motivation and initiative after a romantic rejection — this sounded perfectly reasonable to Brian.
Tying his problem to his fiancée’s rejection was a reasonable explanation of why Brian couldn’t get on with his life, but it was not the true reason. The truth is Brian didn’t want to deal with his insecurities and anxieties.
Are you projecting?
Projecting means placing the blame on others for things you are really responsible for. Like rationalization, it serves two functions: It reinforces denial, and it preserves the status quo.
Blaming someone else, or projecting your feelings upon them, relieves you from the responsibility of making changes — because the only person you can ever change is yourself.
Peeling off the layers
These three defense mechanisms — denial, rationalization and projection — often occur in layers, like an onion. As one layer is peeled away, another may be discovered underneath. Being willing to peel off these layers and taking responsibility for your actions can go a long way toward changing ingrained patterns that hold you back.
Here are some other examples of defense mechanisms. While they focus on addictions (and times that don’t deal with social distancing), you can see how the techniques could apply to other life situations:
- Rationalizing — “My entire shift stops for drinks after work. We deserve a few cold ones.”
- Intellectualizing — “Health experts recommend 2 ounces of alcohol a day.”
- Blaming — “I drink because I’m stuck in a boring job all day.”
- Switching — “Joe drives all the time when he’s drunk. I’m glad I’m not that bad.”
- Minimizing — “I only get high at parties.”
- Joking — “I can stop drinking anytime I want. In fact, I stop at least once a week.”
- Agreeing — “Yes, I think you’re right. I should cut down on my drinking.”
- Projecting — “Next year I’ll be out of this dump, and things will be different.”
- Threatening — “I’d like to see you make me stop drinking beer with my friends.”
- Generalizing — “We all have a bad habit or two.”
If you find yourself stuck in a scenario that repeats itself over and over, you might want to see if you’re contributing to the problem — either consciously or subconsciously.
Defense mechanisms really don’t defend us.