If someone criticizes you do you rush to defend your feelings?
Has this happened to you? You’re in the break room with a colleague, when she looks over and asks, “Do you always put that much sugar in your tea?”
Ha, ha, ha, you laugh. But inside, your narrative is: Who does she think she is, Miss Manners? What’s wrong with 2 teaspoons of sugar? She doesn’t have to drink it. What a jerk. She’s always so critical of me. Why can’t she leave me alone?
You are still standing there trying to figure out why you are upset, and your colleague has long since left the break room. If something as minor as sugaring your tea can provoke such feelings of defensiveness, imagine what can happen when more important issues are at stake. Defensive feelings can stop you in your tracks at work or at home.
It’s not you. It’s your brain on evolution.
Human beings are operating with a layered evolutionary system: the reptilian (brain stem) instinctual survival at the base, the mammalian limbic system overlaying that (more or less the middle brain area) using emotions and feeling, and the cerebral cortex system (the primate on top) capable of strategic thinking about survival. The moment you feel inadequate or imperfect, criticism is threatening and makes you feel that you have to defend yourself. When you are secure—not perfect, but secure—you can respond without having to ratchet up all those mental defenses.
Here’s another factoid related to evolutionary threat response: we are designed to learn from mistakes. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t live. The classic example is how fast you will jump out of the way of a perceived threat, a snake on the path in the woods, only to have your brain tell you a second later, “you dummy, that was a stick.” But if it had been a snake, you might not have lived to tell the tale. This translates in modern life to feeling threatened with survival when criticized. It’s why you reacted so strongly when your colleague merely mentioned how much sugar you put in your tea.
Take this quiz to see how defensive you tend to be.
1. When people criticize or judge me, I am quick to point out their own faults.
2. If people are upset or disappointed with me, I let them know with explanations and excuses why they are wrong.
3. I’m always looking for the hidden critical message beneath people’s requests.
It’s extremely easy to get drawn into a defensive posture and strike back. I’ve done it myself to huge embarrassment. In the past, I might have responded to the sugaring comment with “well, at least I don’t eat donuts by the handful like you do.” Uh-oh. A war of words has commenced. And sadly, because evolution has trained us for survival in the wild and not in the office, it is going to take at least seven positive comments to outweigh the hurt of the one painful comment. Plus all the energy you will have to expend repairing the relationship to get back to where you want to be.
In her book, Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, Sharon Ellison estimates that we use 95% of our communications energy being defensive. Indeed, as soon as we feel any threat, either of not getting what we want or of being harmed or put down in some way, we are ready to protect ourselves by being defensive. Imagine how much more enjoyable our communications could be if we learned how to respond non-defensively and to avoid provoking defensiveness in others.
Track your own reactions. Recognize your emotions and responses. What body sensations, thoughts, emotions arise? Remind yourself that the perceived threat is just that: merely perceived.
Recognize that whatever arises in your mind is your own responsibility. It is not the other person’s fault you are responding as you are. Here’s the best news about being a homo sapien: You get to choose how you think and how you respond.
A new strategy: Change your defensiveness to curiosity. You don’t have explain or defend the amount of sugar in your tea. Just say these three little words: “Tell me more!” You may be surprised by the answer. Your colleague may have dietary issues you never knew about before like diabetes. Or she may respond, “My partner always tells me I put in too much sugar, but I always thought two teaspoons was about right.” By staying open and curious, you can stop overreacting to criticism and learned something new, too.