First, we should differentiate between plain old defensiveness and anticipatory defensiveness. They share a certain vibe of irritability and protectiveness, but they are certainly different, and seem to come from different places: One defending what is, the other defending what we think will be, but isn’t yet here (except in our minds where we’ve already decided what’s going to happen).
Plain old defensiveness
When we become irritated or annoyed at something someone has said to us, and often about us or what we are doing, we are engaging in defensiveness. We are defending an idea of who we are, what we are, and what we are doing and why we are doing it. We become defensive when we are attached to our view of ourselves as being a certain way; attached to a view of what we are doing as good or bad, kind or cruel, etc. When our beliefs about ourselves, our behaviors, and our intentions are threatened, we defend them. That’s the essence of basic defensiveness.
An example of this would be if you worked hard on a project at work, following your boss’ instructions to the letter, only to be criticized by your boss. Rather than graciously accepting the feedback and going back to get things dialed in better, you snap back at them, “I only did exactly what you said! Perhaps you should have been more clear. That is your job, isn’t it? To be clear with your expectations?!”
In many companies, this would at least get you passed over for a promotion or raise, and in some situations, especially if this defensiveness is a pattern, would get you fired.
As the name implies, anticipatory defensiveness is when we anticipate a judgment of self, behavior or intention that threatens the perspective we are attached to. My mother called it “Borrowing Trouble.” It’s a remarkably accurate term. When we engage in defending against something that has not even happened, we are “borrowing trouble” from the future and planting it squarely in the now as if it is 100% real. It’s an assumption, an illusion, even a lie. Remember ANTs? Automatic Negative Thoughts. Borrowing trouble leading to anticipatory defensiveness is a complex version of an ANT. More like a phantom ANT. And we pour poison all over our beautiful lawn even if we’ve seen no ants. And that poison gets right into us . . . our minds become toxic from this poison. Sure, if there are any ants in the lawn, they may die, but using this method, we die a little at a time on the inside, too. Engaging ANTs in a healthy debate is a far healthier, and more effective, method for dealing with ANTs like borrowing trouble and anticipatory defensiveness.
Let’s think of an example of engaging in anticipatory defensiveness. Imagine that you have worked very hard on a project at work, and you are rather proud of the result. You feel that you’ve done a great job and feel that you are justified in expecting some praise from your boss. So far, so good. Unless you’re lying to yourself since you actually half-assed the project out of laziness yet still expect accolades. But self-deception is another post.
So you come into work a few days after giving your boss your shiny new project, and you see him or her walking down the hall with your project folder in hand, and with a scowl on their face. “Uh-oh,” you think to yourself, “Looks like (s)he found something wrong with my project . . . again.” This thought, this assumption linking their scowl to your project, is the beginning of the anticipation that leads to the toxic defensiveness. You’re beginning to pour the poison all over your entire lawn.
“They gave me lots of freedoms,” you tell yourself, “latitude to be creative, to make things interesting! That’s what I did!! I made it INTERESTING, boss! If you didn’t like interesting, then why did you give me the latitude and the instruction to be interesting?? I just did what you wanted me to do! And now you have the audacity to criticize my project?? Screw you, you old fart!”
Now, remember, your boss hasn’t even spoken to you yet! But you are already having an argument with somebody who is not even present! They are just walking towards you with that puckered face that looks like disapproval. And because you’ve doused yourself in poison, now YOU are all pucker-faced. You can probably see how this may not go so well for you . . .
So as your boss approaches, they ask you to join them in their office to talk about your project. “Gross, they’re chomping on some candy. I hate it when people talk with candy stuffed in their face.” This little detail will come back later.
Now you are sitting across from your pucker-faced boss, with your own pucker-face, ready to strike out at their criticism of your interesting project. . . the one THEY told you to make interesting. “Assclown,” you think to yourself.
Your boss asks how you are doing, and commenting that you seem a bit stressed out, not like your usual self. Now comes the anticipatory defensiveness: You explain to them that you put a lot of work into that project and are not happy that they seem to disapprove of it. Your tone and facial expression, and body language reveal your agitation at your boss. Surprised, your boss spits out their candy and asks you why you think they disapprove of it? “It’s a great product! You knocked it out of the park! I just presented it to the board and they actually want to fund it! Congratulations!” “ But why did you think I didn’t like it?” Their face no longer puckered up.
“Well, uh . . .” you’re stammering a bit because you’ve realized that you were fighting a battle that you created in your own head. But that scowl—that pucker-faced scowl. What was that all about then? Now, this is a good question to ask yourself—and there is a myriad of possible reasons. Perhaps they just got off the phone with their teenager’s school and found out their little rebel skipped school today. Maybe the board fussed at them about THEIR project that missed the mark. Who knows. Your boss knows, so they are probably a good place to get the truth.
“You looked upset when you asked me to come talk about the project . . . I – I just assumed you didn’t like it. I’m very sorry.” At this point, your boss leans back laughing a bit, and accepts your apology, “Don’t worry about it—happens to the best of us. You put a lot of work into something, and think the worst is going to happen.” But why were you so upset?? Your boss holds up that trash can where the candy went and simply says, “Sour patch candy. I love em, but my face hates em.” You both have a good laugh, and you’ve learned an important lesson about borrowing trouble leading to anticipatory defensiveness.
So what to do about it?
First, let’s understand that everybody gets defensive from time to time, and everybody experiences anticipatory defensiveness from time to time as well. This is no cause for alarm. If it’s not a pattern, most people will easily let it go, often not even saying anything as they likely can tell you are just having a bad day or had a stressful situation come up.
If, however, defensiveness and/or anticipatory defensiveness more of a regular thing for you, then you will need to get on top of it so you can live a more pleasant life, and so those around you can begin to see that you aren’t always looking for a fight.
Mindfulness practice is always the best place to start, in my opinion. When you self-reflect and consciously/mindfully realize what is happening, you can then make a decision to change; however, if this is sitting in your blind-spot (ie it is unconscious, so you don’t know it’s happening), then you won’t know that there is anything to change . . . well, other than your boss etc. because “they are the one with the problem after all.” When you see it, you can change it.
After you see what is happening, you will likely still feel agitated and defensive, but now you are mindfully aware of it and begin intervening with yourself. Now take 3+ smooth, rhythmic belly-breaths, a little deeper than normal breathing, but not full lung expansion (unless that just feels good). You may be able to stop off at the bathroom before heading to your boss’ office. Washing your face and hands helps more than you may think. Now engage the 4-questions that help unravel the ANTs:
- Is it true? “Yes,” you defiantly say to yourself.
- Am I 100% certain it’s true? “Well, no, not 100%” And here the ANT begins to unravel.
- How do I feel when I blindly believe this ANT? “DEFENSIVE! Angry. etc.”
- How might I feel differently if I believed something other than the ANT? “Well, if my boss actually likes it, I’d feel better, relieved, proud, happy.”
And now that ‘turnaround statement,’ a statement that explains a more likely reason for that puckered face on our boss (or whomever we are talking about). Typically, this statement is much simpler than the elaborate story you had going with that ANT. “I guess he could’ve been fussed at by the board—he did just leave that meeting.” You’ll notice that this is not the sour patch candy . . . but it is a MORE plausible reason for the pucker face—few people would think, “Candy. They’ve got sour candy in their mouth.” But if you do think of that one, more power to you!
By this point, you are beginning to calm down a little, but are still feeling on-edge. This is ok because you’re in better control now and can think to calmly ask your boss what they thought of the project, giving them a chance to actually tell you the truth. You may even ask if they are ok—that they look a little upset. This depends on your boss’ style and relationship with you; sometimes this kind of inquiry is frowned upon. Your safest bet is to just see what they actually think. If you’re going to put the energy into being bothered, you may at least want to be sure that that energy drain is directed at something real. . . and even if it is, you may want to work on smoothing out the rough edges.
And what if I already flew off the handle?
We’ve all engaged in anticipatory defensiveness at one time or another, so don’t beat yourself up–that actually feeds the same negative processes that led to it in the first place. If it’s just a once-in-a-while thing, then quite often, you don’t have to do anything as people tend to understand that we all have off days. If you want to apologize, you certainly can, but you don’t have to overdo it or beat yourself up; and certainly, don’t volunteer for a demotion or pay cut!! If your blow-up was big enough for your boss, or friend, family member, etc. to want to sit down and talk with you, remain mindful of AD popping up even in that discussion. . . you may want to consider avoiding caffeine. If you have the chance to speak first, you can be proactive with the apology and explain what you know went wrong, and how you are working on it diligently. When they are speaking, remain calm and understanding; remember, they care about you and your success and are just trying to help. Even a hard-nosed boss who is a bit intense usually wants to help you succeed because that helps them look good to their bosses. Ask good questions (like about what they see as your triggers), you may even request a follow-up meeting to check in on your progress (this one is mainly for work situations, but friends and family will usually be willing to do this as well). By showing them that you take this seriously and that you are mindful of how it looks, and the consequences on morale (or the vibe at home or with friends), you are sending a message that this is not just lip service. The main word of caution is to not be overly sappy, overly apologetic, and certainly not sarcastic.
If, however, anticipatory defensiveness (AD) has been a pattern that you really need to break, and you’ve addressed it before (let’s say with your boss, who may have called you out for it already), you’ll want to remind yourself of the tools in the previous section. When AD has become a habituated pattern, it feels even more automatic (which is why the ANT intervention works so well), and therefore more difficult to break. Consider writing down your triggers, perhaps ask your boss (friends, etc) when they have noticed you engaging in AD. Use your mindfulness practice to become more aware of these triggers as they happen, and even rehearse how to respond. Typically having some kind of internal statement like, “remember, get the facts,” or “Hey! No ANTs!” can help since it’s portable. Rehearsing it during minor situations will help you be able to access it when it really counts. You may even let people you trust know that you could use their help by saying your message, or a buzzword if they see you moving in the direction of AD. Because this may be sitting in your blind-spot, having somebody say “ANT” to you when they see you tensing up may help you catch it before you become agitated. Many people find visual reminders helpful, like a picture of an ant, an ant mound, or even an aardvark (ant-eater). Even the image at the top of this post will work if it reminds you to stay in control. I suggest moving it around (your computer monitor, for example) since when it’s left in place you may begin to tune it out. Different colors of Post-it notes work well for written reminders (or drawn reminders).
If it doesn’t work the first few times, it’s ok, it takes practice. Remember to have some compassion for yourself. If you want some extra help, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me.
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Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.