I try to live my life with as much curiosity as possible. There is always more to learn if you’re open and curious. This is true for me in my line of work for sure, I’m curious about a lot when I sit with others talking about their deepest feelings and more difficult moments. I ask a lot of questions and help them think, reflect and discover. I am generally a pretty curious person by nature, which makes my job a bit easier. I also try to help clients develop their own sense of curiosity as a skill or tool, especially in relationships with other.
In marriages, partnerships, friendships, or any kind of relationship (even in relationship with ourselves), it is natural to feel defensive at times. This is a protective mechanism that seems automatic – it seems like we just flip and become defensive.
Defensiveness can take the form of speaking over someone, raising our voice, making snappy remarks or excuses, blaming, or completely withdrawing,
What I often ask my clients to try is:
Notice that you’re feeling defensive.
How do you know? What happens in your body? Mind? Thoughts? Feelings? Do you become warmer in temperature? Do you raise your voice? Do you stop a conversation by leaving the room? Does your partner give you feedback that says you’re acting defensive? Do you start to feel a tightness in your chest, belly, throat, or do your shoulders start to raise up?
Noticing and having awareness of your own personal cues around defensiveness is key. Once you realize that you’re feeling defensive with your partner, friend, lover, colleague, etc., then you can start to make some changes. So, give yourself a lot of credit for noticing the defensive feelings and behaviors.
Attempt to switch from being less defensive and more curious.
Rather than accusing or blaming the other person for acting a certain way, could you ask questions? “I was wondering if your intention was to hurt me by saying…?” or “Do you think/feel like we have a problem here? What is your theory?” If you have a specific theory about something, maybe you could attempt to share your theory as a question, as well. Something like, “I don’t think we’re really fighting about the milk, I wonder if you might agree with my theory that this is more to do with the fact that we haven’t been intimate in over a month – what do you think?”
Find curiosity within yourself, toward yourself.
What is my intention? Am I blaming him/her/they when this is really something that I dropped the ball on? If I dig deeper, am I afraid of something? What could it be? Do I feel like this might be something I could apologize for?
I am reminded here that the words, I’m sorry, Thank you, and Please are some of the most important words to use in relationship with others. Remember to use them often, they can go a long way.
Noticing your bodily cues and sensations.
You may notice a tightness or holding in an area of your body, but not really understand much about it. You could also be curious about sensations and ask yourself questions about it. You could also possibly share this experience with your partner or loved one. “I’m feeling a tightness in my chest as we’re talking; it’s actually hard to breathe. I don’t really know what is going on. Hmmm…as I talk about it out loud now, I think I’m having a hard time talking about this topic because I’m afraid you might leave me (and break my heart).”
You could also attempt to soften your body in times of defensiveness. When you notice there is tightness, holding, or tension. Breath into these areas. Deep breathing can be effective in noticing a releasing defensiveness. The mind-body connection ensures that if you relax your body, your mind will follow and if you work to relax or change your mind, your body will naturally follow.
Defensiveness is a protective measure.
What do you feel you are protecting yourself from? Could you find compassion for yourself around the fear/need for protection? Realizing that fear is likely present underneath it all, could be important and key to making changes.
Kimberly Atwood is a licensed psychotherapist and certified sex therapist in private practice in Princeton, NJ. She works with individuals and couples specializing in sexual health, intimacy and relationship issues. For more information, please check out her website.