If I need to defend myself, I’m feeling attacked and sometimes guilty. Strangely, most humans carry guilt around all the time, even if there’s nothing to feel guilty about. That quiet, persistent guilt just sits there in the background, infecting how we feel about ourselves, poisoning our communications and sickening our relationships.
This existential guilt accounts for our feelings of self-loathing and why we don’t think we measure up to some bizarre standard we’ve set … we’re never clever enough, slim enough, beautiful enough, wealthy enough, popular enough and on and on.
As we recognise and acknowledge that persistently toxic guilt, we can see that it’s with us but not of us. It’s not true and it’s not going away. It’s a persistent fly buzzing around and we can choose to let it annoy us or we can choose not to react. The fly doesn’t care and nor does the guilt.
Then, sometimes, we let someone down. We forget, we get busy, our priorities change, the unexpected happens and we don’t keep our word. We’re humans, not robots, and we forget, change our minds and are pushed around by the world … then we disappoint someone and another level of guilt kicks in, a transient guilt.
So, it’s healthy to recognise that the persistent guilt won’t go away and it’s difficult to avoid the transient guilt from time to time. That’s part of being human – guilt just is.
What we do have a choice about, however, is how we deal with the guilt or any perceived attacks on us.
We can retaliate with attack or we can stay even. When people throw rocks at us, we can throw them back or we can stack them up, stand on them and become bigger people.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.
The impact on relationships of defensiveness is huge and can push our partners away emotionally and physically. We want to blame the other for our uncomfortable feelings and the alternative to defensiveness (or attack in response to a perceived attack) is to take responsibility for our feelings and actions … to open our eyes, open our hearts and watch the guilt pass by on the road to nowhere. As we do this, we can let perceived slights, insults and judgements go over our shoulders, not up our noses and choose again the words we use.
For example, if someone asks us why we didn’t do something we’d promised to do, we can either say, with defensiveness:
“You know how busy I am and you’ve got nothing to do so I don’t know why you didn’t do it!!!”
Or, with self responsibility:
“Yes, I’m sorry. I should have realised how busy I was and asked you to do it.”
What’s the difference between these replies?
The real difference is that one is about what someone else did wrong (should have done, the lame blame game) and the other is about what we did wrong (the owning-our-stuff, responsibility game).
When we blame, we give the power and discontent to another; we become lame. When we own our actions, there is no discontent to give and only responsibility to take.
Every word, every sentence, every conversation is a choice. And, yes, in a heated moment, it can be difficult to stand square in our true power, our responsibility, and there is always, always, always another chance to put things right. An apology and a restatement is more powerful than a quick put-down.
Like anything we ever learned, it just takes practice, practice and more practice and, soon, there is no need for blame or apologies, there is just responsibility and power. Relationships become stronger, love becomes sweeter and experiences become joyous.
When you feel defensive, what can you do to stop attacking your partner?
If you mess up and attack, what can you do to take responsibility quickly?
When do you attack the most – stressful times, busy times, feeling bored?
There is hope for a relationship that bounces around on defensiveness, so don’t think that all is lost!
Anna Louise & Philip J Bradbury