I want your honest opinion," said my friend Joanna, handing me her unpublished manuscript. "Don't whitewash; tell the truth. Promise!"
So I promised—apprehensively. Joanna's very talented, but I know she also takes criticism hard. To my relief, I loved her book, and I fired off an e-mail saying that the only way she could possibly improve it would be to make it a little more personal. "You're so amazing," I told her. "Putting more of you in the book would take it from great to sublime."
Joanna didn't write back for nearly a month. When she did, it was to tell me that my "attack" had left her "inconsolable."
I'd made a crucial mistake when I agreed to be Joanna's critic: I ignored my knowledge that she is a highly defensive person. People like her (let's call them HDPs for short) can be found in almost every family, workplace, or crowd. Dealing with them requires a special set of skills, a defense against defensiveness. I recommend keeping these techniques handy for dealing with the HDPs in your life—or for minimizing your own defensiveness, should it ever raise its touchy little head.
The Dark Side of Sensitivity
Joanna describes herself as sensitive, and she is. But her reaction to my comments wasn't sensitivity; it was defensiveness. The two may feel identical to the person experiencing them, but actually they're worlds apart. Sensitivity is born of careful attention. It involves looking closely, understanding deeply, and therefore not causing harm. Defensiveness, on the other hand, is the bastard child of shame. For people who have survived harshly judgmental environments, shame—the sick sense that they're basically inadequate—dominates the psychological landscape. They're sensitive the way a truckload of TNT is sensitive. Virtually any bump or jostle causes them to explode, often harming others.
Knowing an HDP's destructive behavior comes from shame doesn't excuse it. But at least it helps me understand why one of my clients dumped her boyfriend for "implying she was ugly" because he closed his eyes when they kissed, or why I once saw a party guest respond to the question, "Would you like some wine?" by snapping, "Why, do I look like an alcoholic?" From the outside, defensive behavior is disproportionate, bizarre, often appalling. But from the perspective of the HDPs, these actions are justifiable—no, necessary!—self-protection. I've spent a long time thinking about the best way to deal effectively with such people.
How to Have a Functional, Trusting, Relaxed, Mutually Satisfying Human Relationship with a Highly Defensive Person
Short answer: You can't.
Long answer: You really can't. Don't even try.
The reason one can't look to defensive people for top-quality relationships is that such relationships require two human beings. But defensive people don't think like humans. They think like reptiles. I mean this literally. Beneath the elaborate neural structures that mediate our subtle social interactions, we all possess what scientists call a reptilian brain. This ancient biological structure, which evolved in reptiles, isn't capable of nuanced emotion or logical thought. Its primary driving force is fear. Two fears, to be specific.
The first worry of all reptile brains (including yours and mine) is "I don't have enough!" Not enough love, money, food, credit, glory—the subject of our deprivation obsessions varies, but the theme "not enough" pounds away like a monotonous drumbeat. The only thing as loud to the reptile ear is its other major concern: "Someone's out to get me!" An HDP perceives threat coming from lots of sources; one day the Enemy may be a coworker, the next a relative, the next an entire nation. But to the reptile brain, someone, somewhere, is always about to attack.
This makes evolutionary sense. Lizards live longer if they obsessively acquire more food, shelter, and mates, and if they expect predators to jump them at any moment. Sadly, however, reptiles are blind to nondefensive emotions; to the glow of love, the tickle of amusement. The only thing playing on their mental screens, all day every day, is The Lack and Attack Show. The same is true of HDPs. When humans are gripped by primal fear, they become their inner lizards—and HDPs are virtually always gripped by primal fear.
So the best relationship you can hope to sustain with a defensive person is the sort you might have with a reptile. As a doctor here in Arizona once explained to a man who was bitten on the lip while kissing his pet rattlesnake (it made the newspapers), you simply cannot expect a loving connection from a reptile, even if you raised it from the egg. Remembering that these people are basically giant talking lizards will keep you from futilely trying to please them, persuade them or explain yourself to them. That's a key step. But a solid defense against defensiveness requires you to go further—to manage the fear that may put you in HDP mode.