Common sense says that when a person gets defensive it’s because they’re guilty. But I would suggest there is nuance here when people have grown over a lifetime to feel guilty or ashamed of themselves. People who grow up in certain cultures repeatedly receive the message that they are internally defective, untrustworthy, or wrong and need to “get right” through rigid perfectionism or ongoing displays of guilt and shame. Even when we get out of those families, religions, or other communities, that habit of reacting to any implication of guilt and shame persists.
Discussions about the “isms” are rife with defensiveness and hostility. Cisgender people who experience “cis” or “TERF” as a slur. White people who feel appalled, hurt, and disgusted at being called “racist.” Men who experience being told their behavior is “sexist” as “a disgusting insult.” Here I am focusing on these folks, recognizing that many white cisgender men (of which I am one) feel dogpiled, attacked, that somehow it’s okay to hate on privileged people but they’re not allowed to point out when others are acting with disrespect.
What I’m trying to name, before we even go into that, is that most of us in these conversations are reacting to our own feelings of guilt and shame when we hear these things. We think the person is calling us something awful because their words bring up uncomfortable feelings, and we defend against it like we do many other experiences of shame and guilt. We lose center and the possibility for a real, honest conversation in which there is mutual healing and growth.
Certainly anyone can be an asshole regardless of gender, sex, ethnicity, level of ability, class, etc. And it is certain that these reactions happen in all kinds of conversations, even the most seemingly innocuous ones. In our intimate partnerships, a simple disagreement over folding laundry might bring up these feelings. Sometimes it is necessary to step back and care for ourselves. Developing discernment about when to engage, when to step back, is a process that begins by looking at ourselves.
“Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”
One way I think of this is that two things happen from the inner and outer world. From the outer world we hear something like, “I’m pissed at you about what you said.” Or “You seem to listen to other men and belittle women.” Or “Black lives matter.” In the inner world, we “hear” more messages that come from our early wounding, like, “You’re terrible and hurt people you love.” Or “You’re worthless and don’t matter.” Though these are “you” statements, they come from within. They are actually “I” statements, my secret fears about myself. And they are all lies with just enough truth to be highly persuasive.
We could spend our lives trying to get people to stop saying things that bring up these painful inner experiences, which is akin to the solution of trying to cover the entire earth with leather. We could also begin to name, defuse from, and heal those inner wounds, which would be to cover our own feet with leather.
It is worthwhile to start small and engage in contemplation. This does not have to be a politically-related conversation but rather any kind of confrontation that left you feeling confused, hurt, or distanced from someone. Journaling is useful, as it helps to get the thoughts out of our head and so we can look at them with greater objectivity. Talking to someone who will simply listen and reflect what they’re hearing is also useful.
- Think on these questions first—What happened? What was said? What did the other person say and do? What did you say and do?
- What was your experience? What feelings, memories, imaginations arose? What in particular troubled you?
- Taking the most troubling part of the interaction, engage in a process of contemplation. Follow the thread of meaning deeper. For example, “What did it mean to me when this person said [X]?” “What does it mean to me that I felt this way?” “What does it mean to me that I believe this?”
- Review this material and see if a pattern emerges, a theme, a scary/upsetting/angering story about yourself or your relationships with other people.
- Set an intention to watch how this story plays out over the course of the next two weeks. Whenever you notice that story arising, pause to take a breath, and perhaps journal about it later. Notice how often it comes up, in what circumstances, whether it is fairly constant or limited to certain situations. Also notice when things occur that seem to contradict the story, or times when you might respond.
At this point, we’ve gone far afield of the kind of political arguments with which I framed this, and that’s the point. This is a practice to help you come to greater self-awareness and freedom with your own patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Rather than taking them for granted as unfailingly accurate interactions with the world, they are material for study and growth as you grow deeper in your understanding of the truth of yourself and your relationships. When we do this, the harder and more nuanced discussions go better.
We are all figuring this out. Life, politics, cultural shifts, new technologies, economic transitions. The stakes are high and yet we’re all stumbling around in the dark with only our experiences and understandings of history to guide us. The more free I am with my guilt and shame, the better able I am to hear and respond to these difficult moments. I can sit with a confrontation and take in the information that is useful and discard what is not. I can withdraw from interactions that have become unproductive and focus my energy on what is life-affirming.