Defending Yourself: Why It Is A Good Idea


I feel like an insect with which children are playing,

so pitilessly does existence handle me.

- Sören Kierkegaard

opular culture would have us believe that psychological defenses are categorically bad, representing a general guardedness toward life that suggests resistance to growth. It is true that when we are being defensive we are less able to take in valuable information, a state that can leave us rigid and unreachable. It is also true, however, that without defenses we would be psychologically exposed to such a flood of information, influence and menace that we would be simply incapable of processing anything. Like Kierkegaard's insect, we would feel pitilessly overwhelmed by existence.

I hope to convince you with this article that we each deserve a watchful and protective inner sentinel that can alert us to incoming threats. When that sentinel is well trained, we will be fairly safe behind a well-designed defensive system that provides a mechanism for managing the flow of both information and influence, keeping them at a level that minimizes danger and allows us to process things, more or less, in real time. To that end we want a system that neither too loosely nor too tightly controls the inflow of data from our environment. An effective defense system must also be able to assess the source of information for the appropriateness of the influence and the possibility of danger. We need defenses, but we need defenses that are well designed.

But what is a defense system? It is the ability to control where and how thoroughly we focus our attention. For example, if another driver honks at me I can focus on what I think he may be doing wrong (if he’d signaled, I would have let him turn in front of me), I can focus on what I may be doing wrong (not paying close enough attention), or I can ignore the entire episode (remaining unchanged by the encounter). If my boss is presenting me with a performance review, I can commit to hearing everything she says, focus on just her criticism, concentrate on only her positive feedback or just tune her out. Where I put my attention and to what degree I pay attention determines in large part what I am learning about myself at any given moment. It also, of course, determines how vulnerable I am.

If the driver continues to follow me down the street honking his horn, I become aware that I will need to increase my focus. Is he sincerely trying to communicate with me (my briefcase is on top of the car) or is he signaling that he is dangerous (road rage in action)? If the feedback from my boss is starting to pile up on the negative side, I would be wise to lower my defenses, as hard as that may be, and pay greater attention to this review.

These brief examples demonstrate the three broad categories of attention: we can ignore something, we can hyperfocus on it, or we can regard something to the degree we can handle it. If you are feeling symptoms of an illness, as an example, you can ignore them and block any valuable data from getting in (“I’m sure I’m just fine.”); you can hyperfocus on them, bringing your emotions up to a panic level and your normal life to a halt (“I’ve got cancer.”); or you can attend to them to the best of your ability, staying engaged in your regular life while you attend to your ongoing symptoms, study treatment options, talk with others with similar symptoms, meet with doctors, etc. (“Uh-oh. This may be serious.”)

If we refuse to allow ourselves to attend to something, our defense system is said to be overdeveloped. Little to no information is getting in to the executive functioning portion of our psyche and we don’t have sufficient data to process. If we hold our attention on one thing until we are emotionally swamped, our defense system is underdeveloped. Too much information is getting in, we are unable to sort or prioritize the data and we lose perspective. Obviously, a well-developed defensive system is what we strive for, allowing in a beneficial, productive level of information. A classic existential example: Ignoring the fact that we are going to die is an overdeveloped defense. Dwelling on the fact that we are going to die is an underdeveloped defense. Using death as a way to heighten our ability to live meaningfully is a well-developed defense.


Reason and Existenz

- Karl Jaspers



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So how do we go about constructing an effective defensive system?

What creates a well-developed defensive system is learning to control the focus of our mind. What makes this difficult is that our minds leap so quickly to what they wish to attend to that we don’t realize that there is actually a cascade of little steps that occurs along the way. Let me slow down that cascade of events so you can start to distinguish where you could make changes and take control.

Generally, our mind is willing to pay attention to whatever it is that we have prioritized (unless we have the neurological wiring of Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder). If we want to focus on the task in front of us, our next task, our upcoming lunch hour, the mosquito bite on our wrist, or the discussion that is going on in the next office, we can shift our focus at will and hold it on the new target. That is, until we come up against a boundary situation, a term coined by the existential writer Karl Jaspers. A boundary situation occurs whenever we are reminded by something that Fate has dropped into our day that we are in charge of leading ourselves through life. Boundary situations can be small, such as a canceled appointment that leaves you with an hour of unstructured time, a new coworker joining the staff, or a speeding ticket. Or they can be big, such as moving to a new town, finding out that you are pregnant, or being asked to speak at an international conference. Something has happened in our life, bringing into focus our immediate future and forcing us to assess how we have been doing so far. Jaspers put it more poetically: "No longer is the world merely an object of knowledge for me to which I may permit myself to remain indifferent; rather, in it I find my very own being in which I am deeply stirred."

Thus, a boundary situation takes us off of automatic pilot and forces us to take control of the airplane. And what activates our defenses is the sense that the plane may be too big for us to handle.

So our mind gets worried.

A worried mind tends to react instantly, and when our mind reacts instantly it favors default settings, which is an efficient and adaptive tendency. When challenged, therefore, the mind defaults to our preferred defensive stance. So, if we want to improve our ability to control our defensive system, we have to figure out which one tends to be activated within us. We do this by monitoring our anxiety level because each defensive strategy precipitates a different level of anxiety.

1) To ignore the data of a boundary situation eliminates anxiety. No worries. This numb place is very pleasant. We all seek relief here. If we only occasionally pretend that taxes aren't coming due, our cholesterol levels are just fine or those progress reports will just write themselves, we needn't be too concerned. But if we are ignoring serious boundary issues, our lives will be running entirely on default systems. For example, a person who fears intimacy might simply pretend that other people do not matter. Or, someone who wants to avoid the tension of making a wise choice may rush into marriage simply hoping for the best. Life seems easier than it really is because we are not being challenged by uncomfortable pressure from our world. Jaspers called this “the hardened egocentricity of the non-involved.” (He had a way with words!) Again, this is the over-developed defensive position. We are shut off from life.

2) To be overwhelmed by the boundary situation creates debilitating levels of anxiety. The deer in the headlights. We all also spend some time in this unpleasant place. Public speaking jumps to mind. But when this strategy becomes a pattern of behavior that limits our engagement in everyday life, we are better off giving this a close look. Examples of this would be an inability to fly due to terror of plane crashes or to talk with strangers for fear of incapacitating embarrassment. Life seems more difficult than it really is because we are getting too much feedback from our world about how awful things can be and we lose our ability to stand back and gain perspective. Jaspers referred to this state as “the bewilderment of passion, in a state of radical agitation without the clarity of transcendence.” This is the under-developed defensive position. We are besieged by life.

3) To face the boundary situation with some aplomb allows us to titrate anxiety to a noticeable but manageable level. We feel fear but engage in life nonetheless. Luckily, we all manage to get here much of the time. Examples of this powerful place would be asking your boss for a raise despite appropriate trepidation, breaking the ice after an argument with someone, facing an old battle such as revisiting the yearly budget with your spouse, or moving beyond your comfort zone by going off alone on a new adventure. Life becomes a rich series of learning experiences because we have a tolerable amount of feedback coming in. It is, to Jaspers, Existenz with a capital “E.” This is the well-developed defensive position. We are participating robustly in life.

As you can see then, if we have no anxiety we have found the over-developed defensive system, meaning we are being too well protected. If our anxiety is roaring, we have found the under-developed defensive system meaning we are not being protected enough. If we recognize the purr of anxiety, we are using a well-developed defensive system and information is coming to us at the rate we can handle.

Existentialists believe that if you’re a little nervous, you’re probably a lot alive. There are two steps that can help you reach this recommended state.

Creating a healthy defense step one

The first step in creating healthy defenses is rethinking our relationship with anxiety. We no longer want to simply eliminate it, for, as an appropriate symptom of distress, it is diagnostic of the current default setting for our defense system. It is also – at that medium, purring level – an appropriate reaction to the fact that life is difficult. As Sören Kierkegaard described it:

Anxiety is our best teacher. I would say that learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition either by not having known anxiety or by sinking under it. He therefore who has learned rightly to be anxious has learned the most important thing.

And, if we can shift our attitude about anxiety to see it as an important indicator of how much we’re challenging ourselves, this new attitude will accomplish an additional important thing. It will lessen our anxiety about having anxiety and replace it with a curiosity about having anxiety. This marvelous switcheroo is made possible by the fact that our brains love curiosity so much that inquisitiveness tends to dominate the limbic system and push aside anxiety or fear. That means the level of anxiety can be reduced from what existentialists consider to be a neurotic level (anxiety on top of anxiety – or panic) to the merely normal level of anxiety (simple anxiety – that murmur of being fully alive).

Therefore, counter to what you may have thought, we need to detect levels of anxiety that are both too high and too low. By doing so, we will be discovering which of the two unhelpful stances we have adopted at any particular boundary situation and we will be able to modify it slightly.

Creating a healthy defense step two

The second step is to force ourselves to change our immediate focus.

If we find we are too complacent due to being over defended, we learn to lower our shields ever so slightly to let in more truth. By this I mean, we force our minds to engage the facts that we have been ignoring and we tolerate our increasing anxiety. The point is to let in as much information as we can until our anxiety starts to paralyze us. Then we allow our minds to revert back to their preferred defensive stance until our anxiety lowers again. For instance, if our anxiety is so low about how to spend our unanticipated free hour that we are staring numbly out the window, we will want to pull our attention back into the room and think about how precious the next hour is. If we keep forgetting to phone the doctor back to get the results of our medical test, we may want to write ourselves a huge reminder note to bring that need back into focus.

If we find we are too apprehensive due to being under defended, we practice turning our gaze away from the fearful object for a moment or two. Because the mind will not tend to respond to the request to focus on nothing, we learn to give it something else to think about as a distraction. The classic cognitive/behavioral intervention called “thought stopping” involves using a carefully visualized, bright red stop sign for distracting ourself. Other strategies include using humor, music, reading, exercise, conversation or even, in some very difficult situations, counting – anything that will give us a moment’s break from the hyperfocus. If we find ourselves paralyzed with indecision about how to spend our precious next hour, we may need to focus on the hummingbirds outside our window for a moment while our anxiety subsides. If we are so anxious about calling the doctor that our heart is racing, we may need to visualize asking someone to do it with us.

If we can only initially manage the new behavior of forced engagement or forced disengagement for 15 seconds, that’s fine. We try it for 15 seconds and retreat into the safe familiarity of our default setting. Perhaps next time we can maintain the new behavior for 20 seconds. The more we practice these thought struggles, as with all new behaviors, the better we get at them.

With each glance we increase our capacity to tolerate a new truth. Eventually, our minds develop the skill and trust that allow them to maintain a good, semi-permeable focus – letting in just the right amount of data. We will also learn to act more quickly in a boundary situation to control our focus before we allow our anxiety to be either turned off or turned up. As our ability to select an appropriate level of defense increases, we will begin to feel that our defenses are appropriately self-protective rather than incarcerating – they work for us rather than against us.

Helpful tips

As is always, always the case, we cannot increase one of the skills underlying existential intelligence if we cannot replace shame with curiosity. In this case, we will not be able to redesign our defensive system if we feel the need to direct the view of others away from areas that bring us shame and into an area where we can defend our behavior. So keep working to eliminate the Trojan horse of shame.

Also, we must consider the source of the information to determine how defended we need to be relative to it. Incoming data can be dangerous for several reasons.

1. It could be that the person we are hearing from is so important to us that we cannot help but find their input irresistible. If we let in too much influence from people like that there may not be enough room inside of us to let us discover ourselves. A charismatic mentor, for example, could influence us to follow them down a career path that may not be a good choice for us.

2. It could be that the person we are hearing from is mean spirited and simply wishes to vent on us. Accepting their version of the truth can be toxic. This type of input is often disguised with protestations of concern for our well-being or faux self-deprecation. The disguises are meant to misdirect our focus away from the danger signs that would alert us to the sloppiness of their position and onto the content of their rant. “I’m telling you this because I know you want to be a good friend…” “I’m not a psychologist, but I think you should know…”

3. Perhaps we are hearing from folks whom we respect and who are trying to give us helpful information, but their perspective is simply too different from ours for their advice to be beneficial. If I am trying hard to establish myself as an architect who specializes in little, simple houses, it won’t be helpful for me to listen to feedback from colleagues with a grand, high tech perspective.

4. Finally, information can be dangerous to us if it would serve only to rev up our nervous system. If there is nothing we can do in the short run with the information to be had, it makes little sense to collect it. Cyber-based hypochondria, the tendency to “catch” whatever disease you are researching on the Internet, is a good example of inadvisable information overload.

To evaluate the safety of an information source, we look inside our minds to see how much the source matters to us and why it matters. Then we look at the source and consider how reliable and compatible it is with us and with our values.

The pith

To recap the process of designing a good defensive system: You learn to control the focus of your mind by first finding where it wants to send its attention. Your typical level of anxiety will tell you where your mind tends to go. If you're terribly anxious, you metaphorically have your nose pressed right up against the middle of the threat. If you're complacent to the point of numbness, you have turned your back on a flow of important data. If either of these states describe your level of anxiety, make sure you have eliminated shame and then get curious about how much you can move the focus of your mind. Shift your attention as necessary until the incoming flow of information is balanced between your ability to handle the anxiety and the need for incoming data.

Positive behavior facilitates further positive behavior. In this case, because we are calmer about our ability to defend ourselves well, we will feel more confident. With confidence comes expanded boundaries and, ironically, less need for defensiveness. We are able to be more open to input because we feel safe within ourselves. Our life becomes an Existenz with a capital “E.”

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