As lawyers, it is
our job to be right. To get the right answer, to find the right solution, to
have the right words. In truth, you could say that about any profession, unless
you are a meteorologist (no one is ever surprised when they are wrong). No one likes
to be wrong.
Many of my clients struggle with being wrong
because of what they make that mean about themselves. If they are wrong, it
must mean they are not good enough, they aren’t cut out to be lawyers.
I recently had a mini-session
with a young attorney who was telling me about her horrible work environment.
When I asked her to give me an example of how her horrible boss had berated
her, she said that he told her the memo she prepared for him was terrible and
that she completely missed one of the most important legal issues. “What
were you thinking?!” he had said to her. And. She. Was. Pissed.
How could he speak to me like that? I don’t deserve
to be treated like that. He completely embarrassed me in front of all my
As we talked about
it, I asked her to answer this question: what exactly she was thinking when she
turned in the memo? I just wanted it to be over
with. I hate working for him. It as a terrible legal issue and I just wanted to
be done with it. The more we discussed it, we discovered that the memo
was not great, was not well thought out, and she had, in fact, missed an
important legal issue. Everything this partner had said to her was true.
When we feel
ourselves getting defensive, the most important question you can ask yourself
before you explode on the other human is this:
Are they right?
Is it true?
If it is true, what am I making that mean about
myself and why?
Whenever we are
feeling defensive, it is because you believe that part of whatever criticism
you just received is true. If it wasn’t true, at least in part, it wouldn’t
If someone were to
say to me, That article you wrote for the paper
last week was pretty terrible, it wouldn’t bother me. I wouldn’t care
because I didn’t write an article for any paper. There is no truth in that
statement for me. It doesn’t resonate with me at all.
However, if someone
were to say to me, You and your partner should
have kids, you’re going to regret it, my hair would practically start on
fire. That hits a mark because it hits on thoughts and doubts that I have had
about my life. It challenges decisions I have made and second-guessed. There is
a possibility that, some day, I might regret our decision not to have kids. It
hurts because I have grappled with and questioned the truth of that exact
For many of us, when
people hurl these types of comments at us, we ignite. We get defensive, we get
angry and indignant.
The reason we are
defensive is because we see that fleck of truth and we don’t like what that
means: it reminds us that they might be right.
For my client,
acknowledging the truth of what her partner said meant owning the fact that she
didn’t do a good job. When she opened herself up to that possibility, what
quickly followed was the conclusion that she was not cut out to be lawyer. She
just wasn’t good enough. She was never going to make it. Those thoughts made
her feel hopeless and scared.
Instead of working
through those ugly thoughts resulting from the truth of the statement, we
resist all of it.
We push it back onto
the other person. We try to argue that what they said wasn’t true. It is always
easier to be angry and defensive than admit our faults.
If we allow the other person to be right, at least, in part, we have to examine what that means for ourselves. What are you making it mean when you do a sub-par job at work? What are you making it mean when you regret a decision you made years ago?
Most of us make
those mistakes mean something terrible about ourselves. We allow ourselves to
conclude that we are bad people, less than, failures. Defensiveness and anger
are a means to avoid those thoughts and feelings. It is a way to cover them up
and distract from what you are really feeling and thinking about yourself.
Life is yin and
yang, good and bad.
If you can take full
ownership of the uncomfortable parts of life, acknowledge and accept when we
mess up, how much easier would life be? What if we could mess up and not
torture ourselves for it?
So how do you stop
this cycle? First, whenever you feel yourself getting defensive, stop and
recognize the parts of the criticism that you believe; recognize the critical
thoughts you have had before.
that you are making your failures mean something terrible about yourself. You
are beating yourself up every time you aren’t perfect. That is the root of your
avoidance. It is why you are getting angry and defensive.
If you can allow
yourself to fail gracefully and simply own it when you mess up and not make it
mean something negative about yourself, there is nothing to avoid. There is no
reason to be angry or defensive.
Could you imagine
how my client’s relationship with that partner would change if she was able to
respond, “You know what, you’re right, I can do better than this. I
apologize and I will use this as a learning experience.”
Commit to believing
that every failure is simply one more step on your path to figuring things out.
Each time you mess up is another opportunity to learn and grow.
It’s what makes you
human and being human means you are never going to be perfect.
relationships have we contaminated by being defensive when we knew, deep down,
we were in the wrong but didn’t want to admit it?
How many times did
we allow our mis-steps to be fodder for self-deprecation?
Stop doing that to
yourself. You are a human and that means you come equipped with a certain level
of imperfection. Instead of resisting your imperfections, own them, accept them
as a part of life and love yourself regardless. Do not resist them and cover
them up with anger and defensiveness. It’s not
serving you and it’s not true.
Need support? Sign up for a free consultation and take the first step to cleaning up your relationship with yourself and those around you.
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