By Elayne Savage, PhD
Last month I focused on what it feels like to have thin skin and to lash out. I promised a followup blog with a more in depth look at ways we protect ourselves when feeling assaulted, demeaned and vulnerable.
When we feel attacked our automatic defense is to attack back.
Especially when we feel backed into a corner – the claws come out, we tend to lash out, often becoming mean, vindictive and vengeful.
Having thin skin way too often we are taking something personally.
Puffing Ourselves Up, Bullying or Threatening
When we feel vulnerable, we tend to protect ourselves. Some of us take a tough stance. Some of us need to puff ourselves up and pile on layers of protection.
When taking a tough stance gets carried to the extreme, a person may engage in what seems like bullying behavior.
It always helps me to remember that underneath their bravado bullies often are feeling scared, insecure, anxious, hurting, ineffectual, or vulnerable. Maybe all of that.
So to compensate they they puff themselves up. Problem is, this inflation causes others to feel diminished.
I once heard comedian Robin Williams poignantly describe what it was like to finally get to know his father. The quote went something like this: “It’s like in The Wizard of Oz. Don’t look behind the curtain — behind it is a terribly fragile man.” The billowing smoke was only a smoke screen.
Connected to the need to puff ourselves up is . . .
The Need to Control a Situation
Here’s how I see the need to control: If you are feeling stressed or anxious, you want to stop the anxiety. This usually leads to attempts to control your environment. Unfortunately, people are part of the environment, and they might feel you’re attempting to control them as well.
Learning to control a situation becomes especially critical for some of us if we learn in childhood that it’s not a matter of if the insults or mistreatment will come, it’s a matter of when.
This may sound a little strange to you however here’s an idea to consider. Many of us know how painful it is and how vulnerable we feel to be on the receiving end of boundary-less and out-of-control abusive behavior. So in order to feel more in control of the situation some of us learn how to do or say things that initiate the actions we are dreading. It’s like, “Let’s just get it over with.”
So by actually provoking the exchange and controlling the timing of it, we can feel like we are in control.
As a result we may grow up getting very good at picking fights – we may be called “provocateurs,” “shit-kickers,” or “trouble makers.” Do you know folks who do this? Have you have even done some of it yourself on occasion?
“It’s Your Fault”
If we have experienced being blamed and shamed as children, we may become especialy sensitive to this feeling as adults.
To protect ourselves from this unsettling feeling we may turn around and blame others as a defense.
It’s a quick trip going from feeling blamed to blaming. Maybe this, too, is a way of puffing ourself and piling on layers up so we don’t feel so vulnerable.
We may blame others instead of taking responsibility for our part in something. Some of us even have a hard time saying “I’m sorry” which is often what the other person really wants to hear.
I’ve often said: “Taking responsibility for your own actions is not the same as blaming yourself.” And yet, to someone with who is very sensitive, acknowledging your part might feel weak and intolerable.
Finger Pointing and Psychological Projection
Psychological projection is a form of being in the center of our universe and attributing our own dark places, vulnerabilities and fears to others. In some instances we may find ourselves accusing others of our own defective failings.
Here’s how it works:
When thoughts, feelings, needs or fears are too hot to handle and they cause discomfort and anxiety we want to get rid of them. We might toss it over to someone else. Partners, friends or co-workers are handy recipients. And so are political opponents. Frequently accusing political enemies of unsavory or unethical behavior can be an indicator that the root of the behavior lies with the accuser.
Most of us have a tendency to try to protect ourselves from experiencing the anxiety associated with these unacceptable thoughts and feelings. So when our anxiety level shoots up a common protection is to deal with it by unconsciously attributing these dark places and vulnerabilities to others.
And we are often not even aware.
Do you recall the old Saturday Night Live joke about finger pointing? When someone is pointing their finger at you, remind yourself that three fingers are pointing right back at the person pointing. The SNL folks got it right.
If you are curious about the various flavors of projection I’ve blogged often about this over the years. Here are a few links:
Finger Pointing, Taking Things Personally and Projection
Donald Trump Leads the Way in Disrespecting Personal Boundaries
Blind Spots - Those Unacceptable Parts of of Ourselves
And still more in the archives index under Projection and Politics
Deflections, Distractions, Denial and Postponements
Other commonly used forms of self-protection are deflections, distractions, denial and postponements.
All of these describe the art of skillfully shifting a topic from one of greater importance to one of relative unimportance.
Connected to deflections is the attempt to delegitimize any source of information not supporting our own ideas or interests. Such people and groups become “losers” and “has-beens” and “failures.”
Here are Some Tips for Not Taking Things So Personally:
– It helps to put things in perspective by repeating:
"This is not about me. This is most likely about the other person. They are probably talking about themselves. What might they be saying?“
– Too often a situation in the present reminds us of a negative experience from the past. Can you get some distance by reminding yourself to separate the ‘then’ from the ‘now.’
– Check things out. Try not to assume intent or ‘fill in the blanks’ with what you imagine the other person meant.
– You really can’t read someone’s mind nor can you expect them to read yours.
– Try to remember you do have options even when you feel backed into a corner.
Discover your options by walking alongside yourself and noticing your thoughts and actions.
Are you taking something personally?
Are you fuming?
Do you want to continue down the same path or would you like to back up to the fork in the road and try out different behavior? How would you really like to respond?
I last month's blog I talked about how many of us grew up in families where we were discouraged from asking questions and checking things out.
Here’s a simple way to check things out:
This is what I heard you say ____________.
Is it What you said?
Is it what you meant?
What other defensive protections can you think of? Do you have any stories to tell?
© Elayne Savage, PhD
Until next month,
Elayne Savage is the author of ground-breaking relationship books published in 9 languages.
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