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One of the favorite refuges of arguers and old-school psychotherapists everywhere is to invoke the old Freudian saw, “Why are you being so defensive?”

Now while it’s true that sometimes, people are being defensive, this line of argument tends to be almost completely useless – unless your goal is to escalate the argument. Telling someone they’re being defensive is a sure way to get their defenses up even higher. And for the person accused, there is no escape: anything they say will be construed as further defensiveness, while the other person sits smug in their knowledge that they did nothing wrong.

Joe Weldon, one of the co-heads of the RSM training program and possibly my favorite teacher in the history of my personal universe, used to tell a story on this topic that I now find myself retelling constantly. Besides being a Master Synergist and having taught Rubenfeld Synergy Method for 30 years, Joe is a clinical psychologist and has been for even longer. He often had clashes with his colleagues, due to his unorthodox approaches, and apparently, nobody is more manipulative to psychologists than other psychologists. Once, in a meeting with a number of them that became heated, they told him, “You’re just being defensive!”

“Yes,” he said to them. “That’s because you’re attacking me.”

This was both the simplest and the best response I’d ever heard to that pointless accusation, in part because it draws on the wisdom of the body. One RSM principle states that the body always tells the truth, and if we pay attention, we know when we’re on alert – on the defense. And because the body has integrity, there is generally a reason why that’s happening: because we feel attacked.

“Attacked” may not always be literal, of course: the “attack” may be a feeling of neglect, of being pushed aside or taken for granted. It may be a sense of feeling unheard. It may be that you’re feeling manipulated, or taken advantage of. The point is that the body’s response to an attack is to defend. If you’re feeling defensive, look for where the attack is coming from.

This isn’t to say that it’s always the case that you’re being “attacked” from without. Trauma triggers, even what my own Synergist calls “lowercase-t trauma,” can cause the body to go on defense even when the intentions of someone on the outside are not to attack. Even without a major life trauma, there are habits and patterns our bodies learn: an old lover hurt us badly, and a situation with a new lover that resembles the situation with the old one may cause our feelings to be magnified beyond what is appropriate to the situation. We were laughed at as a child for being clumsy, and a lighthearted response to our dropping something makes us furious. The question in Synergy becomes: where is the wound? What was it that brought you to this place, and how can we shift it in the here and now?

This is a question I carry with me constantly these days. When someone cuts me off in traffic and makes violent gestures, I wonder: where is the wound? When I see someone abused, I wonder about the abuser: where is the wound? Even when I’m reminded of something like the horrors perpetrated in Sierra Leone by yesterday’s news of Charles Taylor’s conviction, I still wonder: for a man to orchestrate the systematic torture, rape, enslavement and killing of millions, what horrible things must have happened to him? Where is the wound?

Because nothing we do is without story. No defenses are built from nothing. Nobody erects fortresses who have never been harmed.

Why are you being defensive?

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