Edited to add: I saw this post pop up in my email (Yes, I subscribe to my own blog THANK YOU VERY MUCH) and I worried this title might not be as funny as I thought it was when I wrote it. So now I’m all worried someone might REALLY think this post is about them and I’m thinking I should change the title and then it occurred to me that I’m basically just proving how sensitive my shame trigger is which IS THE WHOLE POINT OF THIS POST. Anyway…I’m leaving the title but I’m letting you know that I’m worried it’s not funny so that you can keep that in mind while you read this as proof that I really am as anxious about shame as I say I am.
I’m about to talk about defensiveness. And I’m nervous people are going to get defensive. Isn’t that funny? Or is it ironic? I’m always scared to use the word ironic, afraid I’m pulling an Alanis Morisette.
Anyway! Defensiveness. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In these polarizing times on social media where we’re reading everything without context clues or personal knowledge of a situation, there can be defensiveness on all fronts as we all confront our shame. Whether an article for a news outlet, a tweet from an activist, or a Facebook post from a friend…we don’t know what in the author’s life triggered them to write something, and so it’s hard not to find ourselves as the cause because it’s ALWAYS ABOUT US, right? If you share out an article on Facebook about how people who get tattoos are narcissists I AM GOING TO ASSUME YOU THINK I AM A NARCISSIST. Even if the real reason you shared it is because it fit your ex-husband perfectly.
If you’ve been reading me for long, or if you’ve known me personally for long, you know that I get defensive VERY VERY VERY easily. This is because I am constantly worried that I sound [insert negative characteristic here]. It’s a very common feeling for someone with anxiety disorders and if you spend a lot of time writing and being vulnerable online, you open up yourself to these moments a lot more than the average person.
Sometimes I feel stupid, like when I said to my husband in anger one time: “NEW ORLEANS IS A LARGE STATE, DONNIE!” Or sometimes I feel ignorant like when someone had to explain to me (a long time again, thank god) why the word “retarded” is offensive and should not be used casually. Or sometimes I feel racist like the time one of you guys had to explain to me why “illegal immigrant” is not the right phrasing to use.
All of these moments were rooted in shame, which is what made me defensive. I was ashamed of my ignorance or bigotry and therefore I wanted to lash out to defend myself.
Here’s the thing, I know that the root of defensiveness is shame. That if someone correcting me is legitimately wrong then I don’t feel defensive in that frantic way, I simply defend myself in a much more practical way. There is a difference, and I’m learning to recognize that it is shame that makes the difference. So, I tend to sit with something for awhile and see if my reflexes are rooted in shame, or in a need to legitimately defend myself. And most of the time it’s shame, so I try to curb the reflexive tendency.
The trouble is it’s not always clear where the root of the reflex is because being corrected never feels good. I know my tendencies are to feel shame at the slightest trigger…it comes with my anxiety disorder. And sometimes I can really see shame in my reflexes and I can back off and say, “You are right. Illegal immigrant is very problematic. I had not thought of that. Thank you for so kindly explaining that to me.”
But other times I can see the the person correcting me is possibly coming at me unnecessarily. Maybe they’re coming at me with their own baggage and insecurities. Maybe we’re both at fault a bit? I have an example and let me preface it by saying: I don’t actually remember who left the comment and I do not want to hurt anyone’s feelings so if it was you, please don’t be mad at me. This is just a good example of when two parties might be a little wrong.
(Another thing I worry about: HURTING PEOPLE’S FEELINGS.)
Anyway. I was going to a protest once and I had a sign that said “Deport Racists, Not Children” and someone called me out on social media saying that not everyone on the opposite side of my argument were racists. Now, I wanted to get defensive. I wanted to say: It’s just a sign! And a lot of them ARE racists! But I also reflected on the fact that the sign was more negative than I wanted to be and while I like reading those signs, I didn’t want to carry them. So I recognized that while I was not calling everyone who supported Trump’s immigration policies racist, I was doing something I didn’t necessarily stand behind. I left the sign at home and I deleted the picture from social media. And I was actually kind glad they called me out because I really did not want to carry something that sign the more I thought about it.
BUT. Before I did, someone else defended me to that commenter saying that I didn’t call everyone opposing me a racist. I just said “deport racists” and she felt like the sign was fine. And it got me thinking, maybe that person was worried their opposition made them racist? Maybe they had their own shame they were dealing with too? So maybe we were BOTH a little ashamed? I’m not calling the commenter racist, I don’t even remember who it was! I obviously did not know them! But I’m saying that in some moments in a conflict everyone feels a little ashamed and no one is entirely innocent of wrongdoing.
Another example is EVERY TIME someone on social media belittles online activism in the form of writing because we should all be doing REAL activism like door knocking! And phone banking! Etc.
OH MY GOD I GET SO RILED UP AND DEFENSIVE AT THESE POSTS.
But I never respond. (At least I don’t think I have. I get really defensive so maybe I have.) But what I want to say is: I HAVE EXTREME SOCIAL ANXIETIES. I CAN NOT DEAL WITH STRANGERS WITHOUT A SEDATIVE. But I do not because chances are the person is not specifically thinking about me and if they are? Then do I really care? They probably do not need to know the severity of my mental health issues so why do I feel compelled to defend myself?
And also? Maybe I should feel a little shame that I can’t get over it and door knock/phone bank. Maybe it’s okay to feel shame sometimes and that you don’t have to defend yourself, you can just recognize it for what it is and try to forgive yourself and allow yourself some failures because no one is perfect. Maybe sometimes we do not need to feel ashamed about feeling shame.
The majority of my defensive responses to social media posts do tend to fall in the: THAT PERSON IS TALKING ABOUT ME! Camp. And while they’re usually not, I do have to ask myself, “Why do I feel like they were? Do I feel some truth in their accusations?” Often, if I step out of my initial reflex of shame and re-read their post, I can realize that I took a very vague and wide-scope comment and pinhole-focused it on MYSELF and those moments? Are all about MY demons. When someone says something about white feminists today upholding white supremacy, I get defensive. I am a white feminist and I do not do that! I am intersectional with my efforts! And you know what? Maybe I am. So therefore MAYBE THAT PERSON WAS NOT TALKING ABOUT ME. It’s my own fear and shame of knowing my actions have unknowingly supported white supremacy in the past and so I’m very sensitive to those statements. So I try to force myself to sit with that and not jump in and defend myself in what would definitely be an embarrassing, “Not all white feminists!” moment.
Now, obviously if the person is leaving a comment on MY social media, they are talking about/to me. There’s no denying that whatever they are saying is directed at me. And man, I get defensive in those moments. Sometimes it’s because someone else points out something I hadn’t considered and since many of my posts spend HOURS in consideration, I’m embarrassed I hadn’t thought of that point. Sometimes it’s an error that I 100% made and I’m ashamed that I made the error to begin with.
But other times I am in the clear, and yet I still get defensive. Sometimes someone is accusing me of something that indicates they missed the point entirely and then I just feel the need to repeat the entire point to make sure they get it. Sometimes (and this one happens on Facebook a LOT) it’s because someone did not really read my words clearly, they just skimmed because they assumed they knew the point and defended themselves from the point they assumed I was making and THOSE moments are the weirdest because I can totally see what happened but you can’t really call that out because it’s not actually about what you wrote, it’s about what they assumed you wrote. This happened on FB one time when I was criticizing the Catholic church SPECIFICALLY and someone defended Christianity as a WHOLE when what I said did not relate to all of Christianity. They just assumed I was trashing all of it, which…I am an outspoken atheist. So, maybe that wasn’t a bad assumption to make.
It’s something I try to be aware of, my own personal defensiveness. And honestly? I do a really good job curbing a lot of my defensive responses. If you think I’m too defensive? Then you should be glad I zip it as often as I do because I am WAY MORE DEFENSIVE THAN YOU REALIZE.
But if you’ve gotten defensive online before? Maybe sit back and examine it a bit. Did you take something to be directed at you that was actually a more wide-scoped accusation to a more general population? Be wary of ANY defensive response that falls into the category of, “Not all men!” (That’s the response of many men when female journalists write articles about things like street harassment or the #metoo movement.) Did you read extra meaning into something that wasn’t actually in there? Did you assume you knew the real point of something without actually reading it for what the author intended?
And know that sometimes the defensiveness is warranted. If I wrote something casting aspersions to everyone who uses straws because they’re endangering our planet and you get defensive because you are disabled and HAVE to use a straw, THEN THAT DEFENSIVENESS IS WARRANTED. You need to set me straight and call me an ableist. (Maybe do it kindly?) Not all defensive reflexes come from a place of shame. Some of them come from a place of truth and the offender needs to be corrected.
I just have a hard time knowing the difference. [insert blushing emoji here]