ALLOW ME TO BEGIN with a story I’m embarrassed to tell.
After my divorce some years ago, I dipped my toes into the tepid, algae-covered pool of online dating. Though it has its appeals, I received no shortage of dehumanizing and offensive messages. When it got to be too much to take alone, I would post screenshots of the worst messages on social media, and my friends would laugh, commiserate, and offer support.
At one point, after a bad day, I received something rather incoherent and posted it on Facebook (identifying information redacted, of course). My friends commented: “LOL, wut,” “Wow, he’s not even trying,” and “That’s some serious word salad.” And I felt comforted—for a moment.
“Actually,” another friend named Amy wrote, “My husband is deaf, and his first language was American Sign Language. The syntax of this message looks a lot like someone who learned ASL first and written English second. It’s offensive and ableist that you’re making fun of him.”
I was immediately overcome with anger. I frantically typed a private message to a mutual friend: “Did you see what Amy said to me?! As if I’m an ableist. Am I not allowed to vent my frustrations on my own private Facebook account?? UGH.”
“It sounds like you feel really attacked,” the friend responded. And I did, because how dare she?! “I’m an activist!” I ranted to myself. “And while I’m not primarily a disability activist, I do think about things like accessibility in my work. I removed the r-word from my lexicon and stopped saying ‘lame’ as a pejorative, which is a lot more than most people!” I got more and more worked up, and started drafting an angry response to Amy’s comment.
And then, this friend did something very kind, courageous, and transformative: she asked, “What would it mean about you if Amy were right?”
The answer to that question is less important than the space its asking created between my emotional reaction and the action I took in response—space that facilitated and encouraged reflection.
My friend had first observed that I sounded like I felt “attacked.”
What happens when we feel attacked? If we’re face-to-face with a lion about to pounce, it triggers our stress response—what we often call “fight or flight.” The amygdala interprets the image of the lion as a threat, which sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which activates the sympathetic nervous system, which pumps adrenaline through your body. And all of this happens before your conscious mind even realizes there’s a lion.
Unfortunately, to the amygdala, uncomfortable emotions often look just like hungry lions. In my case, Amy pounced, and I immediately adopted a posture designed to protect what she seemed to be threatening: my self-esteem, my character, my beliefs about the kind of person I am—not to mention my social standing, the high opinion of my friends, and my “activist cred.” In that moment, it felt like she was threatening my entire understanding of myself—of my “goodness” as a person—and I desperately needed to defend that understanding. In other words, I got defensive.
So what does this have to do with you?
At this year’s Secular Student Alliance conference, activist Callie Wright gave a talk on having difficult conversations—for example, how to talk to your racist uncle at Thanksgiving. Wright explained that in order to change a person’s mind—especially about complex social issues—it’s important to realize that their views didn’t form in a vacuum. They’re part of a complex tapestry of beliefs people have about the world and their place in it, and understanding those beliefs and their origins is key to changing minds.
But how do you have those conversations when you’re the racist uncle? Or, perhaps more likely, when you’re the well-meaning person who just doesn’t know what you don’t know?
Regardless, knowing how to recognize and counteract defensiveness is a valuable and important skill that can help us grow as people, improve our impact on the world, and help position us to live our humanist values. Here’s why:
In large part, humanists, atheists, and skeptics are guided by reason. We believe, as stated in the current version of the Humanist Manifesto, that “[k]nowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis,” and critical thinking is one of the “Ten Commitments” of humanism.
Unfortunately, sometimes this focus on rationality leads to a de facto disregard for emotion. This seems to be especially true of uncomfortable or inconvenient emotions. Reason and rationality are certainly vital to human progress, but we tend to underestimate the ways emotion can impact our ability to reason. Psychological research shows that defensiveness reduces one’s ability to objectively consider information and ideas, especially when that information represents a threat to one’s understanding of the world or the self.
In other words, defensiveness prevents objectivity and rationality. Humanists who value rationality must learn to identify and address their own defensiveness.
Feminist social theorist Dr. Kimberly B. George studies and writes about topics like implicit bias and interrogating our position in systems of power and oppression. She points out that “the unconscious itself is akin to a historical archive, but it is a living, here-and-now, embodied archive with relational and structural implications.”
Our psyches are constructed in ways that often aren’t fully apparent to us, no matter how intelligent or informed we may be. Our subconscious is chock full of ideas about the world that we began internalizing, thoughtlessly, from birth. If defensiveness leads us to automatically defend our views rather than interrogate them, we continue walking along with an incomplete, unconsidered version of the truth.
And we may not even be living our own truths. “Knowing ideas about gender or racial equality doesn’t necessarily mean we live those ideas,” George says, “as there is a difference between cognitive knowledge and how we integrate those ideas into how we live in relationship with one another or self-reflect on our own privilege and power.” I believed I wasn’t ableist, and yet, there I was on social media, making fun of someone who may have had a disability. Defusing my defensiveness allowed me to see my own failure to integrate ideas about disability into the way I lived, which helped bridge the gap between my idealized self and my actual self. Which leads to…
From Humanist Manifesto III: “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development.” In order for this to be true of humanity as a group, it must also be true for individual humans. In other words, personal growth is a humanist value.
As humanists we should each aim to reach for our potential. Because we can’t know what we don’t know, others’ perspectives on our progress can be valuable information in that quest. But defensiveness can prevent us from hearing and internalizing valid criticisms, and, as such, prevent us from growing as people.
Sometimes the things that make us defensive feel like criticism, even if they aren’t. For example, I often have an immensely difficult time accepting any sort of help, even when I’ve asked for it. Recently I was working on coding a website and asked my husband if he knew how to do something in CSS. He asked me if I’d tried some specific thing, and my instant gut reaction was, “Of course I tried that! Do you think I’m some kind of idiot?!” He was collecting information, but I was hearing criticism, and I felt defensive.
Even hearing a person’s feelings about something we’ve done can feel like criticism. “It hurts my feelings when you go to sleep without saying goodnight,” can sound like, “Why aren’t you caring for me properly?!” Defensiveness can prevent us from collecting information that may help us learn about and better care for those around us.
Which is directly related to…
This is where the title of this essay—“The Necessary Discomfort of Progress”—comes from. This kind of work is what I consider personal activism, and I deeply believe it’s necessary for large-scale societal progress.
I’m an intersectional feminist and anti-racist activist. I’m also a cisgender white woman. I have never lived in a Black or transgender body, and while I can and do read extensively about what that’s like, I can never truly understand, nor will I ever have to experience the things Black and trans folks do as a result of their race and gender. That’s what it means to be privileged. It also means two very important things:
1. I will get it wrong. In fact, the more involved I am in activism, the more I’ll risk getting it wrong. There are all kinds of ways to get it wrong—maybe I say something ignorantly ableist. Maybe I speak over a Black woman because somewhere along the line I internalized the idea that white people’s ideas are inherently better. Maybe I do something that I think is helpful to the movement, but it’s really not.
When I get it wrong and someone lets me know, there are two things I can do: I can throw the discomfort of that moment back on the person who told me—who is likely to be someone from a marginalized group—or I can sit in that discomfort until I’m ready to embrace the opportunity to make my mistake right, and in doing so try to become a better ally and a better person.
2. I’m part of a system that needs deconstructing, which means deconstructing its influence over me. We’re all born into various structures—a family, a neighborhood, a town, a country. As I mentioned before, we learn all sorts of things from those structures, many of which aren’t explicit. I learned from my family structure, for example, that God is real and shame is a virtue. Because the first one was explicit, I could pretty easily identify the ways it impacted my behavior; “Mom said God is real, so I go to church and pray.” But that shame thing—that was implicit, and it was a lot more difficult to suss out the ways it affected my behavior. I couldn’t change that behavior until I identified the subconscious belief that was perpetuating it.
I was also born into a structure that privileges white folks over people of color, cis people over trans people, straight people over gay people, and so on. That system is both made up of and propped up by people enacting those privileges over and over—sometimes knowingly, but often without even realizing their complicity.
If we aim to make a better, just society, we need to be able to see the ways we, as individuals, unknowingly perpetuate the problems that currently exist. And I can tell you—it is inherently uncomfortable work. But, as therapist Karen O’Connell writes, “The costs of feeling the full impact of these systems of violence and oppression are high, and the costs of not feeling them are even higher.”
So, how can you tell when you’re being defensive?
According to psychologists David Nussbaum and Carol Dweck of Stanford University, people generally have three defensive responses to negative feedback: they (1) reject the feedback as biased or inaccurate; (2) use symbolism to compensate for their shortcomings; or (3) compare their performance to others who are worse.
You can see each in the way I responded to my Facebook friend Amy’s criticism: rejection (“I couldn’t be ableist!”), symbolic compensation (“I removed the r-word from my lexicon, and stopped saying ‘lame’ as a pejorative!”), and comparison (“and that’s more than most people do!”).
All of these responses are ways to defuse the “threat.” They calm the discomfort, resolve the cognitive dissonance, and restore any lost self-esteem—but they do so without addressing the underlying cause of the negative feedback (and dismiss the opportunity to learn from it).
There are also physical signals that indicate you might be feeling defensive, which often mimic anger: racing heart, flushed face, tightness in the throat or gut, clenched muscles. Listen to your body.
Finally, having acknowledged defensiveness, what do you do about it? I’m not going to lie: addressing defensiveness is not an easy skill to master, and like all skills, it takes practice. But as someone who has had the absolute joy of being in various kinds of relationships with folks who can handle their defensiveness, well, it is so worth it.
Reprogramming your defensive responses is done at two main junctures: in the moment, and before the moment. Starting with in the moment, here’s an example of what to do when your nephew looks over the turkey at you and says, “Uncle, that’s racist.”
In the Moment
Step One: Stop.
This is absolutely the most important step, and probably also the most difficult one. Adrenaline creates a lot of forward momentum, and it takes a lot of “zen” to interrupt it. Here are some suggestions for helping to create additional space in that split second between the thing that upsets you, and your response to it:
■ Care for the body. Defensiveness is a reflexive physical response, so you can respond to it physically. Drink some water, take a bite of food, or take some deep, slow breaths. All these things signal to your body that there’s no real danger and can help calm that reflexive physical response.
Practice an automatic response. Saying something like, “Thank you, I need some time to think about this before I respond,” can generate a bit of goodwill inside you, satiate your desire to say something, and smooth things for a moment while you step away.
■ Use the buddy system. Research shows that psychological safety is paramount to developing new emotional skills and incorporating new, challenging information. So, in situations where it’s possible, instead of immediately responding to the person who confronted you, reach out to someone you trust and feel safe with. Even if the person who called you out is someone safe to you, they may not be in a position in that moment to provide you the understanding and space you need. Be sure you contact someone who knows about your efforts to work on defensiveness and won’t just jump on the anger bandwagon with you.
■ If all else fails, embrace the do-over. The first several times, you might not realize you’re in a defensive response until you’re halfway up in the other person’s face. In my experience, it’s never too late to step back into the process, do your introspection, and then return to the conversation. You’ll find over time that you interrupt the cycle sooner and sooner.
Step Two: Question.
Some of us are more naturally predisposed to interrogating our emotions, or perhaps we’re more practiced. A rich emotional life is also stigmatized among some groups—perhaps including some skeptics who value a detached rationality above all else.
One way to think about this practice is to realize it’s an intellectual inquiry into an embodied chemical response. When you’re sick, you inquire into the state of your body: “My stomach hurts! Is it appendicitis, or just gas? What did I eat that may have caused such painful gas? Oh…three helpings of Aunt Norma’s baked beans.” The practice of emotional interrogation is no different: “My chest is tight and my face feels hot. Is this anger? Shame? What made my body respond this way?”
- What am I feeling?
- What am I “defending” against or resisting?
- What assumptions or beliefs of mine have been challenged?
- Am I the best person to determine if this criticism is legitimate?
- What do I believe it means about me if this criticism is accurate?
These questions help turn your focus from the other person—“How dare Amy say that!?” to you—“Why am I responding this way?” This helps you calm down, collect information, and evaluate the situation more objectively. And the wonderful thing is that going through this process is beneficial in and of itself, independent of the quality of the criticism received. Even if you decide, ultimately, that the criticism was unwarranted or untrue, the process itself is skill-building and perspective-shifting.
Step Three: Respond.
Whenever you’re genuinely ready—whether minutes or weeks—return to the conversation. What to say is up to you, but I’ll make just two suggestions: be respectful and use “I” statements, not “you” statements.
Before the Moment
Because we tend to be a rush of emotions when in the midst of a conflict, being prepared for them can have a measurable impact on how we ultimately respond. Here are some things you can do to be ready for your next fight-or-flight moment.
■ Mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness training can have a real and dramatic impact on your ability to create distance from the turbulence of your emotions. It can help create enough space to bite your tongue before it wags out of control, giving you a chance to think.
■ Cultivate a growth mindset. Put very simply, people with a fixed mindset believe people have a set and unchangeable amount of intelligence, whereas those with a growth mindset believe people are capable of growth. Research shows that people with a growth mindset are much more likely to employ productive rather than defensive responses to criticism. A growth mindset is also a humanist mindset—there’s no potential to strive for if you’re born as good as you’ll ever get!
■ Consider criticism a compliment. I know there’s a lot of talk about “call-out culture” out there, and I’ve seen it asserted that some people get no greater joy than calling somebody a racist. And I guess, since it takes all types, that’s sometimes true, at least in a certain context (like Twitter). But if you’ve been approached by someone you know, there’s a really good chance it took a tremendous amount of bravery for them to confront you. They summoned that courage and took the risk because they believe you’re something better than your called-out behavior would suggest. They trusted you to hear them, to be contemplative about what they said, and to respond respectfully. They believe you can grow. They’d rather have a really difficult conversation with you than just write you off. And that means something.
■ Self-affirm. One of the jobs of defensive responses is to restore any lost self-esteem—but psychologists say that self-affirmations and defensiveness are interchangeable methods to alleviate threat. The trick is just that the affirmations have to be in place before the threat occurs. Part of the key here is what you affirm. You don’t want to build yourself up for, say, making mistakes so rarely—that’s just developing a new and exciting way to feel threatened when you do make that inevitable mistake. Instead, try building a sense that you’re capable of growth, that you’re able to take constructive criticism, that you’re capable of overcoming your defensive responses to interact more genuinely and compassionately with people.
■ Rethink discomfort. Often, we see uncomfortable emotions as evidence that someone has done us some kind of harm, and we instinctively look for who to blame. But if there’s anything I’ve learned through years and years of therapy, it’s that progress itself is uncomfortable. Looking at ourselves honestly is uncomfortable. Trying to change is uncomfortable. Begin seeing discomfort as an opportunity to learn about yourself—approach it with gentleness and curiosity—and you’ll less often go automatically into defense mode.
If defensiveness leads us to automatically defend our views rather than interrogate them, we continue walking along with an incomplete, unconsidered version of the truth.
■ Foster humility. There’s a reason humility is one of the Ten Commitments—a set of humanist values developed by the American Humanist Association Center for Education. Research shows that humility can help you forgive your shortcomings and, as such, have less need for defensiveness.
■ Think deeply about what it means to be a “good person.” I hear it all the time: “I’m not racist/sexist/transphobic/etc., I’m a good person.” The problem is, those things are only opposites if we define “good person” as someone who never makes mistakes or someone who is immune to social conditioning.
Wanting to feel like a good person seems to be baked into the human psyche, so it makes sense to be thoughtful about what it means to be “good.” So far as I can tell, no humanist definition of goodness includes being perfect. It includes things like being ethical, inspired by compassion, concerned for the wellbeing of all, and striving toward a world of mutual care and concern.
To me, a large part of being a good person is not about whether or even how many mistakes are made but how mistakes are handled. Are they handled with grace and humility? Are they treated as an opportunity for growth? Is an attempt made to right any wrongs inflicted on another?
Remind yourself of your deepest values. Those are your “good person” values, and being reminded of them can help you determine how you want to react in response to criticism.
So goes the long and uneven road of progress. Even picking one of these suggestions and working on it can help you become less defensive in your personal activism and your daily life. And as I said early on, the value of these efforts is widely applicable and absolutely necessary for large-scale societal progress—not to mention more comfortable Thanksgiving dinners.
Krista Cox acknowledges the following Black women and women of color whose labor helped create the foundation for this work: Octavia Butler, Sara Clarke Kaplan, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Saidiya Hartman, Grace Kyungwon Hong, June Jordan, Audre Lord, Karen O’Connell, Jade E. Roslan, and Claudia Tate. For a list of references and resources, please contact her at www.kristacox.me.