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How to Deal with the Highly Defensive People in Your Life
Woman and Dinosaur
Illustration: Brett Ryder
"I want your honest opinion," said my friend Joanna, handing me her unpublished manuscript. "Don't whitewash; tell the truth. Promise!"

So I promised—apprehensively. Joanna's very talented, but I know she also takes criticism hard. To my relief, I loved her book, and I fired off an e-mail saying that the only way she could possibly improve it would be to make it a little more personal. "You're so amazing," I told her. "Putting more of you in the book would take it from great to sublime."

Joanna didn't write back for nearly a month. When she did, it was to tell me that my "attack" had left her "inconsolable."

Oy.

I'd made a crucial mistake when I agreed to be Joanna's critic: I ignored my knowledge that she is a highly defensive person. People like her (let's call them HDPs for short) can be found in almost every family, workplace, or crowd. Dealing with them requires a special set of skills, a defense against defensiveness. I recommend keeping these techniques handy for dealing with the HDPs in your life—or for minimizing your own defensiveness, should it ever raise its touchy little head.

The Dark Side of Sensitivity


Joanna describes herself as sensitive, and she is. But her reaction to my comments wasn't sensitivity; it was defensiveness. The two may feel identical to the person experiencing them, but actually they're worlds apart. Sensitivity is born of careful attention. It involves looking closely, understanding deeply, and therefore not causing harm. Defensiveness, on the other hand, is the bastard child of shame. For people who have survived harshly judgmental environments, shame—the sick sense that they're basically inadequate—dominates the psychological landscape. They're sensitive the way a truckload of TNT is sensitive. Virtually any bump or jostle causes them to explode, often harming others.

Knowing an HDP's destructive behavior comes from shame doesn't excuse it. But at least it helps me understand why one of my clients dumped her boyfriend for "implying she was ugly" because he closed his eyes when they kissed, or why I once saw a party guest respond to the question, "Would you like some wine?" by snapping, "Why, do I look like an alcoholic?" From the outside, defensive behavior is disproportionate, bizarre, often appalling. But from the perspective of the HDPs, these actions are justifiable—no, necessary!—self-protection. I've spent a long time thinking about the best way to deal effectively with such people.
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    When and How to Say "Enough!"
    There are two ways of going through life: Gather everything in sight, just in case you need it. Or, trust that you'll find exactly what you need, just in time. Guess which one lets you really stop and smell the roses?
    Jumping for joy
    Illustration: Guy Billout
    Shortly after World War II, executives at Japan's Toyota Motor Company made a decision from which, I believe, we all can benefit. They decided to make cars the way they'd make, say, sushi. Unlike most manufacturers, which bought and stored massive stockpiles of supplies, Toyota began ordering just enough parts to keep their lines moving, just when those parts were needed. This made them spectacularly productive, and turned the phrase "just in time" into business legend.

    I know of the Toyota case because in my former life as an academic, I taught international business management. My students and I had some rousing discussions about just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, as well as its alternative, which is known as just-in-case (JIC) inventory. These students were the first people who hired me as a life coach (perhaps because I could never resist applying business theory to everyday life). When we discussed JIT versus JIC management as a lifestyle strategy, we concluded that Toyota's business innovation could positively impact all of our lives. If you feel overburdened, overstressed, and anxious, I'm betting the same is true for you.

    Why Just-in-Case Is Just Crazy


    Most people live with a just-in-case mind-set because for most of human history, it made sense. The primary fact of life for just-in-case processes is: "Everything good is scarce!" By contrast, just-in-time systems rely on the assumption "Everything good is readily available." Well, until quite recently, the former claim was true for most humans—it's still true for many. But most magazine readers like you live in settings where basic necessities, like food, clothing, and other humans, are plentiful.

    Living in an abundant environment but operating on the assumption that good things are scarce leads to a host of dysfunctions that can be summed up in one word: excess. Most of us are living in some kind of excess; we work too much, eat too much, rack up debt buying too much stuff. Yet, driven by the unconscious, just-in-case assumption that "everything good is scarce," we just keep doing and accumulating more. We've all seen some of the unfortunate results, and I've found that most fall into the following four categories: 

    Starving off the Fat of the Land
    For years I noticed that my clients who lived in a mind-set of scarcity had trouble controlling their weight, even though they dieted assiduously. I also read studies showing that poor women—particularly those who periodically starved themselves to feed their children—were particularly plagued by obesity. Researchers hypothesize that when the body knows it may be starved, whether by poverty or by dieting, it activates automatic just-in-case mechanisms that store fat on the body to get through the next "famine." Ironically, this biological just-in-case mechanism puts fat on precisely the people with the discipline to starve themselves.

    Stuff Tsunamis

    Just-in-case thinking triggers primal, unconscious impulses to hoard good stuff, fat supplies being just one example. Combine JIC attitudes with a superabundant culture, and things can go wildly off kilter. There have been several cases like the one in Shelton, Washington, where a woman recently suffocated under a pile of her own possessions. To recover her body, police reported having to "climb over [clutter] on their hands and knees. In some areas, their heads were touching the ceiling while they were standing on top of piles of debris."

    Money Madness

    My wealthiest clients have taught me that having lots of money doesn't quiet scarcity-based, JIC anxiety. This point was reinforced for me when I heard about the suicide of the German billionaire who lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the recent financial crisis. Now, this poor guy wasn't literally a poor guy. He still had a personal fortune. But to a just-in-case thinker who's used to billions, it wasn't enough to keep him from throwing himself in front of a train.

    Love's Labor's Lost

    Just-in-case thinking destroys relationships faster than—and sometimes with the assistance of—a speeding bullet. Along with the impulse to hoard objects, it also triggers excessive attempts to control our supply of love—that is, other people. So anxious lovers have their partners followed. Parents micromanage children. People-pleasers try to manipulate everyone into liking them. This behavior isn't love; it's a fear-based outcome of believing love is scarce. If you've ever been on the receiving end of such anxious machinations, you know they make you want to run, not bond.

    Next: Why Just-in-Time Just Makes Sense
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      How to Tap Into Your True Power
      If you think you have no control over your life, think again. As hemmed in as you may feel, Martha Beck shows you how to break out of that helpless place.
      Martha Beck powerlessness
      Illustration: Guy Billout
      I'm terrified about my daughter's drinking," Mindy told me during our first session, "but I've asked her to get help, and she just yells at me."

      "My boss can be really unethical," said Denise, another client, "but that's the way things work. If I complain, my job is history."

      Paula, a third client, is perpetually exhausted: "I know I should take better care of myself," she admitted, "but someone has to be there for my husband and children."

      You probably hear statements like these all the time. If you're anything like me, you may make plenty of them yourself. They may not sound dangerous, but they are. They're declarations of powerlessness, one of the most psychologically debilitating conditions human beings can experience. If we believe them, such statements can get us stuck in emotional tar pits ranging from frustration to rage to utter despair. The good news? They're never true.

      Never.

      I'm not saying we have power over everything in our lives—if that were true, my hair would look so, so different—but I am saying that there's no circumstance in which we are completely powerless. My clients—Mindy, Denise, and Paula—are all being challenged to find their power in a disempowering environment. And whatever your circumstance, so are you.

      Allow the Power


      The most common reason we stumble into the delusion of powerlessness is that we're afraid of what other people would do or say or feel if we were to act as we wanted. Mindy was terrified of her daughter's angry resistance. Denise's fear of being fired overrode her ethics. And Paula anxiously predicted that her family would disintegrate if she focused less care on them and more on herself. All three felt stymied, but actually they were just "allower-less" (say it out loud: it rhymes). They were waiting for other people and the arrival of circumstances to give them explicit permission to do what felt right, and by doing so, they were rendering themselves powerless.

      I sympathize with my clients' plight, but I wasn't impressed by their claims of powerlessness. I've met too many people who have faced far more daunting circumstances yet refused to be disempowered. For example, my friend and fellow life coach Judy Klipin is a polite little slip of a thing, hardly someone you'd expect to challenge an evil empire.

      I'd known Judy for months before she told me about a morning years ago when several police officers barged into her bedroom at 5 A.M. They were seeking evidence of antiapartheid activity—and it was there. Sitting in plain sight on Judy's nightstand lay a map to the antiapartheid meeting she'd helped organize. Weirdly, the South African police missed this damning document, but they detained Judy anyway, taking her to the infamous headquarters at John Vorster Square, where many activists were held for long periods of time.

      "Didn't you feel awfully powerless?" I asked Judy when she told me the story.

      "No," she replied, "though I wasn't thrilled when they encouraged me to picture being raped in prison. But as a white university student, I felt relatively safe. Besides, that's not what was important."

      What was important, at least to Judy, was resisting an immoral system. For hours, the police tried to break her. They failed. The only person in police headquarters interested in allowing Judy to follow her moral compass was Judy. But that was enough.

      "I was quite cheeky with them," she remembered. "When they asked if I supported Nelson Mandela, I said, 'How would I know? I've never been given an opportunity to hear anything the man has to say!'"

      "Had you always stood up for yourself?" I asked.

      "Actually, no. I don't know where that behavior came from. I suppose I felt I was protected—not physically, but in a spiritual sense. My parents had always been such strong advocates of equality, as was my childminder, Annie. My first memories are of falling asleep on Annie's back while she sang to me in Setswana. So I'd been raised by three people who were walking testaments that apartheid was insanely wrong. I suppose that gave me permission to stand up for what I believed, no matter what. And because I felt so grounded in that basic sanity, I actually knew that the police were more frightened and powerless than I."

      This statement defies all reason—one 95-pound teenage girl more powerful than armed agents of a violent racist regime? But to paraphrase Pascal, there is a reason that reason does not know, and Judy had tapped into that. The way we can allow ourselves to do what we need to, no matter what others may say or do, is to choose love and defy fear.
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        When You Should Hold a Grudge
        Stood up by a friend? Let down by your sister? Thrown for a loop by a coworker? Martha Beck says the right-size grudge can shield you from just about anything.
        When
        Illustration: David Pohl
        In 1988 Bette Midler's production company released the film Beaches, a moving homage to friendship and forgiveness. It may seem a bit odd, then, that the Divine Miss M.'s corporate motto was "We hold a grudge." Can love, forgiveness, and holding grudges really go together? Yes, they can—depending on how you define grudge.

        Some people will hold a bitter grudge against anyone who looks at them cross-eyed. "Suzy made a 'dumb blonde' joke," a friend fumes. "Well, I'm blonde. As far as she knows. That's it, Suzy is dead to me!"

        This is like donning full-on plate armor in response to a playful slap: With anger so heavy and disproportionate, you may end up collapsed on the battlefield wearing an outfit the size, weight, and consistency of a Toyota Yaris. If you're in a constant mouth-foaming rage at someone, get away and get a shrink. But if you simply find your mood dipping whenever you encounter a certain person, I suggest holding a grudge.

        A good grudge is simply an acknowledgment of another person's foibles—it keeps you at a safe emotional distance from people who could mess up your life. Depending on the person, you might hold a grudge as light as a parasol or as solid as a titanium shield. Here, in order of severity, are descriptions of people who deserve to be held at bay:

        Planarian People

        A planarian is a flatworm, one of the lowest life-forms that can be considered an animal. There are—search your mind or your cell phone contact list, and you'll see I'm right—human beings whose EQs stopped evolving at the planarian level. They aren't evil; they're just devoid of emotional intelligence. Once you've identified the planarian people in your life, choosing to bear a very light grudge toward them can spare you immense frustration. I was reminded of this by clients Jody and Ralph, who consulted me as a couple.

        "Ralph's so insensitive," Jody complained. "Whenever I'm upset, he just says, 'Harsh, dude' and wanders away."

        "What else can I do?" Ralph didn't sound insolent, just puzzled.

        "You can talk to me about my feelings," said Jody.

        Ralph looked at her as if she'd smacked him with a carp. "I don't understand," he mumbled.

        Clearly, he didn't.

        Ralph—and I say this lovingly—is a planarian. It isn't his fault, and it's not going to change. You can work a lifetime trying to make flatworms perceptive, intuitive, or wise, but the best they can do is, frankly, pathetic. Bearing this in mind is a form of grudge-holding that actually allows you to interact with them calmly. Instead of feeling towering rage at their emotional clumsiness, roll your eyes, mutter "planarian," and relax. Jody learned to do this with Ralph. They soon broke up but remained golf buddies. When Ralph fails to respond in a sensitive way to her emotions, Jody thinks "planarian," and takes her troubles elsewhere. This tiny semblance of a grudge will keep you from wasting your life in the hopes that people will be more evolved than they are.

        Next: When and how to carry a protective grudge
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          Why Are People Mean?
          Someone insults you (and your little dog, too). You can retaliate, whimper—or exercise your own vast power. Martha Beck shows you how to rewrite your own character.
          Martha Beck
          Photo: Thinkstock
          The first time I saw a T-shirt that said "mean people suck," I thought, Now, there is a heartfelt sentiment, succinctly expressed. I only wished I'd been the author. I mention this because recently I've encountered several mean people, and I've had to remind myself that the concept of authorship is key to surviving these experiences.

          I don't know about you, but my favorite ways of reacting to mean people are (1) getting mean right back or (2) lying down quietly to display the word welcome! written where my spine used to be. Annoyingly, my job constantly reminds me that there's a more responsible and effective way to live. That's how it is for us authors. I say "us" because you're an author, too. Not all of us write for publication, but every living person has the power of authorship when it comes to composing our lives. Meanness emerges when we believe that we have no such power, that we're passive receptors of life's vagaries. Inner peace follows when we begin responding to cruelty—our own and other people's—with the authority we've possessed all along.

          Why are people mean? Here's the short answer: They're hurt. Here's the long answer: They're really hurt. At some point, somebody—their parents, their lovers, Lady Luck—did them dirty. They were crushed. And they're still afraid the pain will never stop, or that it will happen again.

          There. I've just described every single person living on planet Earth.

          The fact is that we've all been hurt, and we're all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero's saga rather than a victim's whine, depending on how they "write" it. The moment we begin tolerating meanness, in ourselves or others, we are using our authorial power in the service of wrongdoing. We have both the capacity and the obligation to do better.

          "You know," I once said to my 7-year-old daughter, "when I was your age, I wanted to go to Sherwood Forest and meet Robin Hood." She looked at me with alarm, then cautiously asked, "Mom, do you know what fiction means?" In retrospect, I have to admit the true answer to this question was no. Sure, I realized that Robin Hood was a fictional character. But I wasn't yet aware how much of my worldview was fiction, how powerfully I was shaping the characters and plot of my own life story.

          We perceive events as story lines. We continually (though often unconsciously) tell ourselves tales about life, and since no story can include every tiny event, we edit and spin the facts into the stories we prefer. Many of our stories are pure fabrication, and all of them are biased, dominated by our flair for the dramatic, our theories about life, and our fears. A typical mean person's story line goes like this: "I am a victim; people want to hurt me; I must hurt them first to be safe." This is why mean people may turn ugly when you say something like "Please pass the salt" or "Hey, it's raining." They immediately rewrite whatever they hear to support their story line ("She's saying I'm a bad cook" or "He's bringing up the weather to avoid talking about us"). The story, not other people's behavior, both motivates and excuses their hostility.

          If we react to this type of meanness with cruelty of our own, we climb onto the wheel of suffering that drives all conflict, from lovers' spats to wars: You're mean to me so I'm mean to you so you're meaner to me so I'm meaner to you....

          We'll stay on this sickening merry-go-round until we decide to get off—and please note that I did not say "when others stop being mean to us." We can ride the wheel of suffering when no one else is even present (telling ourselves the same old sad story again and again), and we can leave it even in the midst of violent persecution. The way out is not found in changing our circumstances but in the power of authorship.

          Here are some ways to use that power...
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            The Art of Perfect Timing
            You have a great idea for a business (a year too early). You meet Mr. Right (the day after his wedding). If you feel you just can't beat the clock, Martha Beck can help you make things happen at the exact right moment.
            Time management
            Illustration: Tatsuro Kiuchi
            My timing stinks!" my friend Jackie moaned. "I always do the right thing at the wrong time." It did look that way. Jackie snagged a job in banking just before the recent recession hit. Terrified she'd be fired, she worked like a mule and earned brilliant performance ratings—just before the bank failed. Jackie was jobless in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. She was greatly depressed.

            Meanwhile, Jackie's cubicle buddy Cleo threw a party to celebrate her own layoff. "Everyone had been predicting the collapse, so in the past few months I'd been checking out other options," Cleo told me. "My cousin runs a medical clinic in rural Nepal, and I'd always wanted to volunteer there. Now I have a severance package and a clear calendar. The timing's perfect!"

            There have been many times in my life (the accidental pregnancy, the chronic illness, the water-heater explosion that flooded my house on the day my real estate agent showed it to prospective buyers) when I wanted to personally cane anyone who trumpeted, "The timing's perfect!" If that were true, would scientists ever have invented Cialis, much less had to warn men about that scary four-hour maximum? I think not.

            Nevertheless, I'm mellowing toward the "timing is perfect!" constituency. I've come to believe we humans possess highly sophisticated instincts to help us navigate time. Tune in to these signals, and it really does seem that everything's on schedule. Tune out, and it will appear as if you're at the none-too-tender mercy of blind luck, as poor Jackie was.

            One of the things that changed my mind about timing was the recent book How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. The calculating part of the human brain, Lehrer writes, "is like a computer operating system that was rushed to market." It's slow, clunky, prone to errors—at least compared with the brain region associated with emotions. This highly developed area "has been exquisitely refined by evolution...so it can make fast decisions based on very little information."

            For example, a baseball batter doesn't have time to think about the trajectory of a pitched ball. His swing is based on subtle clues gleaned from the pitcher's windup. He experiences this information not as thought ("This one's high and inside") but as feeling ("Danger! No!"). As Lehrer puts it, "Every feeling is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can't be accessed directly."

            Your nonverbal brain, then, is continuously registering incredibly subtle predictive clues. It communicates with your consciousness through emotions and hunches, making you uneasy when you procrastinate too long or commit too quickly. It can speed you up with anxiety or excitement, slow you down with fatigue and confusion, or help you feel balanced and relaxed.

            I've found that the people I work with in my life-coaching practice possess instinctive timekeepers holding detailed plans for their futures—and that these plans often go totally unrecognized by my clients. The process on the next page is astonishingly accurate at surfacing these subconscious schedules.

            Next: Testing your timekeeper
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