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"I want your honest opinion," said my friend Joanna, handing me her unpublished manuscript.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."
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.