by Jake Wiskerchen
“Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Sun Tzu’s book is not about peace but, as the title indicates, war. Or, at least, military theory and strategy. The interesting thing about this particular line in the book is that psychologically it illuminates an imbalance; either you’re too weak or too strong. Being at peace requires just enough strength to be right in the middle.
When we become defensive it is because our fight-or-flight reaction is triggered. This is generated from the amygdala, a gland in the brain's emotional region called the limbic system. People experience defenses being alerted whenever they interpret something as being threatening or dangerous. If a snake suddenly across your path while hiking, your brain says, “Look out!” That is the fight-or-flight.
But what happens when you get defensive and there is no snake? This often occurs when someone questions a belief of yours, or an idea. And, depending on how tightly you hold that belief or idea, the more defensive you will become. Some people even attack others’ beliefs or ideas in a so-called show of strength. But really, when they do this they are merely masking their own insufficient strength in their own beliefs by putting the attention on others.
Real strength comes through humble confidence. It does not arise from cockiness or conceit, and especially not the attacking of others, which is the "superabundance of strength" that Sun Tzu mentions. Confidence empowers us to use our beliefs with a faith that they will work for us. Humility empowers us to hold our beliefs loosely and open to examination, acknowledging that we cannot possibly know anything for certain. Cockiness and conceit only serve to harm others in the false hope that our own insecurities are not exposed.
Examining beliefs, ideas, perceptions, and interpretations is just about the only way to grow mentally. Therefore, defensiveness is actually a good thing because it signals us to consider a perspective that we probably had not yet entertained. Sure, it may be difficult, scary, and challenging; all things that trigger the fight-or-flight mechanism. But if the only thing threatened is your viewpoint and not your physical body, examination is probably worth the effort in order to grow.
If you want to find peace rather than conflict – and if you want to avoid being defensive – hold your beliefs loosely. Examine your ideas and interpretations. This does not mean that you have to abandon all in which you believe, only that you need to know why you believe it and whether it still serves you. Be open to feedback and change.
And when you find yourself getting defensive without an actual snake crossing your path, know that it is probably a belief or an idea of yours coming under scrutiny. In that case, I invite you to examine it because you will probably grow in your awareness. In the long run that will lead to greater balance, less reactivity, and better mental health.
As an added bonus, by being non-defensive you will probably find yourself communicating a lot better too. After all, a humble mind provides a better audience than a prideful one.