defense mechanisms

A mind-closing dynamic

Criticism is important. Everyone does wrong things, everyone does *seriously* wrong things. Often, other people know when you’re doing that’s bad.

And if you’re able to hear and evaluate criticism, they can tell you. Then you can find out, and know, and fix it before you do more harm.

There’s an attitude that superficially looks like openness to criticism that is actually the exact opposite. Sometimes people freak out about the possibility that they might have done something bad, and then say how bad they are, and need to be comforted. And then the interaction is all about them feeling like they’re not a bad person, and not so much about figuring out why the thing was bad and what to do better.

For instance:

  • Gary and Friend are having a conversation.
  • Friend: You’re standing kind of close. Can you back off a bit?
  • Gary: Oh no, I can’t believe I did that. That was horrible of me. I’m so sorry. I’m such an awful person. 

On the face of it, this looks like Gary is hearing that he violated a boundary, feeling disturbed by his actions, and resolving not to do it again. And maybe that’s part of it. But often, there’s also this subtext:

  • Gary feels humiliated by the implication that he did something bad, and he’s scared that maybe this means he is bad
  • He feels guilty, and feels an intense need for reassurance that he’s a good person. 
  • This is more important to him than fixing the problem
  • So he overreacts with excessive guilt and apology.
  • Then Friend feels obligated to reassure him.
  • And Friend learns that Gary overreacts to criticism. So, from now on, Friend is reluctant to tell Gary when he’s doing something wrong, unless it’s *so* wrong that his kind of reaction would be appropriate.
  • This makes it hard-to-impossible for Friend and Gary to communicate and solve problems in an ongoing way.

It’s really hard to break out of this dynamic once you’re in it, because realizing that you’re doing this can make you feel intense guilt and desire for reassurance. So it can get circular.

But, getting past doing this makes all kinds of things better. Even just reducing how much you do it makes things better. It’s not all or nothing, and it’s worth working on even if you don’t always succeed.