stop defensive behavior

Defense Mechanisms Part 2: How To Stop Defensive Behavior

Disarming The Defense

In Part 1 of this blog series, When We Hurt Those We Care About, we learned about defense mechanisms and how every one of us uses them at times in order to protect ourselves from uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

We also learned that although the reasons we use defense mechanisms are too varied for us to categorize, the manner in which we use them is universal. Because we all use defense mechanisms the same way, learning how they work can provide us with clues that show us how to stop defensive behavior in others that we may find annoying or painful.

In Part 2 you are going to be learning how to stop defensive behavior using techniques from the Nicola Method, a series of tools that allows you to lower conflict in interpersonal relationships. But before you learn how to stop defensive behavior, let’s take a quick moment to review how defense mechanisms work.

If you read Part 1 of this blog series you would have learned that our minds are actually capable of performing what might be called a split in our awareness during times of emotional discomfort. In a sense this split creates two separate entities within one mind. To make it easier to understand this process we will refer to the two entities as our inner mind and our outer mind.

When we use defense mechanisms, our inner mind knows all about our outer mind, but our outer mind is not aware of our inner mind. This lets our inner mind work behind the scenes to try to protect us from feelings that threaten our emotional wellbeing.

In order to understand how this mechanism works, it may help to imagine our inner mind as an overprotective parent who tries to get our outer mind to take precautionary steps that may not necessarily be rational. In order to accomplish this it must convince the child that the world is a scarier place than it really is. Our overprotective inner mind uses the same kind of tactics to try to get us to take precautionary measures when it is feeling overprotective of us.

The inner mind can accomplish this goal in two ways. One way is to try to protect us by sending us thoughts or images that stir up our emotions. The second way it achieves its goal is by providing us with reasoning that may seem to be sound but conveniently exaggerates or omits important facts.

For instance, if our inner mind is trying to protect us from feeling guilty, it may send us thoughts that say it couldn’t possibly be our fault or that others must be to blame, not us. Or it might protect us by making an argument that others have done equally questionable deeds and not been blamed, so why should we worry about it.

If our inner mind wants to protect us from embarrassment or shame it may send thoughts our way that point out or exaggerate negative qualities in others that tempt us to look down on them or treat them in ways that make them feel ashamed so we feel better about ourselves in comparison.

If the inner mind wants to protect us from facing our fears, it may send us warm and fuzzy thoughts that make staying in our safe zone feel too comfortable to give up. Or it may give us a lengthy dissertation on why it’s not safe to take the action that will finally break us out of our bubble.

Because our inner mind is only concerned with protecting itself, it doesn’t care about the feelings of others and often acts in ways that are not protective of our relationships. If we happen to be the type of person who is easily susceptible to our fears or if we have a tendency to get overly emotional, we may be influenced to act against our better judgment by doing and saying things we later regret.

Defense mechanisms are designed to protect us, but they often get in the way of our communication with others. In some cases they cause very real damage to our relationships. Let’s now take a look at how the inner mind convinces us to do or say things that others around us might label as irrational.

The Role of Manipulation In Defense Mechanisms

The tactics that our inner mind uses to get us to do and say things we would not ordinarily do is often through manipulation and attempts to control how we feel about things. By stirring up our emotions or trying to change how we feel by exaggerating, minimizing or even omitting the truth, our inner mind can successfully keep us feeling good.

But the inner mind has a nemesis that is continually threatening its ability to keep us feeling no pain. As powerful an influence as our inner mind may be, it also has a weakness which lets any outside person intervene and stop defensive behavior no matter how strong the hold of the inner mind.

Although an outside person is always capable of breaking the grip of the inner mind, few people are familiar with the formula to disarm a defense mechanism. In fact, most of us have been taught through experience that interfering with a person’s defenses only causes the defense mechanism to strengthen. So before we examine the weakness in the inner mind’s influence, let’s first take a look at how it so easily keeps us from interfering.

When our inner mind feels threatened by another person it will take action to try to get our outer mind to discredit them. It may tell us not to listen to the other person because they have an ulterior motive. Or it may suggest that the other person is jealous, in a bad mood or misinformed and therefore should be ignored.

Sometimes this first line of defense doesn’t work to stop another person from interfering with the inner mind’s plans for protection. When that happens the inner mind may engage in an even more strong-armed tactic. Instead of manipulating and controlling the outer mind, it will take things one step further.

The inner mind may try to gain final control by seeing if it can get the outer mind to manipulate and control another person into seeing things from its skewed perspective as well. It is this second line of defense that causes us to label some people who use defense mechanisms as controlling.

But there are times when even this second line of defense doesn’t work to back off an outside threat. In that case the inner mind may launch a third line of defense. This third line of defense entails getting the outer mind to attack or aggress on anyone who is threatening to blow the inner mind’s cover and expose the truth. This third line of defense is what causes us to label some people who use defense mechanisms as abusive.

You may have heard the expression that trying to talk sense into a defensive person is like sticking your hand in a wasp’s nest. This common cause and effect also explains why so many people, once they have experienced getting stung by a defense mechanism, learn to keep their distance from those who use them.

But what many people don’t realize is that there is an easy way to intervene and stop defensive behavior without getting stung in the process. Disarming a defense mechanism in another person does not rely on confrontation. It instead relies on simply getting the person’s outer mind to focus on the flaw in their thinking.

All defense mechanisms contain a glaring flaw. And once we point out the flaw in the person’s thinking, we can dismantle the defense mechanism. You may be saying to yourself that you have already tried to point out the flaw in a defensive person’s thinking time and time again, usually with disastrous results. The reason why you pointing out the flaw does not work to stop defensive behavior is that the person’s inner mind will always interpret your intervention as an attempt to foil its plans.

When the inner mind catches you trying to point out the flaw, it will immediately ratchet the defenses up to the next level. It knows exactly how to discredit you to the outer mind and will do whatever it takes to back you off. But there is a workaround to this challenge that can allow anyone to stop defensive behavior. The workaround is to get the outer mind to look at the flaw themselves without any help from you. Although this may sound impossible, you are about to find out that it can be done.

How To Outsmart A Defense Mechanism

In order to outsmart the inner mind’s plans, you are going to learn how to use a technique from the Nicola Method. This technique consists of a single phrase that will do the work of directing the defensive person to the flaw in their thinking for you. This phrase will accomplish this task without them finding out it was you that did it. Let’s now take a look at the formula that works to stop defensive behavior.

In Part 1 of this blog series you were introduced to a scenario that asked you to imagine you have offered to watch your sister’s children at your house while she and her husband are out of town. In this scenario your sister has some fear around leaving her children with you. We left off at the point where your sister had just given you a stern lecture about what not to do when watching her children which makes it clear she thinks you are untrustworthy.

We now know that the formula to disarming your sister’s defense mechanism is to get her to focus on the flaw in her thinking without her knowing it was you that got her to do it. The flaw in her thinking in this scenario is that you are untrustworthy.

In order to overcome this hurdle you will be provided language from the Nicola Method that has hidden in it a subtle suggestion that defensive people find hard to resist. This suggestion will direct her attention to the flaw in her thinking without her knowing it was you who suggested it.

Once she remembers that you are trustworthy, her defenses will drop and she will become aware of the real feelings she was hiding behind her defenses. And because the fears that trigger defense mechanisms usually stem from events in the past and do not apply to the present situation, once she realizes her fears are unfounded, she will be able to let go of the defense and acknowledge her fears to you.

Let’s now go back to our scenario so you can take a look at the sentence you will be using to disarm her defense mechanism. Here is what you would say to your sister to disarm her defenses after she acts like you are not trustworthy:

“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was untrustworthy.”

This phrase may seem like something anyone might say. But although it is designed to pass under the radar of any casual observer, its construction is actually very unique. The part of the phrase from the Nicola Method is the first part:

“When you said that it seemed like you thought…”

All you need to do to stop defensive behavior is use the first part as your opening line and then attach any insult, barb, slight, jab or insinuation to the end of the phrase. The insult in this scenario is that you are untrustworthy. When we put the Nicola Method phrase opening line first and tack on the insult at the end we get the phrase:

“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was untrustworthy.”

If the insult was a little different it would still have the same opening line but with a different insult tacked on to the end like this:

“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was incompetent.”
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was self-centered.”
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was unreliable.”

What you will find when you use this opening line with the insult “I was untrustworthy” tacked onto the end is that your sister in this scenario will probably take a pause and reflect a moment. Then she may answer back:

“Oh, I know you’re trustworthy. I guess I’m just feeling a little nervous about leaving them.”

At this point her defensiveness will have dropped, and you can resume normal comfortable communication. Now let’s take a look at why this phrase disarms the defense and allows your sister to be vulnerable and voice her real fears when a moment ago she could not.

stop defensive behavior

Why The Nicola Method Works

When your sister is under the influence of this particular defense mechanism, she will be feeling emotional. Her inner mind will have convinced her that you aren’t trustworthy by sending her outer mind exaggerated pictures and thoughts depicting the terrible things that could happen if she leaves her children with you.

The inner mind’s justification for her fear is actually very flimsy and will only work if she forgets that you are actually trustworthy. When she asks herself whether are you trustworthy without any outside influence, her answer will be of course you are. The true answer to this question will loosen the grip of the inner mind’s influence.

Her emotions will now lower, and she will be aware of the fear that was causing the defense. But because the kinds of fears that trigger defensive behavior are usually old fears that don’t apply to our present situation, your sister will realize she was simply nervous about leaving her children.

Once she takes a look at her hidden fear in the light of day, she will realize it’s a normal fear that many parents have. Her embarrassment will lessen and at this point she will probably be able to admit her real fear to you.

To allow you to understand what goes on in the mind of the defensive person when this technique is used, let’s take a brief look at how it feels to the mother in our scenario when this technique is being used to lower her defenses.

A View From The Other Side

After you use the phrase “When you said that it seemed like you thought I wasn’t trustworthy,” your sister is going to pause to ask herself if you are untrustworthy. She is then going to experience a momentary confusion. After all, when she was giving you her lecture, she was focused on the terrible things that could happen.

But when she reflects on whether you are trustworthy, she will have to admit that of course you are. For a brief moment it won’t seem possible that these two facts can both be true. How can she believe terrible things will happen if she leaves you with her children and yet at the same time believe you are trustworthy.

Her confusion is normal for a person in a highly emotional state. When we are in a heightened emotional state, our thinking tends to be in extremes. We often refer to this kind of extreme in perspective as black and white thinking. Her inner mind fed her outer mind images of her children in danger. This put her in an highly emotional state from which she made the black and white inference that you must be untrustworthy.

The truth is there is always a gray area where we can both be afraid that our children will be hurt if we leave them but also know that the person we are leaving them with is trustworthy. But these shades of gray are hard to get in touch with when we are in an emotional state.

The Nicola Method phrase helps to guide a highly emotional person to an emotional state from which they can accept a more complex perspective. This shift from black and white thinking brings her into a rational state of mind where she can experience her fears as normal.

What we discover when we can no longer hide our fears behind defenses is that sharing our fears with others provides us comfort and relief. Each time our defenses are disarmed and we must face our fears, it helps us remember that these fears are not really as bad as we imagined.

Using A Cheat Sheet To Learn The Method

Because it may at first seem like too much of a challenge to identify the flaw that you need to tack on the end of the Nicola Method phrase, you will instead be offered the option to use a sort of a cheat sheet that will give you a list of Nicola Method phrases that address the most common defense mechanisms.

You can then choose the Nicola Method sentence that contains a negative quality that the defensive person in your life has tried to pin on you in the past. Since people who use defense mechanisms repeat the same tactics over and over, you will be able to memorize this ready-made phrase and simply repeat it any time this person uses this form of defensive behavior with you.

Let’s start by looking at a list of qualities that defensive people often try to pin on others to protect themselves from embarrassment when they feel afraid or weak. The flaw in their thinking will always be the fact that you don’t actually possess these qualities.

You are immature
You are irresponsible
You are uncaring
You are unreliable
You are socially inept
You are self-centered
You are unintelligent
You are incompetent

Once you recognize which quality the defensive person in your life tends to pin on you, you can choose the corresponding Nicola Method sentence below. All you need to do is memorize the entire sentence and then recite it the next time this person uses the defense mechanism with you.

If the person implies you are immature, use this phrase:
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was immature.”

If the person implies you are irresponsible, use this phrase:
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was irresponsible.”

If the person implies you are uncaring, use this phrase:
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was uncaring.”

If the person implies you are unreliable, use this phrase:
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was unreliable.”

If the person implies you are socially inept, use this phrase:
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was socially inept.”

If the person implies you are self-centered, use this phrase:
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was self-centered.”

If the person implies you are unintelligent, use this phrase:
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was unintelligent.”

If the person implies you are incompetent, use this phrase:
“When you said that it seemed like you thought I was incompetent.”

You will find as you begin to use these phrases that when you disarm a person’s defense mechanism in a non-confrontational way, instead of continuing to act defensive they will pause, self-reflect, and then move into a more relaxed and comfortable emotional state from which you both can communicate with ease.

I hope you will join me in Part 3 of this blog series Defense Mechanisms Triggered By Shame where we will be looking at defense mechanisms that are triggered by feelings of shame. These are the kinds of defense mechanisms that can and often do destroy our relationships with others. In Part 3 we will be going behind the scenes to find out what causes this kind of defense mechanism and also exploring techniques that you can use to disarm them.

If you would like to learn the Nicola Method so you can put an end to the high conflict situations you may be experiencing, click on this link to the welcome page of this website where you will find the resources you need.

If you want to try out some of the basic techniques of this method for free to see if this method is right for your situation, you can learn them from an intro guide flip-book here or a PDF version of the intro guide here.

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