... and I'm trying to give it up
A note of context: I played ultimate competitively for a long time, and this newsletter began as an effort to examine life through the lens of the sport.
One time, at the end of the day at Colorado Cup, sometime during the early years of my time with Truck Stop, the captains pulled me aside to offer a little feedback about feedback: I didn’t always listen when teammates offered their input.
I remember promptly assuring them that they were mistaken.
I laugh about that now, but it’s definitely true that throughout my career, I had a hard time receiving critique from others without jumping to defend myself. While a teammate may have had a good point about the way I set my mark or dumping the disc off the sideline earlier, I often missed it because I was busy making sure I explained how I was trying to take away a throw I thought was more dangerous or that another teammate didn’t cut to the right place.
I’m trying to break one of my least favorite habits
I’d like to say that getting defensive is a thing of the past for me– just something I did when I was younger and more caught up with jockeying for status and playing time. But that wouldn’t be true. There are still times when my reflex is to hear even the slightest commentary as some kind of scathing, damning accusation that requires me to demonstrate that I was not in the wrong.
Direct criticism doesn’t even have to be part of the equation. Sometimes, all a person has to do is say something that runs contrary to what I believe is true or right, and my next moves are to proclaim my stance and set about fighting to protect it.
Being defensive is not a particularly healthy behavior. It corrodes trust and goodwill (between friends, teammates, partners, random strangers on the internet… whoever), and it drains everyone involved, myself most certainly included, of precious life energy. That much is very clear to me.
It’s still a struggle, though. My defensiveness, it feels like, comes from years of programming and repetition, more well-grooved than any footwork pattern or offensive progression. I’m working to break the habit, but progress can be slow. My sense is that I’m not alone, and this is one of those posts that’s particularly motivated by a desire to offer some support and solidarity to anyone walking a similar path.
About all that programming and repetition…
I feel ok saying that my dad, the parent I lived with during most of my teens, was my primary role model here. When I was a kid, it was extremely difficult to tell him that I was bothered by something he did without him countering with a list of justification for his actions. Whether it was something small, like forgetting to pick me up from the bus stop, or something bigger like being unfair about money, Dad had a way of shifting the focus from his mistakes to the ways in which those mistakes were the result of me or someone else in the world having wronged him.
It also wasn’t just about deflecting. I also learned that, upon feeling the discomfort that can come with being challenged, it was acceptable to launch a counteroffensive, turning even the slightest disagreement into an argument. In our house, trivial stuff escalated into blow out fights all the time. It was extremely unclear to me how two people could be in conflict while also offering respect and valuing peace. When you’re always in battle, you’re always defending.
(One additional thought, out of love: it wouldn’t be fair to say that my dad never listened to feedback. He did. I remember it being rare during my formative years, but he deserves a ton of credit for the strides he made as life went on. Also, he didn’t invent this stuff; I know enough about the household he grew up in to know that there was plenty of ridicule and shaming to go around.)
What offense am I playing against?
Speaking as the apple that fell, it’s not hard for me to see that I picked up on many of the tree’s tactics. But there’s more than just what’s on the surface. If you’re constantly working to defend, it’s because you’re convinced something needs guarding. What is it that I’m trying to protect?
For me, getting defensive is about being afraid of my own imperfections. I’ve found that deep down, I carry fear about what they mean about my own lovability.
On the field, I have memories of pointing fingers at others for not running the play right and digging my heels in about which drill we should spend the next 20 minutes running. Off the field, I can take it personally if a colleague points out that I missed a couple typos or my partner says I went too heavy on the salt. The common thread I see at the bottom of all of this is that I feel the possibility that I’ll be judged as bad.
Looking back at my upbringing, at home as well as at church and school, I recall a whole lot of attention being placed on what was wrong with other people. When judgment is in the air, even toward third parties who aren’t present, it puts you on notice: I’m constantly being evaluated, too. Everyone’s looking for a reason to condemn someone else, and any of my shortcomings could be the one that proves to others that I’m unworthy.
A little letting go goes a long way
There’s an element of being less defensive that’s about taking things less personally. Is that person really condemning me in the way I think? Probably not. Still, that doesn’t quite solve things because it still leaves open the question of what I do if I determine that I actually am under some kind of attack. I want to be less defensive in all circumstances, including in how I interact with myself.
What’s been helpful in that regard is an ongoing personal project: I’ve been trying to have fewer opinions lately.
Whether it’s something in the news or a decision made under my own roof, I feel this constant pressure to have a take—to determine whether things are this way or that way, and to feel steadfast in that conclusion. I’m making an effort to notice that urge and choose a different mindset.
You could say I’m working to be more truthful. “Are you sure?” The more I ask myself this question, the more I see that the honest answer is no. When I stop pretending otherwise, I’m more at peace with the gray areas and unknowns that reality is actually made of.
This all connects to the subject at hand because the idea that I need to defend myself in the first place is rooted in the story that “good” and “bad” are real. Accept the notion that people and situations fall unambiguously into one category or the other, and what choice do you have but to work pretty damn hard—including by fighting off critique or getting upset when your views are called into question—to make sure you’re on the right side of the line?
Let that fragile illusion of certainty melt, though, and life becomes a lot softer, warmer, and friendlier. It’s easier to be compassionate. Maybe it’s ok to screw up. Maybe it’s ok to be disagreed with. Perhaps it’s no biggie for someone else to know something I don’t or to have made a bad decision. It could even be fine to throw turnovers or not be the one who’s sure which strategy to use.
Allow these possibilities in, and playing defense isn’t so important.
A few more things
Later this week, I’m going to roll out registration for the next go-rounds of Men, Let’s Talk about Anger in Ultimate. The registration form is in that link, and if you do the frisbee Twitter or Reddit thing, you’ll see stuff pop up. Please share the word in whatever way feels right!
I’m hosting two writing groups in April, one on Wednesdays and one on Fridays. It’s a lot of fun (don’t take my word for it) and I’d love to have you.
Around here, daffodils are nearly in full bloom and birds are singing much more loudly and much more often than they were two weeks ago. If that’s the case for you, too, I hope you’re enjoying the promise of spring.