Therapy Theme no. 101: Defending something you never intended to defend.
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
Somewhere in the second year of my long-term relationship with the person who would later become my husband, his desires around the idea of my converting to Judaism began to become an important discussion within our relationship.
It was strange territory for me. My cultural background is that my dad was raised Jewish, my mom sort of informally Catholic. At some point in the 60s they both abandoned any formal ties to each of those identities, giving way to raising a family based on principals of: "keep an open mind when it comes to a higher power," “do unto others,” and "always place a menorah next to your Christmas Tree."
For me, and for many others I spoke to, having a dad who was Jewish made me Jewish. But for my partner, who was raised in a more observant family, Judaism is defined by how you were raised and how your mother identifies. So I had to do a lot of soul searching to get comfortable with the idea of going through a formal process to convert or affirm this identity. Part of that soul searching involved having discussions about it with my parents. The concept was met with compassionate challenges and constructive criticisms about why this was ‘necessary’ to do. As people whose identities were largely shaped by a generation of free love, free speech, anti-war and flowers in their hair, organized religion was something to be avoided at all costs. “It’s not Judaism specifically” they would tell me, "it’s just any organized religion."
Hearing these types of challenges evoked a discomfort in me that sent me straight into defense mode. I found myself responding harshly with strong defense for my cause. Only to leave those arguments feeling kind of weird, uncomfortable, and mostly like I didn’t know what I was talking about.
The problem was that I was feeling attacked.
And people who are feeling attacked have to defend themselves at all costs. But if we don’t pay attention, we could find ourselves defending something that we, ourselves, aren’t actually very certain about. Which can make things even more confusing.
A client was recently in the same position. She was not feeling relief from her panic attacks and was considering consulting with a psychiatrist about options for medication. As a holistic healer and naturally-minded human, the idea of even consulting with an MD was bringing up stress for her. I knew this and so I was very confused when she told me that she found herself defending the idea of seeing a psychiatrist when her fiancé (equally as averse to western approaches as she) questioned her about the decision.
I asked her what had changed for her since our last session that she was now so confident about trying medication and defending it so strongly in this argument with her partner.
“Nothing,” she said. “I just felt attacked, I guess.”
After a long conversation with my sister about my nephew’s recent regression with developmental milestones, she told me that she was struggling because some professionals had recommended family therapy and her husband wasn’t on board. She found herself making a huge effort to “sell” him on the idea. I told my sister I found it interesting that she was making such a strong sell, when I know that she’s not usually someone who looks to therapy as a method of healing.
“You’re right,” she said. “I’m just feeling lost and I don’t know what other options we have at this point. But I’m still a little hesitant and conflicted about the idea myself.”
When I was having those conversations with my parents, I still wasn’t sure about how I felt about converting, yet I defended it to the death and made passionate, nonsensical arguments about why I wanted to do it.
My homeopathic client was all of a sudden defending psychotropic medication, even though she was dreading the idea of even attending a consult to get more information.
My sister became the world’s biggest proponent for therapy even though she wasn’t sure it would help, worried about the cost, and knew it would be nearly impossible to find the time.
Another client found herself defending her decision to quit med school – a decision that was made because she was suffering emotionally and physically from the stress of school – but brought her a lot of fear and worry about what she would do next.
A bridal client found herself defending her [admittedly] manipulative mother when her fiancé suggested that she shouldn’t attend the wedding.
The list goes on and on.
So, how do we free ourselves from this trap?
First, we have to acknowledge to ourselves that we might be ambivalent about what it is we’re fighting for. That is, we might feel more than one way about this thing: we might feel interested, intrigued, skeptical, uncertain, vulnerable, excited, nervous, and exhausted by it all at the same time!
When we acknowledge all our feelings, we can then speak openly to the person we are trying to discuss it with. Leading with your feelings means you’re being vulnerable, which is the opposite of attack/defense. It allows you to have an open, productive discussion, rather than an argument. For instance:
I could have said something to my parents like, “Look, I’m a little uncertain too. I have a lot of questions, and I’m trying to get a better sense of my feelings. Part of me feels like this is something I’d be open to, but the other part of me needs to learn more about it.”
My medication client could say to her fiancé: “You’re right, I’ve felt funny about it too, but I’ve also not had any relief from my panic attacks, and at the end of the day, it’s my goal to be able to take vacations together without having one, so I’m just trying to consider all options.”
My sister might say to my brother-in-law, “I know it’s hard to think of adding another cost and finding the time, but I’m feeling really stuck and looking for other options. Maybe we can both make a list of our reservations and schedule a call with the therapist to see if we can get answers that might make this decision easier for us.”
When we acknowledge our feelings to ourselves, then to the people around us, we avoid defending something we are ambivalent about, and continue the exploration needed to gain clarity about how we want to approach the decision and which next steps to take.
Do you have any examples of when you found yourself in this position? Validate our experience by sharing in the comments below!
Need help taking that first step to acknowledge and identify your feelings? That’s the hardest part! Having an unbiased person like a therapist to talk through it with can help. Schedule a consultation today.