Living Defensively & All the Good I've Missed Along the Way

I have lived a significant portion of my life operating in "defense mode". In sports, the offense's objective is to score as many points as possible while the defense's job is to keep the other team from scoring. To do their job effectively, the defense has to always be vigilant, watching the other team like a hawk, anticipating where the opponent might try to deceive them or over-power them to score points. That's fine in a football game, but it's not the best way to approach life.

Operating from the defense comes from a place of fear- trying to prevent bad things from happening. In my own life, I have put up unnecessary boundaries in an effort to guard against potential threats. I have kept a vigilant watch for pitfalls. I have often expected the worst to happen and lived accordingly.  In many ways, this approach is a coping mechanism. If I expect the worst and then it happens, I am not surprised or caught off-guard, I am prepared. The problem is, we attract and notice the things we invest our energy and thoughts in. If we expect bad things to happen, if we are constantly waiting for others to let us down or hurt us, then guess what we will most often notice? Even tiny missteps may feel like a huge deal because we may see them as a sign of the inevitable horrible ending coming our way. And we are far less likely to participate in or notice all the wonderful things happening because we are so caught up in preparing for, avoiding, and expecting the worst. 

Why bother to challenge yourself in this area of your life? When you can move from the defense to the offense, you begin to operate from a place of hope and gratitude. You are more likely to take risks and build deeper relationships. You will feel happier and more successful because you are more readily able to see the good in life. You will not let tough moments define or defeat you because you know that those moments are temporary.

So how do we overcome this defensive approach, especially for those of us who seem to have defensiveness as our "default setting"?

The first step is to recognize when you are operating defensively. This may be the hardest part, learning to recognize when it's happening. My advice is any time you are feeling resistant, hesitant, or concerned, check in with yourself to see if those thoughts and feelings are valid or if you are projecting the "what ifs" onto your life. Ask yourself, what am I afraid of? Fear, the emotion at the heart of a defensive approach to life, is not always a bad thing. In fact, fear is an important emotion for keeping us safe. It becomes a problem when we allow it to run our life and keep us from all the good around us. For example, I don't really want to be in a car accident (who does?) so I drive with caution and that's a good thing because it keeps me safe. But what if I decided that I would just never drive or ride in a car ever again to avoid being in a wreck? That's not healthy and it would really limit where I was able to go and what I was able to do. Yet, so often that's exactly what we do in life. We completely avoid, or worse, we sabotage things that could result in hurt or failure, cutting ourselves off from the amazing world waiting right outside our little comfort zone. 

Once you are able to recognize your defensive stance, you must figure out why you are acting this way. All behavior serves a purpose and living in defense mode serves you in some way or you wouldn't be doing it. Get to the heart of that reason and then reframe it. For me, living defensively is about past hurts and guarding myself from getting hurt again. But you know what? Getting hurt is a part of life and no matter how much I prepare or avoid, I am going to get hurt sometimes. That's part of being human. The good news is, every painful thing I've encountered, I've been able to overcome. Humans are crazy resilient. So I can either learn to drop my over-the-top defensives and experience all the wonderful things life has to offer, and still get hurt sometimes...or, I can remain defensive, miss out on some great opportunities and relationships and yet...still get hurt. Hmmm, that doesn't seem like a tough choice. 

I know I've missed out on some really meaningful relationships, wonderful opportunities, and happiness because I expected to fail or get hurt and the easier thing was to just not participate at all or stay so closed off that I missed out on the richness of those experiences. I am tired of missing out and I don't want you to miss out either. So, let's keep doing to hard work of confronting these fears so we can live our best and brightest lives. 

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The Big Picture: When Failure Works Itself Out

I am a control freak. I rarely try anything that I don't feel confident I will excel at. I have a 5-year, 10-year, and 800-year plan. Any risks I take have been precisely calculated and there is always a fallback plan. I think I learned these lessons the hard way back in my senior year of high school. When it came time to apply for college, I was overly and absurdly confident. I had a great GPA. I did really well on my standardized tests. I had participated and led some impressive extracurricular activities. I was graduating high school a year early and already had nine hours in college credits for courses I had taken at a local college during the summer after my junior year of high school. I had consistently been working part-time, even when in school, often in supervisory roles. I felt confident that my college essay was compelling. On paper, I believed I was an all star. So, when I mailed those four college applications to four Ivy League schools, I sort of expected at least two or three enthusiastic acceptance letters to come back to me. My parents and high school counselor strongly encouraged me to apply to a safety school, citing the acceptance rates at the schools I had applied to. But, being the stubborn jackass that I am, I refused. I kept telling them that applying to a safety school would be settling, not believing in myself. I was sixteen and naive and still believed that if you just work hard enough, that you'll get exactly what you want and deserve. Luckily, my parents were smart enough to let me fall flat on my face and learn some valuable lessons.

Much to my surprise, when spring rolled around I received four rejection letters. While my friends were excitedly sharing where they were headed in the fall and buying stuff for their dorm rooms, I was making up bullshit answers about taking a semester off, traveling, etc.- saying anything not to look like a complete idiot. Occasionally, I just owned my failure, explaining that I had stubbornly applied to only Ivy League schools and been rejected by all of them. Those words were hard for somebody who had (and still has) an unhealthy attachment to achievement to say. At the time the whole experience was super painful, but like many painful experiences, I can now look back and appreciate the way things fell apart and led me here. 

I did travel that fall to England and Ireland, something I may never have been able to do had my plans worked out. I continued working and got some additional management experience. I learned how to pick myself back up and make a new plan. I learned that failure and the feelings associated with it were temporary. I knew that I wanted to be in Boston, so I found a university that did rolling admissions. I was accepted and started making a plan for moving that January. I was only in Boston for a year, but that was such a formative time in my life- in both good and bad ways. When I came home for that first summer, I started dating the man that ended up becoming my husband. I wholly believe that had I not had this precise string of experiences, that I might not have ended up with him, which means I never would have ended up adopting my son. There are so many things that never would have been if even one of those schools had accepted me or even if a safety school had accepted me. 

I've failed so many times since that experience, in small ways and in big ways, but now I try to remind myself that what feels like a failure today may lead me exactly where I need to be in the long run. I know it's easy to say that in hindsight. In the midst of the shame and disappointment that comes with rejection and failure, those words feel like empty fluff, but they are often true. I've seen it play out so many times in the lives of people around me- jobs that didn't work out that led to opportunities they were made for, projects that flopped but gave the person inspiration for the thing that sets them on fire. Wherever you are today, whatever failure you are walking in or clinging to, know that these feelings are temporary. Humans are crazy resilient. We pick ourselves back up and keep pushing forward all the time. And the beautiful thing is that we've all failed at some point or another- nobody is immune to failure. Surround yourself with people who know what it's like to fall flat on their faces and can speak truth to power about resilience and recovery. Keep putting one foot in front of the other on the days when you feel like you can't face the world. Give yourself some grace. Doing hard things and taking risks means that sometimes you will crash and burn. It's just part of the gig. But sometimes, those failures lead us exactly where we need to be. 

This piece was also published on A Plus and can be found here:

The Okay Method

I can't tell you how many endeavors throughout the years I've started and failed at. I guess fail isn't really the right word, because you can't fail at something you quit. Whether it's weight loss, exercise, learning a new hobby, or accomplishing anything else good that takes time, I have become the master of never reaching the finish line. It's not that I am flaky, it's that I am inflexible about what success looks like or how I am going to achieve it. We often imagine success as a linear event- do the work, be successful. In reality, everything is a lot messier than that. 

For example, I recently started running again. A few years ago I was running half marathons when I decided to start training for a full marathon. About six weeks into the training plan, I got a stress fracture in my shin that sidelined me. I never really got back into running after that. I tried a few times, but starting over was hard I just wasn't up for the challenge. When I finally decided to get serious, I bought a training app and some new running shoes, and got super excited that I would be back at a 5k distance in just seven short weeks. But then life happened. I had a minor medical procedure that kept me from running for about a week. I got a sinus infection that drained me. My schedule seemed to get fuller and fuller so the evenings I had free I didn't want to spend them running. It seemed to be one small setback after another. My typical response as I approached and passed week seven without achieving my goal would be to quit. I would usually tell myself things like- eh, I tried and it just didn't work out. I am too busy right now to really make time for running. Maybe I'll try again in a couple of months. But those are all excuses that I make up so I can quit the program before the self-imposed deadline passes and I feel like a failure. I've seen it play out a million times. I mean, how many of us have started a diet only to have a bad few days, gain a few pounds, and think "I just can't do this". So we go buy a cheeseburger and embrace the idea that they will be chubby forever. There is an appropriate time to quit things (that's a blog for another day) but all too often we bail on something great because of a few minor setbacks, unrealistic expectations, or because we've embraced the voice inside our head that tells us we will never get there. In reality, before I even started the training plan I knew that I couldn't keep up with it, but instead of adjusting my expectations, and creating a plan that actually worked for me, I set myself up for failure. 

Here's what I meditate on when I am ready to quit something worthwhile- the okay method I follow is better than the perfect method I will quit.  Other than me, who cares if it takes me fourteen weeks instead of seven to finish the training plan? Nobody. Literally nobody. I can't imagine anyone in my life being like- "You know what Mandy, I am so disappointed in you for taking so long to finish this training plan. I can't even be around you right now". That's absurd. We are so hard on ourselves when things don't go the way we expect that more often than not, instead of pushing through or adjusting our expectations we bail on the plan altogether. In the grand scheme of life, these minor setbacks, these detours, these adjustments, are meaningless in pursuit of something bigger. 

It's okay if your initial plan doesn't work out. It's okay if you fall behind, slip up, bend the rules a bit. It's okay if your plan doesn't look like everyone else's. Your journey doesn't have to look like anything other than something that works for you. Let go of the comparison, the unrealistic expectations, and the shame and embrace your plan. When you allow yourself to do what works for you, instead of trying to do what you thought it should look like or what everyone else does, you are far more likely to succeed. The okay method you will follow is sooooo much better than the perfect method you will quit.