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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