The antidote for defensiveness

What can we do when offense and anger, rather than humility and thoughtfulness, characterize our response to criticism? Considering our nature as God’s children is a valuable starting point for progress, as a woman who was prone to defensiveness experienced.

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“You know, you are overly defensive,” a friend gently told me. I quickly retorted, “No, I’m not!” And then we both laughed because my response clearly illustrated that there was some truth to his accusation. My friend wasn’t wrong – I liked to think of myself as humanly perfect and expected everyone else to see me that way, too. I tended to feel offended and angry when confronted with criticism, which would often lead me to react defensively.

This kind of defensiveness stems from a perceived threat to one’s mortal sense of selfhood. I have since learned that there’s an antidote to this. Through my study of Christian Science, I’ve learned the distinction between a mortal concept of ourselves and our true, spiritual identity. As the spiritual reflection of the perfect God, divine Spirit, each of us is in truth flawless. But our human expression of that spiritual perfection is a work in progress!

To grow spiritually and better demonstrate our God-given perfection, we need to honestly examine our thoughts and actions. For instance, when considering how to respond to something that’s been said, I’ve found it helpful to ask myself, “Am I truly expressing the Christ-spirit – letting God, Love, guide me in how I respond?” In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, writes, “Honesty is spiritual power” (p. 453). A willingness to really examine ourselves allows us to see what unhelpful traits we need to relinquish – to detect error in our thought in order to eradicate it.

These ideas have helped me be better about humbly asking for God’s guidance in expressing true love and Christliness in the face of criticism, rather than stubbornly thinking, “I am perfect! Why can’t they see it?”

Although defensiveness is detrimental to our spiritual progress, it is important to defend ourselves spiritually. Spiritual defense consists of really feeling and knowing that we are God’s precious, perfect spiritual ideas.

As we really get to know ourselves in this light, the pull of irrational defensiveness falls away. We realize that we are already preapproved of God, a realization that empowers us to better live up to that – including being humble enough to consider whether there is merit in a critical comment someone may offer. If there is, we can change our thoughts and behavior. If there is not, we can let the criticism go with love and forgiveness, and move on.

I had an opportunity to put this into practice when I was elected to the office of Reader in my local branch Church of Christ, Scientist. Everyone was usually very supportive and encouraging. Once in a while a member would offer critical advice. Through prayer I was impelled to lovingly respond, “Thank you for bringing that to my attention,” rather than reacting defensively in those situations. I would then pray deeply about the comment. Humbly listening for God’s direction always helped me to see whether I needed to make a change or not, and to willingly and lovingly follow God’s guidance.

Each of us can nurture a willingness to examine our thought to bring it into line with God’s direction and with our nature as God’s children. This is the antidote to defensiveness.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.