Defensiveness and Our Sense of Self

We begin to develop a sense of self somewhere around age 2, as we realize that there is an entity called “me” that is able to interact with the world and do things. “Me do it” is a frequent refrain of the two year-old. By age 3, most children have a pretty strong sense of themselves as unique individuals, different from those around them. This is when we begin to distinguish ourselves by name and to recognize that we are uniquely different from friends or parents.

We know that it’s important for children to develop a strong sense of self, as this helps them build ego strength and self-esteem. But children often receive messages that who they are is defined by what they do. We probably got some of those same messages ourselves. When we internalize the doing-being connection in our sense of self, it tends to solidify certain behaviors as foregone conclusions of who we are and how we operate in the world. It also causes our ego strength to be reliant on our performance in the world.

If the structure of our self-esteem is built on the scaffolding of performance, then we are more likely to interpret complaints about our behavior as personal attacks. And this typically leads to defensiveness. Defensiveness is another of Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” — the negative relationship attitudes that frequently lead to relationship dissolution.

I’ll say more about the nature of defensiveness in a later post. Today, I just want to highlight that the more fused our doing-being dimensions are within our sense of self, the more susceptible we are to defensiveness in relationships. As we’re able to disconnect the doing and being dimensions (or at least increase the separation between them), we can also separate complaints about our behavior from evaluations of our self-worth.

So where do you stand on this? Do you conflate your self-worth with your performance in the world? Later this week, I’ll provide some exercises you can use to help increase the doing-being separation and learn to value your being on its own — without the doing.

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