THE HUMAN MIND IS NOT a blank slate
at birth. Some general programs have been hardwired.
For example, when youre hungry and you smell your favorite
food, your mouth waters. Any person on the planet has the same
reaction, but to different foods. For you it may be apple pie;
for a person in another culture, it may be curried cockroaches.
The trigger for the reaction is
not built in, only the reaction. The same is true for the built-in
reaction that causes hard feelings.
Im talking about the impulse to defend
something you own, feel a part of, or identify with. Most people
feel a part of their family, so if your child or spouse was being
attacked, you would defend them. If you saw someone breaking
into your car, you might try to defend your car because you own
This built-in reaction played an important
role during our evolution. The problem with that reaction now
is that weve evolved to use symbols, so the same built-in
reaction is triggered to defend our ideas, our beliefs, and our
self-images. We can now identify with an idea of who we
are, and when someone attacks that, it triggers a defensive reaction.
Thats the source of hard feelings.
Mildred says something to Harry that implies he isnt very
strong. Part of Harrys idea of himself is that he is a
man and part of his idea of manliness is that men are
strong. So Mildred, perhaps without meaning to, has attacked
something Harry has identified with, and whether Harry likes
it or not, he will feel emotions appropriate to defending his
home against intruders! In defense, he may attack something Mildred
identifies with, and they now have hard feelings between them.
How can this kind of thing be avoided?
One thing that doesnt work
is to say, Youre just being defensive. Most
peoples self-image includes, Im not a defensive
person. So when you tell someone shes being defensive,
youve just aroused that built-in reaction again!
A good rule of thumb is: Dont tell
someone you arent attacking, demonstrate you arent
attacking. Let people save face, give them the benefit of the
doubt, point out your places of agreement, show respect for the
other persons opinions, etc.
Do these sound familiar? Of course. They
are common-sense ways of dealing with people, and youve
probably used most of them many times. They are time-tested methods
of handling those built-in defensive reactions in other people.
The problem is that you have the built-in
mechanism in yourself. If you innocently step on someones
precious pride and he attacks you in an effort to defend himself,
what happens? Before you can say Boo, your
built-in mechanism has been triggered. From that point its
pretty easy to slip into a downward spiral of hard feelings.
Heres the way out: When you notice
yourself feeling defensive, start talking to yourself about
the ideas in this chapter. Say to yourself, I feel defensive,
but the feeling is only from my ideas nothing is
threatening my family or my car or my body. Then take
the actions of listening to and sympathizing with the other
persons point of view. You can act undefensive even
when you feel defensive, just as you can restrain yourself
from hitting someone when youre mad. And when you do, you
stop the downward spiral from going any further. You can do the
intelligent thing even when you dont feel like it. And
your intelligent actions will melt hard feelings like a spring
Act undefensive when you feel