Ever wonder what happens when an interaction suddenly goes wrong while you’re talking with loved ones, friends, and co-workers? You seemed to be having a normal conversation when all of sudden the conversation feels very different. Either you or they become defensive, argumentative, angry, closed down, blaming, or ending the conversation.
In hindsight, you wonder, “What happened?” “Why did it go wrong?” You might blame yourself for not handling it better, but not know how. After all, “I was just ….” Or you might blame the other person, deciding “they’re too sensitive,” or “in a bad mood,” or “had to make it all about them.” Etc.
Such communication breakdowns are surprising, confusing, and disappointing. But very common. It’s no wonder. It’s not how either of you wanted the conversation to go. But one or both of you are no longer acting like the congenial persons you normally are.
Here’s what happens. Something that was said or done triggered your or their autonomic nervous system and kicked in a protective defense mechanism, a part of ourselves we adopt long ago, probably as a child, to protect us from something we perceive as hurtful or potentially hurtful.
Our Autonomic Nervous System acts automatically to protect us from any real or perceived threats. It activates our protective defense mechanisms without any conscious thought. Or choice. That’s why we’re baffled. But we can bring these protective parts of ourselves into our conscious awareness so our Thinking Mind, the prefrontal cortex, can understand what they are trying to do for us. Then we can work with them to get the communication back on track.
When communication seems to have derailed, begin by asking yourself “Who’s Talking?” “What part of myself am I responding from right now? And “Who am I talking to?” What part of the other person is responding? One or more of the five common defensive parts may be the one who is talking.* Do you recognize any of them?
As you read about these defensive parts of ourselves, remember this is just who someone is at the moment. Blessedly most of us are not always in the defensive part, only at some times, with some people, or in some situations.
The Five Protective Parts
1 – The part that wants to be understood and loved unconditionally. We all have this part. It’s like a small child who still resides within us. It is very vulnerable and easily hurt because it has been hurt. Long ago when we were helpless children or even later as adults at times when we felt helpless. Our hurts may have been caused by unintentional comments from a thoughtless, unhappy or selfish person or parent. Or they may have been from intentionally mean bullies or abusive parents or partners. If we express this part of ourselves, very often, people may tell us “You’re too sensitive.” They may tease, dismiss or laugh at us. That hurts again. So usually, we don’t feel safe interacting in this highly vulnerable place. We don’t want to risk another hurt. So instead, our autonomic nervous system activates one of the other defense mechanisms to protect us from what might come. This all happens without our conscious choice.
2 – The Fight part Is going to stand up, defend and protect our vulnerable self when there is a perceived threat to our psychological or physical safety or when we seem to be treated unfairly. It’s like an angry teenager who will lash out, get angry, say something means, yell, or attack verbally or physically, to hurt back. Because this teenager leaps into action without any thinking on our part, it can cause some real communication problems, particularly if the seeming threat is not a real one. Often people who habitually use this protective defense mechanism are told they have an anger problem. And they may indeed have an anger problem because whenever their vulnerable part feels threatened, even by something small or unintended, they immediately get angry. When attacked by this teenager, other people may get into their own “go-to” defense mechanism. They may get angry back. Then suddenly you’re into a fight or argument. Or they may shut down, cry, walk on eggshells around you or, if they can, avoid you altogether.
3 – The People Pleasing part tries to please, calm and smooth everything over when feeling threatened. This is the part who gives in, agrees, and walks on eggshells to avoid upsetting whoever might be a threat. This part of us puts others first and does whatever others want or need, even to our detriment. They may frustrate others by over-committing and promising things they can’t follow through with. Others may also become bothered that they won’t initiate ideas or plans, always waiting instead for someone else to make the choices and decisions. Saying “Whatever you want” This part gets tired of its role. Doesn’t understand why others don’t go out of their way to please them in return. But remember. This protective mechanism was formed when we were helpless children or adults and it worked then to avoid the displeasure or wrath, or as much wrath, from others in the family or at the school. This protective self is usually liked but is easily used by others and
they’re too busy trying to be what others expect of them to get, or even know, what they need.
4 – The Very Insecure, Frightened part fears abandonment. It’s a part of us that has been abandoned or abused as a child. Its protective mechanism is one of helpless dependence. When threatened by uncomfortable or in difficult situations, they become clingy and needy. They want others to feel sorry for them, commiserate with them, and take care of them. They talk of all the unfairness or difficulty in their lives but always blame others. It’s easy for friends and family to tire of what feels like smothering neediness. After a while, people may say something like “You’re too needy.” Or “I need my space.” Or just leave them wondering “Why don’t my friends call or include me anymore.” They may attract rescuers who like taking care of helpless, needy people … until even they don’t. Should someone ever point out how they feel about this needy behavior, it will be denied and we will be left alone once again feeling hurt by yet another painful rejection. But, remember it’s not who they think they are, or who they really are. Their autonomic nervous system has taken over.
5 – The Flight part flees to escape from uncomfortable or threatening situations. There are many defensive ways to flee. Hanging up, not replying, running, or sneaking out of the room. Any form of leaving will do. Excusing oneself, “Gotta go now.” Postponing, “Can’t deal with this now.” Ignoring, avoiding, tuning out, closing down, and isolating – to name a few more. This protective mechanism can be effective in getting out of unpleasant or threatening situations, but … Communicating with others, it doesn’t resolve anything. Is this threat real? Could it be dealt with successfully so as not to return? Those who flee will never know. And it can frustrate others who are trying to relate or communicate with you. If someone needs to address something with you, they may feel discounted, get in their angry part to harass you with endless texts, and phone calls, or follow you from room to room. Or more likely they may just forget you after a while and leave you alone. That could feel safe, but if you feel threatened often when there is no real threat, you’re left lonely and uninvolved with life.
What to Do?
When you very first start to feel like an interaction has taken an unpleasant, uncomfortable turn:
Pause, Breathe, and Ask Yourself “Who’s Talking?”
There are 3 possibilities. Either you, the other person, or both of you have been triggered and a protective defense mechanism is the one talking. Here’s a sure sign. You can notice that one or both of you is acting childish. Think of it. Without our Thinking Brain in charge, we revert to the defensive behaviors we used as a child. This is a very important observation. You won’t be able to have a positive conversation with an angry teenager or a freighted, needy, or manipulating child the same way you would talk to a secure, capable adult.
For the conversation to return to a comfortable and pleasant one, we need to relate to that younger defensive part that has jumped in and hijacked the conversation. Your interactions will probably get even worse if you don’t address the part that’s talking.
The Three Possibilities
1) You’ve been triggered by something in the conversation or the environment and your autonomic nervous system has alerted one of your protective parts to step in to take over. You want to notice this as soon as possible. Right at first sense an interaction has become uncomfortable or unpleasant. You want to notice quickly while you still have your Thinking Mind – the prefrontal cortex – working. Ask, who has stepped in? An angry ager? A hurt child who doesn’t want to talk anymore. Someone who is bothered that the other person is wanting so much from you, or is discounting you because it’s all about them? Most of us have a favorite “go-to” protective part. For some, it’s irritation and anger. For others it’s anxiety. And so forth. Our amygdala can’t distinguish if there is a real threat or an imagined one. It just sends off the alert.
If you can notice the shift in your feelings quickly enough, your Thinking Mind can step back in and assess the situation. If there is no actual threat, you can assure the protective part that you actually safe and you will handle whatever is bothersome about the situation. This lets the autonomic nervous system know that all is well and the alarm will turn off. Of course, if you are actually in danger from the other person, your Thinking Mind can choose the best action to take.
2) The other person has been triggered and one of their protective parts has taken over the conversation. Once we know this was can take a moment to identify which young part you’re talking to. What you don’t want to do is continue talking to the person as if they were the secure, competent person they otherwise are. Doing that will make matters worse because this person has been triggered and is not feeling safe. Of course, they will likely be unaware of the state they are in. Remember these things happen automatically without our choosing to. So once you notice the shift, you have to address the needs of the protective part who’s taken over. You can do this by calmly asking what has upset them or what they need.
3) You’re both triggered. It doesn’t matter which one of you was triggered first. A triggered response will often trigger the other person. Then you have two youngsters interacting unpleasantly with each other. Two angry teenagers yelling at each other. Two scared, hurt kids. Left unaddressed, you and the other person may dance around a variety of protective parts. A scared part may shift into an angry part. An angry part may shift into a collapsed part. And so forth. Because we are the ones with this knowledge, we are most like the ones with the power to cut it off. We need to cultivate an awareness of when we and others are triggered so we can avoid continuing to respond from of one of our protective parts. Once you notice this has happened, you can come back to your Thinking Mind, calm your nervous system, and get out of the unpleasant exchange. Apologizing works wonders and may even get calm the other person’s triggered part enough for them to come back to their capable self too. But not always. You may still need to address the needs of the other person’s protective part as described above.
Hope this knowledge will help to understand yourself and others when communication goes awry and enable you to get back to the capable people you are. If you struggle to apply this information in your conversations, I can help you learn to use it to improve your relationships. Contact me