November 12

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The Futility of Self-Defense

By Greg Baer

November 12, 2020

Personal Growth

You Have Been Falsely Accused of Some Offense

Frequently people call me to complain about an argument with someone who falsely accused them of some offense. “No matter what I said in my defense,” the caller says, “The other person just rolled his eyes and continued to attack me.”

I have seen this so often—and experienced it myself abundantly—that I named it: the futility of self-defense. You will recognize it immediately when I make it more personal—about you, for example:

“You’re pretty arrogant,” I say.

“I’m not arrogant,” you respond.

“Yeah, just like every other arrogant fool I know,” I retort. “You’re always right, not listening to a word I’m saying.”

“I’m really not arrogant. What do you base this accusation on?”

“There, just like I said. And defensive too.”

See the problem? I speak first, and I attack you, which puts me on the offense and you the defense. I’m verbally pounding you, and every time you speak a word in your defense—or you make a mistake in details—you look all the more guilty.

This happens a lot:

  1. Your boss accuses you of neglecting to do something you were never assigned.
  2. Your wife tells you that you never pay her any attention, despite the fact that you can recall dozens of times you have gone out of your way to speak to her in the past week alone.
  3. Your son says you never listen to anything he says.

You’re screwed. You can’t say anything that doesn’t come across as defensive.

Explanation is Interpreted as Justification

Recently a man wrote me an accusatory, attacking, and bitter letter. My mind is reasonably fertile and quick, and I began to respond with reasoned, clear proof that I had not done any of the things he accused me of. My response ignored the fact that the writer of the bitter letter had himself done all the things he was accusing me of. Immediately I knew that accusing him in return was foolish, but I kept writing the reasonable defense of myself.

Finally, experience and good sense kicked in, and I remembered that EXPLANATION is almost always interpreted as JUSTIFICATION. When people are in pain, and they claim you are the cause, they are very attached to the explanation they’ve found for their pain, and they hear nothing that contradicts the artificially ordered world they’ve created.

How many times have I had to learn this lesson? I couldn’t count. The temptation to respond is so overwhelming because what they are doing or saying is WRONG. The inner self-righteous drive is overwhelming, but it turns out that their being wrong, and you being gorgeously right is not enough. It's just not, because being right is not the higher goal. Being loving is the goal.

I stopped writing, and the next time I saw the accuser in person, I simply loved him. I didn’t bring up the content of his email. I just asked him about his family, listened, and obviously cared about him. Never again did I have another negative interaction with that man. Love melts pain and anger better than anything else.

You Are Not a Doormat

Being loving doesn’t mean being controlled or being a doormat. Yes, the man attacking me in writing was assassinating my character—and I have little doubt that he was distributing his venom about me to others. But the phrase “sticks and stones” comes to mind, and he wasn’t really hurting me. To be sure, he wasn’t loving me, but I don’t ever have a right to demand that. I just let it go—the imagined injury—and it worked out fine. Sure, sometimes the accuser remains bitter, but we’re delusional if we believe we can make people stop thinking and speaking ill of us.

But, you might ask, what about cases where false accusations CAN be injurious, as in the case of the three numbered examples above—with a boss, a spouse, and a child? Our most powerful tools in nearly every circumstance are loving and teaching. When in doubt, love first and most, with teaching following and to a lesser degree.

On rare occasions, defense is a possibility, but usually it works only when a third party participates. If your boss makes a false accusation, for example, a coworker taking responsibility for the error can be a beautiful thing—however rare it might be.

What You Can Do

The exceptional third-party defense aside, though, what can we do when falsely accused? The answer remains the same: love and teach. Let’s take the three examples, very briefly, with no claim that they will always work:

  1. Your boss accuses you of neglecting to do something you were never assigned.
    You respond: “Thanks for telling me that, so I can pay much closer attention and not do that again.” Notice that this is both loving (true listening, always a part of loving) and teaching (telling him what you’re going to do to correct the supposed neglect).
  2. Your wife tells you that you never pay her any attention, despite the fact that you can recall dozens of times you have gone out of your way to speak to her in the past week alone.
    You: “That is not something I want to continue. What would you like to do together right now? Or tomorrow? Or for the rest of the week?” Again, loving and teaching. Defending would do no good whatever.
  3. Your son says you never listen to anything he says.
    You: “Well, that would suck for you. My bad. You choose. Pick something from the past I didn’t listen to, so I can try again, or bring up something new that I can try to listen to better.”

Notice that loving responses are brief, not defensive, and serve to connect people. They’re also fun.

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