Thursday, December 6, 2012

Defenses and Defensiveness

Gaddavir by Orlygur Hnefill, cc license
Last Thursday I defended my Master's thesis and passed. :) It was a wonderful experience. I had an incredibly thoughtful committee and a thesis adviser who places value on participation and rich discussions. To that end, she invited the friends who came along to support me to play an active role by asking questions and adding to the discussion. It was very cool and there were several times that I had to remind myself to focus because I kept getting caught up in reflecting on what a great gathering of people it was.

The night before the defense was another story...

I was a ball of nerves. As much as I told myself to chill, that it was going to be fine, that I had this down, my body just didn't believe it. My stomach was in knots and it's a small miracle that I slept at all. In part, I was worried that I wouldn't be articulate enough to share what was important and that I would do a disservice to the folks who lent their voices to my research. I was even more worried about becoming defensive.

I'm not always great about hearing criticism (and as I write that, I can see my mom rolling her eyes and saying, "You think?!"). Sometimes, when I feel attacked or when someone is telling me something I don't want to hear, I tend to stop listening and either disengage or go on the attack, myself. Neither of these responses would be appropriate at the thesis defense.

I became more aware of this response this past Summer, when I teamed up with a life coach for the first time (Jenny Fenig, if you're curious). At one point, I was on a coaching call with her and I felt myself beginning to bristle at some feedback she was giving me. Luckily, I caught myself and was able to hold my tongue instead of protesting. Also lucky, the call was recorded so I was able to go back and have a second chance at really listening to what she was telling me. What I realized is that she was only there to help me and if I could just let go of my defenses and ego for a moment, there was some real potential for growth. For the remainder of our calls, I always spent a few moments beforehand with the mantra, "I am open. I am receptive."

I kept that mantra running in my head during my thesis defense, with one addition:

I am open. I am receptive. I am supported. 

It can be downright reflexive to put up walls when we feel attacked. What a gift, when we can instead take a moment to really listen and be pleasantly surprised at the love and support behind the hard-to-hear words. And what a gift, too, when we can choose to accept the love and support regardless of whether, after really hearing them, we decide to accept the words.

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  1. It can be so hard to be receptive to criticism. I used to bristle a lot, too. It's not that it doesn't still happen but like your mantra, I've learned to silence myself and take in what they are saying and learn from it.

    Great read, as usual! :)