On Defensiveness and Crab–a rant and a recipe

In all my years of being defensive, recognizing defensiveness in others, and helping others recognize and move through their own defensiveness, I never asked the question until the other day.

What are we defending ourselves against, exactly?

But now that I’ve asked myself, I think that the idea of a crab can come in handy right now. And not just because I was trying to decide whether to blog about defensiveness or the family crab marinade recipe. A crab has a tough, clawed exterior protecting some fairly delicate innards. Poke a stick at a crab, and if it can’t run, it will claw at the stick. Or you. Or else it very well may end up in the marinade.

None of us want to end up in the marinade, as the main course in someone else’s feast upon our self esteem. So before they even get a chance, we claw. We scuttle.

What does that look like? Usually, interrupting. When you are in a defensive headspace, you don’t need to listen to what the other person is saying or what she actually means. You are two steps ahead, and preparing the counterattack. You could bring up a somehow parallel crime the person has levied in the past (a favorite of those in romantic partnerships). You could be passive aggressive, smile, and subtly try to make the person feel stupid.

What they are saying could be true or it could be false. Defensiveness insists that one must become obsessed with the difference.

Are you unclear if you’re defensive? Do you sound like a jerk to yourself? Probably. (Unless everything you say sounds jerky to yourself, and then you have a perception and self esteem issue.)

The soft innards that you are protecting, is your self esteem, your good opinion of yourself, your perception of your identity and integrity. If you tend towards the perfectionistic, you won’t like anyone to draw attention to your mistakes because them drawing attention to them means you have them, and don’t they know how hard you are working to not make them and do everything right?

Want to stop being defensive? Stop being a perfectionist and allow yourself mistakes. And then own them in front of others and apologize sincerely instead of behaving like an ass.

A great trick taught to me by a wonderful therapist is, in intimate relationships, to voice it: “I’m feeling defensive.” This is one of those things, that when I suggest it clients they say things like: “it’s hard to imagine myself talking like that.” That surprises me when people aren’t willing to do something that could potentially stop a nasty argument just because it feels awkward at first. Other clients, perhaps after being called on that first point, will say things like “that sounds like a good idea when we are sitting here, but it is difficult to do that in the moment.” Yes it is. A lot of things that are worth doing are difficult in the moment: physical exercise, financial self-restraint, emotional risk. Others say: “I never think of that in the moment”, which is actually a fair clue that they might be escalating very quickly when they feel attacked, and unable to recognize their anger signs. The trick there is to slow down and recognize signals from the body that tell us we are escalating, and to stop and take a break before we speak. Chances are, after a 10 minute break, we won’t say something so defensive or launch a counterattack.

I’m also fairly surprised when clients appear to resist the idea of a 10 minute break to avoid an argument. Poking around usually reveals to us that 10 minutes of being left alone during an argument can cause such anxiety that it is preferable to continue fighting, even if a time out could stop it. Again, if that is you, it’s time to re-examine your “need” to “resolve it now” and see if it is the kindest thing for yourself and your partner. If a simple time out has you feeling freaked out and abandoned, you don’t need me to tell you that there are abandonment issues. Why not work on getting to a point where you can allow your partner to leave the room without becoming reactive and feeling like they are leaving forever?

Defensiveness in intimate relationships tends to be expressed more openly and bitingly, while a work situation is more likely to showcase passive aggressive defensiveness. Posturing, interrupting, being too quick to say “I know” anytime anyone says anything, and general workplace sabotage drama/games/shenanigans are ways that defensiveness manifest there.

Back to our crab. We are soft and sweet inside, and predators want to eat us. Predators are real and we do fall victim to emotional trauma, horrible treatment by others, and other versions of hurt and heartbreak. It’s with good reason we scuttle and snap and claw. Otherwise, we might get messed with even more.

Except, we can protect ourselves better than we think, and our flesh and bones and emotional selves are more resilient. If you disregard this article as full of crab, take this one bit of advice: be authentic. Be real. Say, “that hurt my feelings.” You won’t sound as stupid as you do when you say “I know you are, but what am I?” I promise. Nobody who deserves to be near you will be a jerk if you own up to being hurt, scared, vulnerable, cranky, especially if it avoids an unpleasant argument.

The crab recipe:

Ok, I had a great dinner with my dad and his girlfriend and my sister Gina the other night. I had a hankering for crab, so my Pop got some down at Cosentino’s and left it in the fridge for me. Friday afternoon I let myself in his apartment and my husband and I drank wine and I made dinner while we waited for the family to arrive.

Crab, the way my family makes it:

1-2 lbs fresh dungeness crab, cleaned and cracked
3/4 cup parsley, give or take, minced
2-8 cloves of garlic, depending on the size of the cloves and your preference, minced
1 lemon
salt
pepper
olive oil

Lightly coat the crab in olive oil. Add minced garlic (smash a few so garlic oil drips in there) and the parseley, and about half the lemon (get the seeds out of there!). Salt and pepper to taste. Marinade for about 1/2 hour, stirring all the juices around. Serve.

My variation:
so I have eaten this crab ever since I was a little kid. Every Christmas Eve my family makes this crab (we’re of Sicilian heritage so Christmas Eve is a big deal and there is a lot of delicious seafood.). We never mess around with any kind of crab but Dungeness, usually caught near here in Monterey or Santa Cruz.
Anyway, when I first started cooking a lot I wanted to make this crab but of course had to put my own twist on it. Basically I tried to put as much of ingredients that might raise eyebrows as I could without making the recipe too different or funky.
I added other kinds of citrus juices to the marinade, in splashes only. Start with splashes because if you pour too much, it’s too late. I use squeezed or refrigerated orange or tangerine juice, maybe a splash of lime if I have it, maybe a splash of vinegar (I think others might do that too), and just a few drops of sesame oil. That one I don’t think any of them know, because it sounds sort of gross. But when you use just a teensy bit of sesame oil, it adds a nice flavor and doesn’t overpower a dish.
You can’t go wrong with the first recipe, so I recommend starting with that and adding your own variations in juices or spice.

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About Lia Salciccia Prusha

therapist and blogger
This entry was posted in Advice, Food, Relationships, Therapy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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