When you take something your spouse does personally, you are reacting not responding. That personal reaction indicates that you are feeling “threatened”. The feeling of threat is an ill-defined feeling of “not being good enough” in some way, not important enough, not smart enough, not respected enough, not good-looking enough etc., etc., etc.
In general, we first experience such feelings of personal, psychological threat during our childhood experiences with parents and others. As youngsters, we develop strategic patterns that we use to avoid such threatening feelings of not being good enough. Obviously, we are not aware that we are trying to protect ourselves. These self-protective strategies are the way we try to manage interpersonal situations so as to avoid or minimize our sense of threat.
Self-protective strategies or defenses are designed to ward off threatening feelings.
Defenses detract from your ability to engage effectively with your spouse. When you are seeking self-protection, you do not have the capacity to engage in a positive interaction. To try to manage your own sense of vulnerability by the vain attempt to maneuver other people, particularly your spouse, is neither psychologically healthy nor effective. Generally, such self-protective strategies are explained to oneself and to others as appropriate interpersonal actions, which are designed to justify the self-protective strategy.
Examples of Self-Protective Strategies
Some examples of self-protective strategies are control, ingratiation, perfectionism, withdrawal, evaluating others, being over responsible, being compliant, and being driven. Check out the Box on Self-Protective Strategies for definitions and the rationales we use to justify them.
I prefer the term “self-protective strategies” to “defenses” because most people think of the common Freudian (Anna not Sigmund) defenses of denial, repression, regression, projection, intellectualization, rationalization, and sublimation. These defenses are used to protect our self from our self (our ego from our id). I am identifying strategies we use to protect our self from perceived attack, criticism, rejection, etc. from our spouse.
Managing Your Self Protective Strategies
Of course, the first step in managing your self-protective strategies is to recognize what they are. You are likely to think that the particular strategy or strategies you use are due to your temperament or personality. We attribute a lot to personality that is more often a self-protective strategy. As you become more willing to be self-reflective, beginning with recognizing and managing taking things personally, you will begin to recognize the patterns of self-protection that you use to avoid feeling insecure.
When you first make the attempt to be more self-reflective, it will seem awkward and you will feel very self-absorbed. Over time, new approaches to communicating with your spouse will become more second nature and require less attention.