The Pitfalls of Defensiveness

If there is one thing that my PT professors are trying to hammer into me it is this: don’t be defensive.

That advice is hard to take in when your initial reaction is “What do you mean defensive? I’m open to criticism, no problem.”

Guess what? Everyone is defensive. No one likes to be wrong or likes it when their choices come under scrutiny. I have a high tendency to be defensive instead of listening to what people have to say and taking their words into consideration.

This past weekend, I went to a workshop for Cantors at church. I’ve been cantoring at mass for years and singing for many more alone and with ensembles. The presenter for this workshop told us things we thought we knew but needed a refresher on. Tips like how to stand to get the best air flow and when to move to the ambo to sing the psalm. At the end of the workshop, I was given the chance to work one-on-one with the archdiocesan music director.

Notice how I phrased that. I didn’t say I was forced to stay after the workshop for extra attention. I know at least one of the other cantors at the workshop viewed our extra time as a chore. I did my best to see it differently. Instead of thinking I had to stay after for additional help because the church’s music director didn’t think I was a good enough singer, I (tried to) embrace it as an opportunity.

When it was my turn to stand beside the piano, I offered to work on one of three different psalms that I was familiar with. Of course, the workshop leader picked the psalm with which I was weakest. Why would there be any other result? My immediate thought was “Crap! Why did I even offer that psalm? I don’t know it well enough. I’m going to sound awfully. He’s going to think I’m a bad singer.” My second thought was better: “Here’s a chance to work on something I struggle with one-on-one with an expert in the subject.”

The other two psalms are favorite psalms of mine. There are good reasons for that. They are comfortable. Both are within my range, have a strong alto line, and are interesting rhythmically. Psalm composition heaven, population: me. I can sing them without notes or accompaniment. It would have been a waste of my one-on-one time to work on something I am so confident with.

This lesson is one my professors have been drilling into me: I don’t know everything. But each person knows a little bit of that everything and they are willing to share it with me if I will only listen to them. So when my professors correct one of my fumbling clinical decisions in class, my initial response shouldn’t be flippant or trying to defend a poorly reasoned choice that I made. I need to accept their criticism for what it is: an effort to pass on knowledge to me and to ensure my success.

As hard as it is, defensiveness is something I am trying to beat out of myself. It is not bad to be able to back up your ideas and thoughts. It is bad to react negatively to any suggestion or criticism and view them as personal attacks. This is true in singing, in school, and most definitely in my novel editing. I’m having a hard time swallowing this lesson, but it is one that I need to take to heart. If we all stopped thinking that others were out to bring us down, what could we accomplish? How far could we grow?

Let’s find out together.

Have you ever struggled with defensiveness? Has there been a time when someone reacted defensively when you were only trying to help? Share your story in the comments!

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