Can Positive Reframing turn into Defensiveness?

Where is this defensiveness coming from with you two? ~ paraphrasing a couples counselor

My current relationship ended a few weeks ago.  Today, I experienced an insight in a moment that almost turned defensive. It is my general goal not to discuss my ex-girlfriend too much. I do want to focus on my own stuff. In this situation, a super short exchange helped me identify my thoughts and feelings, just as ‘defensiveness’ was snow balling, and fortunately we both halted the avalanche.

A Question I couldn’t answer about my defensiveness

I didn’t know the answer to the question above asked by my couples counselor. I had no idea how many conversations become such a struggle in defensive reactions?

I had no idea at the time. I tended to look outward for many reasons. Inwardly, I could see the end result, and I had no idea how each of us kept getting (rapidly) to a very defensive place.

This morning I stumbled into what feels like a big clue!

This is not the actual conversation

This morning I used a practice, a tool that I first started to learn from my now ex-girlfriend. I used this tool just after she mentioned something about me. It was something that hinted at my current situation or possible future. It was not totally inaccurate, and there was this one word in the statement that did not resonate with me.

It wasn’t negative. It was entirely incorrect. And it did not fit my emotions nor knowledge of where I am and where I am going.

Reframing negative conversations into Positives

Three years back, my girlfriend and a number of great Ted Talks and self help books and other things introduced me to the concept of Positive Reframing.

Positive Reframing is a technique to help you view the other person’s motives and behaviour in a more positive light. It is all about resisting the urge to go to war, and instead trying to think about the conflict from a more positive perspective.” ~ How to use Positive Reframing

Nothing in that definition sounds like being defensive. It sort of sounds the opposite of being defensive even.

In the early days, my girlfriend introduced me to Abraham Hicks, a sort of spiritual guru and public speaker. I’m not judging who she is or what she does. I will say that I found her example of speaking and responding to questions put to her by people experiencing negative thoughts to be excellent examples of how to engage in Positive Reframing.

Abraham Hicks examples helped me greatly practice dialoguing in my head how to do the same. My girlfriend and I listened to many different talks via YouTube videos and such. We worked together to Positively Reframe our own words and help each other add a more positive ‘vibration’ to our conversations. We practiced and got better and better, and I look back on this stage of our relationship with a lot of love and gratitude. It helped me heal in many ways.

Over the year to come, I also started getting counseling, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy in a group setting through the Veterans Administration. Part of the coping skills taught here also included Positive Reframing. Plus, I benefited from using the WoeBot App, an artificial Intelligence based Conditional Behavioral Therapy program from Stanford.  It too taught me a great deal about Positive Reframing, identifying language with ‘Labeling’, ‘Distortions’ and many other skill sets to identify things that could increase my anxiety and make me less effective and healthy.

I picked up these skills and kept practicing them. I got better and healthier and more effective. Fast forward to now, and in many ways, I am feeling much more like my former extra capable self.

And along the way my relationship with my girlfriend came to an end. 😦

We are individually working through the Conscious Uncoupling method as we end our three year relationship. I find it to be a very healthy way to end a relationship in a compassionate, healing and even loving way.

We had sought couples counseling a few months earlier. We were not able to keep it up for many reasons, and one of the things that we learned is that we rapidly escalated into defensive language and actions very rapidly.

Focusing on my stuff

As a reminder, I’m working my stuff and only sharing the back drop for the relationship dynamic as minimally as I can.

This morning when I heard something that didn’t resonate with me, I reframed it in a response. I restated the sentence with a change in a single word to more precisely capture what I was actually thinking, and not the slightly imprecise language that had been projected (not requested).

My former girlfriend immediately felt and responded that I was being ‘defensive.’

That was when the insight came to me in the form of a question.

I knew and thought immediately, I am NOT being defensive. I am reframing the projection.

Weird thing about defensiveness, as soon as we state “I am NOT” even in our heads, that’s sort of defensive.
In this case, it is a paradox. Obviously defensive on the one hand, and simultaneously not defensive as it is correcting a projection and bringing more precision to the conversation such that I can express my true feelings.

So there is a rub here. My feelings were shut down in the moment.

Her feelings were likely shut down in the moment as well. I did not recognize nor accept her statement (albeit about me. tangential issue here.)

I stepped on her feelings about what I was experience, and restated my feelings as they actually were with slightly more precision. I positively reframed them AND

My execution in this case of Positively Reframing her statement, the way I did it, was entirely defensive.

This positive and useful skill had flipped to the dark side and been used poorly.

Suddenly, a year and a half of conversations that could have gone better, and in the early months of our relationship had gone beautifully, made more sense.

  • I was over using the tool of Positive Reframing.
  • I was over using it in particular with my girlfriend as that was one of the foundations we started our relationship with in the early months.
  • I was jumping the gone, short circuiting the process before engaging in the reframing of imprecise words….

Instead of dealing with the projections, instead of dealing with issue of not being allowed to even speak for myself and my feelings first….

  • I was clipping off her attempt to express her feelings about what she thought she was witnessing in me or my future.
  • I was not stating anything like, ‘let me Positively Reframe these words about my feelings, myself or my future’. I was just doing it.
  • I was not communicating what I was going to do. I was doing it without warning.

I’m not taking all the blame in this dynamic, just trying to own my part in a cycle that has proven challenging to break.

In a different phase of our relationship, we had savored reframing our conversations and helping each other do better at this. As we transitioned out of the phase where limerence was the primary force in our relationship then. We moved into a new stage and limerence faded, and suddenly (I suspect) this Positive Reframing couples activity shifted.

I didn’t see the shift nor did I understand that this old way of communicating that brought us together, might now start to pull us apart. (note I also believe there are other reasons why we were pulled apart, this is only a small part in all that)

I had previously learned about how communication methods don’t always work in different stages of relationships.

I just hadn’t seen how that might be with Positive Reframing.

I needed more knowledge.

Googling ‘Is reframing defensive’ helped me find some new answers.

William Berry’s article “Are you overusing your psychological tools” in Psychology Today helped quite a bit.

After my lead in above, you might have guessed it by now. Anything can work until it doesn’t. Anything can be terrific when used just right and not so terrific when over used.

Same thing goes for Positive Reframing.

When we use it too much, an easy habit to get into because many of us do need to practice it to learn how to use it at all, it can turn into something that is not helfpul and can prevent us from feeling what we need to feel.

All that work to get more precise about our feelings, might delay our ever truly feeling the feels, sharing or communicating that, blocking others from feeling their feels, and in turn demonstrating and inspiring defensiveness.

In retrospect, all of our great work together to develop this new emotional/mental judo technique of Positive Reframing, eventually left us beaten and battered by each other in our respective emotional dojos. We were each others practice dummies. 😦

At some point, our practice might have even ended, and I didn’t realize it or maybe she didn’t and thats when all that practice started to feel like combat and the defensiveness went to new levels.

Our greatest strength in the early days, a willingness to open up and work on ourselves together, became our kryptonite as we over worked and suffered.

I am sad that I didn’t figure this out sooner. I can’t take back my actions or lack of insight soon enough.

And yet, this life is a journey and I am learning even right now. There are other reasons why we are breaking up as well. This might have been some of the fuel for the fire imho.