We don’t know what gets people more defensive and angry: when we suggest that endurance training may not be the best thing for your health, or when we suggest that regular consumption of Paleo treats may not be the best thing for your health. Either way, any articles or social media posts on these subjects are guaranteed to draw an unusual number of angry responses, threats to “unfollow” us, and allegations that we are, in fact, trying to ruin your life.
We certainly aren’t winning any popularity contests with that stuff.
Running Will Kill You
Case in point: yesterday’s Facebook post, a quote from renowned cardiologist Dr. James O’Keefe. While speaking at the International Conference on Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine (which Dallas was attending), Dr. O’Keefe said, “If you want to run a marathon, go for it. Cross it off your bucket list. But running a marathon several times a year is like climbing Mount Everest every other month. No clear-thinking person would climb Mount Everest for their health.”
Translation: Running lots of marathons is not something you should do for your health. (Re-read the above. That’s the simplest, most direct translation.)
However, the responses we received on our Facebook page told us several things: first, what people heard was “don’t run marathons” or “running is stupid” or “running will probably kill you.” Second, people assumed that Dr. O’Keefe was talking to them. Personally. Which turned the quote into, “You, Jennifer, are stupid for running marathons, and you can’t run them anymore.”
We assure you, Dr. O’Keefe did not arrive at this conclusion because he hates marathoners. (For the record, he’s done a great deal of endurance training himself.) He also did not create these studies because he wants to ruin your life. Nor is he calling you out, personally. And we’re pretty sure he won’t come to your house and steal your running shoes if he hears you registered for your local 26.2.
The thing is, our articles and posts are shared with only one intention: making you healthier. They’re backed by science and/or extensive clinical experience. And most important, they aren’t personal. Yet so many people respond to these things as if the scientists conducted the study because they hate you and want to make your life miserable. Why is that? What is it about certain subjects that hit us where it hurts, and lead us to react so forcefully, so defensively, as if we were actually under attack?*
*For the record, we do this too. Just mention to Melissa that her salon hair dye isn’t the healthiest process… her reaction is less “defensive” and more “nuclear.”
The Best Defense
There are four reasons why someone might take a piece of science, a news story, or a general statement personally, and react defensively.
The behavior is tied up with our self-worth. Simple to explain, harder to self-identify, even more difficult to change. If you’re not “Mike the marathon runner (or CrossFitter, or bodybuilder),” who are you? If you don’t wear makeup, color your hair, and paint your nails, you’ll be less attractive, and less worthy of love. If you choose not to (or can’t) exclusively breastfeed your child, you are a bad mother.
If the behavior in question makes up your self-worth, of course you’ll be defensive and angry if someone questions it.
We are addicted to the behavior. This could be addiction in the clinical sense, or “addicted” in terms of the stress response and the broken feedback loops that occur with chronic stress. You can’t stop running long distances because you’re addicted to the stress response. You can’t stop eating bread because you’re gluten-intolerant and “addicted.” You can’t stop drinking coffee because you’re addicted to caffeine.
So when people post articles suggesting that endurance training/eating bread/drinking too much coffee may be bad for your health, of course you respond defensively. You see this as, “Someone is trying to take away this thing that I simply cannot live without.”
We recognize that the behavior is problematic. In the back of our minds, we already know the hair dye we use is full of chemicals. We know all the Paleo treats we are eating are keeping our Sugar Dragons alive. We know that running too much is why we’re injured so frequently. But we aren’t ready to give it up just yet.
When someone posts something that reminds us of what we already know but aren’t yet ready to change, of course we’ll respond defensively or angrily. Otherwise, we’d have to admit there was a problem, which isn’t easy. (It’s much easier to get angry and deflect.)
We’ve become a public champion for the idea. For the last three years, you’ve told everyone who will listen that low-carb, CrossFit, or eating bacon every morning is the magical cure for everything. Everyone should do what you’re doing. You’ve basically turned yourself into “low-carb/CrossFit/bacon guy,” a flag you fly loud and proud.
So when someone challenges this thing you’ve been championing for so long, so publicly, of course you’ll defend your position, because this thing is now part of your identity. (And even if your own views are starting to change, admitting that you may have been wrong is really hard.)
Stop the Cycle
If you recognize yourself in one (or more) of these scenarios, you’re not alone. We’d bet that every last one of us has something we’re not willing to reconsider or give up, even if we know it’s not the healthiest thing for us. But reacting defensively and angrily doesn’t serve any useful purpose, and effectively cuts off any productive conversation or introspection. So the next time you hear yourself taking something you read personally, or responding with a knee-jerk defensive, angry reaction, follow these tips:
Check yourself right then and there. Ask yourself, “Why am I getting so angry about this?” You can even say this out loud, so your conversation partner knows that you recognize your behavior is too extreme for the situation. Try to figure out why you are feeling attacked—which one of the four scenarios above applies to this particular situation. If you are able, allow yourself some quiet time and space for introspection.
Replay the original statement without bias. Go back and re-read or repeat the statement that set you off. Chances are you interpreted it through your own filter, when that’s not really what was said at all. (Dr. O’Keefe said that you shouldn’t run marathons for your health. He didn’t say runnnig is stupid, or that you can’t run marathons.)
Remember, science isn’t personal. If someone is quoting a study, something they read in a book, or something they heard on the news, remember those sources are not chastising you personally. No one funds studies because they want you to be unhappy, and mainstream media outlets aren’t scheduling news stories just for you. If you take something personally that wasn’t intended that way, go back and check yourself (again).
If you disagree with the statement, leave emotion out of your response. There is a difference between getting defensive (an emotional response), and debating the issue (a rational response). If you disagree with Dr. O’Keefe’s statement, state why, show opposing research, or share your own experience—but don’t feel the need to defend your own position, because you aren’t being attacked.
Ignore it until you are ready. If all else fails and you simply aren’t ready to hear or process the information at hand, ignore it. We mean that—if you want to keep running 75 miles a week and you don’t care to hear that it may not be the best thing for your health, then simply ignore the advice. Of course, that may come with consequences (which you must own), but if you’re really just not in a place where you can hear this right now, it’s your prerogative to turn away.
Finally, remember that you may not like what was said, but just because you don’t like the information doesn’t mean it’s not good information. You may just need to file it away for another day—and that’s okay. At the very least, however, when you feel able, allow the experience to prompt some honest introspection. As difficult as that is, it’s how we learn, and how we grow.
Can you relate to these feelings? Have you been told you take things too personally? Did this article make you angry and defensive? We’d really like to hear from you on this one. Share your thoughts in comments.
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Excellent, excellent post. I had a sociology professor in college explain this in a lecture about why debates over abortion, guns, gender roles, religion, frankly anything called ‘politics’ gets so crazy nasty: to even consider the other side’s point you have to question your self identity and values. Which is difficult for even the most emotionally evolved humans, and completely impossible for many.