There have been immeasurable times in my life where I have reacted (rather than responded) when put on the spot. I am constantly fighting my defenses. I am like an animal that senses danger—even when danger is not there. The tiny, micro-hairs on my back bristle and a chill goes up my spine. The blood rushes into my ears and feels like it is coming out in flames.
A friend once told me, “Drea, if you could just learn to respond rather than react to everything, I think that you would have an easier go of it in life.” And guess what happened when she said it? You guessed it. Up went my defenses. I fumed about it for a couple of days. But, I think what was so hard about hearing it, was that it was true—which is the case with most things that get my defenses up. I am not sure when I got to the point where I could not take criticism and began to perceive it as a danger. I should ask my mother.
Several weeks ago, I was in Florida on a family vacation. One evening, my husband and I took our nieces and nephews onto the beach for a good ‘ol crab chase. We shone the flashlight up and down the beach, watched the crabs scatter, then we chased them. At one point we had one cornered, but no one would pick it up—they were afraid of its pinchers. I, being the tough one I am—or at least wanting to be perceived that way—reached down and grabbed the crab by his shell.
“See,” I said, “They are nothing to be afraid … OUCH!”
As I spoke, I watched this little crab reach down toward my finger, deliberately grab it, and pinch. It hurt. It felt like someone shoved a couple of needles into the tip of my finger. It had the desired effect, I threw that crab down and it scuttled off to join its friends. The next time I picked one up, I had on heavy gloves, and grabbed it at a different angle.
Recently, while contemplating this experience, I realized the irony in it. I am that crab. People close to me know this best. My husband, my family, my closest friends. They more often than not treat me with kid gloves, and now I understand why. I am the cat they are afraid of being scratched by, the dog they are afraid of reacting with gnashing of teeth, the crab with sharp needles for pinchers.
The worst thing for me is that I often realize it and have a hard time curbing it. I have a hard time stopping the reaction in its tracks and taking a moment to respond. It has cost me dearly, my husband constantly worries that what he says will somehow offend me, even when there is nothing offensive about it. My sister chooses her words very carefully, so that I don’t cut her off for a week. My best friend, tells it to me straight at times, but always prefaces things with, “Now, don’t take offense because that is not how I mean it.”
As with all discoveries, it comes with a choice. I can continue to be this person and continue reacting in my habitual way, or choose to recognize the fault and begin to work on it. I choose one or the other depending on the day. Some days I just don’t have the energy to put in the effort, or I just feel like being crabby and short. Those are the days I decide to stay home. More often, there are days that I choose to work on forming a new habit of responding rather than reacting. This involves taking people’s words and not automatically formulating them into criticism, but seeing them as words from people who love me and want me to be happy.
When my husband tells me that he likes how the green sweater goes with my eyes, I try not to turn it into, “That purple sweater makes you look washed out and fat.”
When my sister says she didn’t like that movie as much as I did or at all, I try not to hear, “Oh my god! You have the worst taste in movies ever.”
More importantly, when I do not complete my to-do list one day, I try not to give in to the voices that say, Why can’t you ever get anything done? What is wrong with you?
And so, I continue to train myself against my instinct. Over the past thirty years I have fed my defenses—perfecting them, fattening them, holding them close, protecting them so they are able to protect me against threats only I can see. Now I am nothing more than a little crab, running to and fro out of habit, burrowing myself in the sand, peering out, scanning the horizon for danger before venturing out and running to my next safe place.
In the end I am merely running in a circle, from one place to another, hardly recognizing that they are the same. Until I can expand my circle, perhaps taking a little more time getting from one spot to the other, I will and always will be reminded that the crab is me.