What's YOUR Defense Mechanism?

Sep 23, 2010 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When I was a kid I was the 13th born out of 14 natural children of two parents. I get a lot of 'oohs' and 'ahs' for that, even though I didn't do anything about it but be born.

Still, I did survive it, and that's not always easy. My dad died when he was about the same age as I am now and when I was about the same age as my son is, so this time of my life I'm a bit more introspective (and a bit more cautious in my health care and habits than my dad was).

With all of the work I did to learn this coaching biz I had to do a lot of work on me, and I really had my head handed to me when I realized that I'd been living out my childhood means of surviving for so long that I didn't even notice it. I was still applying, to paraphrase Einstein, the tools of a child to the life of an adult. I was still living in survival mode as a grown man.

So how did I learn to survive in a big, competitive Irish Catholic family with three older brothers and 10 sisters? I found out that getting good grades was something I could do very well. It also got me individual attention at the dinner table: "Report cards came today and guess who got all A's?" Wow, they noticed me and I got a temporary spotlight. I want more of THIS!

So I went on to be smart as my 'niche' and get good grades. It went from being something I did well to a tool or even weapon I wielded. I watched the others to make sure they didn't surpass me and was not generous when they did well; this was MY thing! I competed against others in my class too and fought hard for honors, scholarships and teacher's approval (temporary parents).

When I went into the world (after graduating Summa Cum Laude of course) I carried this need to be the smartest person in the room into my work life. It worked in some ways; I usually found a management spot easily and got promoted and did well. BUT, because I'd learned to 'hog' the spotlight, I would still compete to be the smartest in the room and, of course, the further up the ladder I went, the less likely I'd be to be the smartest in the room. That kicked off some deeply buried defensive plan that, at times, made me less than generous in my listening and support for peers.

It was only after I'd done some work on myself through coaching and transformational courses that I could even recognize what was running me, and begin to TRY to get back control of what had become a pretty automatic defense mechanism. It's kind of like the computer, HAL, in "2001 Space Odyssey," who wants to protect so much that he actually harms.

I'm still working on it, but I share this so that I can ask YOU and have a conversation with as many of you as will comment: Have you identified the 'survival' mechanism you adapted as a child that you carried into adulthood and, now that you're grown, how's that working for you?
How do YOU survive?

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