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Recognizing Defensive Routines Through Mindfulness

I recently signed up for a virtual five-day guided mindfulness retreat. It’s an hour a day of meditation and reflection with a spiritual advisor. My hope is to find inner balance in the midst of the external chaos we are experiencing right now. For me, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a “wake-up call” of sorts where I came to realize that I had taken on some unhealthy habits over the past few years. It’s hard to create boundaries, especially in government, when you’re here for the mission and so passionate about making a difference. I found that my work and other demands filled my time with being “busy.” I had lost sight of what brought me joy and why I was here in the first place. To reclaim space for myself, I started practicing mindfulness—a state of being fully present in the moment, becoming more self-aware, open and attentive to others.

While on this mindfulness journey, I came across the concept of defensive routines, written about in Becoming a Resonant Leader by Annie McKee, Richard E. Boyatzis and Fran Johnson. Defensive routines are coping mechanisms that help us deal with stress and anxiety, essentially defending us from stressors. Though these routines help us feel more in control, they may result in us feeling stuck and being resistant to change. Although resistance can decrease anxiety momentarily, it can also be self-destructive. The perfect example of this would be procrastination, something that I’ve been guilty of from time to time. Recognizing our defensive routines and being aware of them can help us become more mindful when we fall into these bad habits.

The four types of defensive routines are categorized by whether we tend to internalize or externalize our feelings and problems and whether we approach or avoid issues. I’m sure we’ve all had a boss that ramps up work when they’re stressed as a way to manage themselves, resulting in the team working harder or a teammate or colleague that tends to withdraw when something is more difficult. These are both examples of defensive routines. The table below can help you identify your own defensive routines and get clarity on how you respond in stressful situations.

What do you tend to do when you are under pressure?

Approach and Internalize

  • I get to work earlier and stay at work later
  • I continue to add new projects or take on more roles despite a realistic shortage of time or results
  • I constantly remind myself of my own or others’ high standards for me
  • I expect everyone to perform at my high standards
  • I can never say “no”
Avoid and Internalize

  • I move further inside my office, my projects, my thoughts and concerns
  • I become detached from relationships with colleagues, friends and family
  • I communicate less than usual and only about what I feel is essential
  • Only my mission and goals seem important
  • I don’t need input from others
  • I feel that other people just get in the way
Approach and Externalize

  • I am the only one who knows the answer
  • If anyone disagrees with me I will disregard them or make them sorry for disagreeing
  • My closest friends and advisers always agree with me
  • I never waver on decisions
Avoid and Externalize

  • I focus on negative aspects of situations
  • I wear anger and disappointment as a badge of honor
  • I criticize or become cynical with those who want things to change or have hope
  • I blame my mood/circumstances on the situation or someone else
  • I enjoy being with like-minded people and talking about what we think is wrong

When I first identified my defensive routines, a lightbulb went off in my head. It was mindfulness at its best—seeing ways my current coping mechanisms that I thought were healthy were actually restrictive. I reflected on how these habits affected me, the people close to me and my work. If you’re like me, you may identify with various bullets across the different quadrants. My main methods of coping with stress are taking on more work, never saying “no” (both approach and internalize) and refusing to ask others for help (avoid and internalize).

Simply being aware of these routines helped me identify how these behaviors affected me and I’ve been able to catch myself before falling back into them. I now ask myself if I have the time and bandwidth to take on additional projects, try to say “no” more often (this one is still hard for me) and push myself to get input from others earlier on in my work process. Additionally, I’ve been able to be proactively empathetic in recognizing the defensive routines of others, such as my colleagues and family members. This has helped me show up for them as we’re all going through this tough time. Hopefully, awareness of these defensive routines helps you become more conscious of your choices before you act as well, and allow you to find ways to support the people close to you.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected]. And to read more from our Winter 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort.

Jenn Noinaj is a social impact strategist, researcher and designer passionate about using design to solve society’s most pressing challenges. She’s currently leading the Public Interest Technology Field Building portfolio at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation where she works on creating solutions to make the public interest technology field more inclusive. Prior to this role, she worked in the federal government at the US Digital Service where she partnered with various agencies to transform digital services across government, building capacity in technology and design and championing a user-centric culture. You can find more about her on her website and can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Avatar photo Pearl Kim

I didn’t know about defensive routines before. Just reading about what they are – “routines that help us feel more in control, but may result in us feeling stuck and resistant to change” – was helpful in helping me start to identify what those routines are.