Pre-emptive Defensiveness


A Memo by Allen Hacker

Copyright © 1994, 1996 by ASC Missions Group, ntc.



The major cause of abuse, of every type, is an attitude we call preemptive defensiveness. Preemptive defensiveness is the result of powerful internal decisions reinforced by strong victim-type feelings. The decisions vary widely, but they all fit into a single category: "I am never going to let anyone get to me again!" A variation on this might be found in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind", where Scarlett O'Hara vows from the depths of her soul, "I am never going to be hungry again!" To see the potential destructiveness in this vow, one must look at the implied follow-up statement: "No matter what I have to do, or who must be sacrificed."

A person in preemptive mode acts first. The idea is to preempt the opponent's move, to make that move impossible. In a preemptive nuclear strike, for example, a country fires its missiles first, before its enemy has a chance to shoot.

As a social function, the preemptive strategy is to be strong by keeping others too weak to be a threat. Therefore, this is not an affirmative attitude but a defensive, destructive one. The preemptively defensive individual may be physically strong and occupy a powerful position, but inside he is a terrified mess who sees everyone as a threat.

Preemptive defensiveness's operation is usually quite subtle. It is not the overriding consideration in most people's motivations, so its appearance is not often blatant. Even when it is someone's primary concern, usually it will still be well hidden behind a covert facade. After all, it is not safe to be identifiable as the cause of other people's misery and failure. Further, the shroud is necessary since these people often have made a considerable investment in appearing indispensable. The preemptively defensive individual cannot stand to see someone else do well, because that implies that the other person will gain power and be a threat, now or later. So the usual method of such people is to constantly undermine the best efforts of others. And since the facade must be maintained, they do it in little, excusable, ways.

If you feel great, they tell you about someone who is sick or miserable. If you're in love, they'll warn you about trusting people you can never really know, and talk about their divorce as proof. If you're on the verge of some great achievement, they'll say something that raises doubts in your ability, or about the correctness of what you're doing or the way you're doing it. If you decide to run for office, they'll warn you that you'll get shot.

But don't mistake this for mere pessimism: the preemptively defensive individual is proactive in his negativity. Where the pessimist has yielded to apathy, the preemptively defensive has taken refuge in covert hostility.

So much for your favorite co-worker or jogging partner. What about the boss? The preemptively defensive boss has several options available for keeping people under The Thumb. When you do something exceptional, he can take the credit. Or, he can give you the credit but in such a way that you look lucky, not effective. When you become too competent, he can fire you or set you up to look bad, so you can't take his job or expose his incompetence. He can pass you over at promotion time. Or, he can just pass on hiring you in the first place.

And how does the preemptively defensive person treat the buying public? Like cattle, to use the old phrase. Use them, feed off them, and care nothing for their comfort. Like the automobile sales manager who has his people chant, "The buyer is a liar", trying to convince his people that the customers have more money than they say they do, and are not "just looking", and so on.

What happens when a corporation takes on the flavor of being preemptively defensive? The customers get shorted on value and vendors go unpaid, sometimes forever. The competition gets subverted, sabotaged and stolen from.

The one thing you should never expect from a preemptive defensive, whether an individual or a business, is straight dealings.

Now, the disclaimers. First, let's don't run out and do a witch-hunt. Because second, we are all to some degree preemptively defensive. So let's not judge others too harshly. Rather, we should look for a way to get past it.

Besides, preemptive defensiveness is not the only cause of trouble. To look too closely for it might cause one to miss everything else! Still, Preemptive defensiveness is something to keep in mind whenever you find yourself looking for the reason something isn't working.


How does a person get to be this way?

If you accept that people are basically good, that they will do the right thing whenever they can see that option, then you immediately see two things.

First, there are no truly evil people, there are just destructive acts. Second, if a person will always do the right thing if given the opportunity, then maybe that is exactly what the person is *always* doing.

How can this be? It's simple. Good people get confused and do things that others consider bad.

Pre-emptive defensiveness involves people who have become confused and are doing things that they think are right under the circumstances they perceive, but which are actually destructive. Sometimes even to themselves.

This happens because of the modified perceptions of the persons in question.


How can we deal with all this? Before we even try, we must take the victims out of the equation if we are to examine what is happening with the preemptively defensive person. We need to free the subject of the intensity of our outrage and take a cold hard look at his point of view.

The preemptively defensive individual is someone who sees himself as the so-horribly-victimized effect of others that he can no longer discern which of the many people he now contacts is his potential next nightmare.

From his point of view, he has been hurt so deeply and so many times that he has finally reached a point of blind rage about it.

How intense is his rage? The answer lies in its source. It represents the accumulated value of every failure he has ever suffered at, he believes, the hands of others. The entire volume of emotional charge generated by his fundamental resistance to each and every loss, failure of purpose and denial of identity that he has ever suffered now seethes within this once-magnificent expression-of-beingness turned vigilante.

The only thing he knows for certain becomes his one singleminded operating policy: "Don't ever let anyone hurt you again".

But how can he follow through on that policy?

He can't trust anybody. He can't let anybody get close. He can't have any contact with anybody. Unless.

Unless they do not have the power or ability to hurt him.

And from that comes his first solution: Seek out people who are so weak they can't hurt you. As a boss, this means hiring marginally competent people, hiring "Yes-men", and stealing the power and ideas of competent subordinates so they never look better than the boss. But even that plan fails now and then. Some people will surprise you.

So he goes a step further: Make certain that no one has the power or ability to hurt you. This where the office politics and back-stabbing come from.

Why the sneakiness? The PD dares not let others see him as he really is, or they'll certainly turn on him in a violent instant. So he acts in advance with each person he meets, covertly disabling them to the point that he will be safe.

He has become what we can call Pre-emptively Defensive (PD).

In defense mode, he acts first to pre-empt the other person's attack, "just in case".

And now he looks like he's trying to keep other people down, because he is. But he's not doing it because he wants to harm them. He's doing it because he believes it's the only way he can defend his own existence.

And he's not doing it for pleasure, no matter how much he seems to enjoy it. His pleasure comes not from the pain of others but from his fleeting sense of being safe as he disables yet another potential enemy, undermines yet another potential betrayer, or weakens the underpinnings of yet another inevitably disappointing organization.


But wait, some might still say. Even given all this, it's his actions that we must deal with. That's got to be our immediate priority, because if we let him slide and feel sorry for him, he'll work his way through huge numbers of truly good and well-behaved people, destroying them as he goes.

After all, this argument goes to its logical conclusion, we can't just let some crazy run down the street swinging an ax at everyone he meets. We can't even let his less-disturbed cousin continually disrupt the peace of our society, if we want life to be worth living.

Of course we can't. But that's not our concern within this memo. Those arguments come from the other side of the story, our concern for the victims and ourselves. Our topic at this moment is primarily the motivations of the PD, the pre-emptively defensive person.

But shouldn't we be concerned about the victims and potential victims? Yes, by all means. But we must not be concerned exclusively for them. And that's where the problem I am really addressing here comes into play.

If we don't understand the preemptively defensive person's situation, we can't help him. And if we can't help him, we can't remove the threat he represents from the environment in a respectful and constructive way.

After all, the cost of believing in inevitable evils is paid in fear and insecurity. This is a ticket to the so-called "dangerous environment". And that leads to putting men in cages for the rest of their lives, to cutting up their brains with drugs, surgery and electricity to subdue them, and to execution. In business, this is called "termination".

Every one of these solutions suffers the same nasty drawback. The PD remains PD, and shows up somewhere else, initiating the same vicious cycle all over again.


How do we manage the pre-emptively defensive individual within the business context? By incorporating Affirmative Direction, Articulate Management's personnel management method. (By the way, this is not all pie-in-the-sky. It does include steps to take when the PD doesn't respond and must be sent on his way.)

Can we help this person, if he wants to be helped? Yes, with Semantic Adjustment, in private consultation.

Together with the above tools, the solution is to become oriented to an affirmative perspective that allows for destructive acts and the necessity to be prepared and willing to take corrective action. Not vengeful action, and not hateful action, just corrective action.

The guy is running down the street swinging an ax, stop him however you must, but leave your anger and outrage somewhere else. This is a tortured soul, and it deserves as much respect as the next guy. This is the true meaning of loving your enemies.

The same is true in social and professional situations. The guy who works constantly to undermine your authority isn't trying to destroy you, he's trying to make sure you can't hurt him. Don't take it personally.

It really isn't personal, you know. The pre-emptively defensive person has everybody so generalized in his mind, so categorized by threat potential that he never actually sees the real you. Or anyone else.

So it's not about you. You are not the target. You're just convenient, and if it isn't you it will be the next guy. We're all the same to him.

So write the PD off and treat him as an enemy - at your own peril. Declare him too much trouble to help today, and spend tomorrow looking over your shoulder.


All this requires several bits of attitude adjustment.

We must stop making other people's difficulties the "reasons" for an us-n-them mentality.

We must find it in our hearts to forgive and be firm and helpful at the same time.

And we must change our society and the way people deal with one another to something based a little more on a better understanding.

Which means that we need to realize that not everyone who disagrees with us is a bad guy.

After all, look around you. You're still here, they're still here. We're all in this mess together. The only viable resolution to this mess is to create a real civilization where everyone has rights and true rehabilitation of self and ability is available to all.

Business seems like as good a place to begin as any.


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