The lady who sat across from me was livid. Her fiery red hair was accentuated by her clenched jaw and loud tone. She was furious about a decision I’d made that she perceived had affected her son negatively. My decision had been the right one, but she wasn’t in a place where she could view things objectively. That was totally understandable.
Earlier, after a terse phone call with me, she had demanded an in-person meeting with my boss and me. During her 20-minute tirade in front of my boss, she stared through me as she assaulted my professionalism, my ethics and my competence. After she finished, she crossed her arms, sat back in her chair and muttered, “Hmmmph!” as if to say, “So what do you say to that, mister?”
I took a breath and quietly replied, “Ma’am, you are not my enemy.”
Almost anything I said could have launched us into a battle for which she was well prepared. I suspect she had run various scenarios through her head in anticipation. But she didn’t know what to do with someone who wouldn’t push back. I completely disarmed her.
“We both want your son to succeed.” I left it at that.
Her face fell and her mood changed almost as if a switch had been thrown. Within minutes, she was talking about solutions, and we actually made progress. When she left that day, she gave me a genuinely warm handshake.
In this verbal battle, she had led with her sword. Recognizing how people fight (use their swords) and defend (protect with their shields) with words and behaviors can be a powerful way to move past counterproductive actions.
People use their swords when they feel attacked, threatened or cornered and they believe that the best defense is a good offense. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (contempt, stonewalling, criticism, and defensiveness) are examples of swords.
People use their shields when they feel attacked, threatened or cornered and they don’t believe they have the skills to fight back successfully. Substance misuse and withdrawal are shields.
Albert Ellis once said that a therapist should never be offended by what someone says. That is hard to do when we feel attacked or threatened by our clients, but the point Ellis was trying to make is that it isn’t about us. To paraphrase Ellis, when our clients are using their swords against us, it should tell us something about them, our relationship or the topic we are addressing. It isn’t about us.
Many years ago, one of my clients with borderline personality disorder (BPD) challenged me every time we had an appointment. “I was reading a book by so-and-so. … Have you read him?”
“No. Never heard of him.”
The client would react to my comment with eye rolling, disbelief and, often, sarcastic responses such as, “I thought you were a professional.”
As is often true with BPD, she wasn’t trying to insult me exactly. She was trying to prove to herself that we were equals. The sword she used was intended to cause me to question my professionalism. If I had tried to use a sword myself or defend with a shield, the battle would have either escalated or at the very least ended in a stalemate.
By refusing to use my sword, while also refusing to cower with a shield, I disarmed her.
Ironically, passive aggression is actually a sword disguised as a shield. Its purpose is to cause hurt in the one being ignored, not to protect oneself from an attack.
Self-righteousness is another example of using defense as a weapon. Making the statement “I would never have an affair like you did” is intended to hurt another.
Therapists use swords sometimes. Confrontation is an aggressive technique — more of an epee than a sword. We don’t intend to hurt, however. We are forcing our clients to think rather than to raise their own sword or shield.
Recognizing who is using a sword and who is using a shield can help couples argue more productively (and, hopefully, less) in marriage and family therapy. It can also help therapists work with resistance and anger in teens and mandated clients.
Borrowing from Freud’s concept of defense mechanisms, I formulated the following statement that has helped me many times over the years. I believe that all behaviors that are dysfunctional, that are not physiological, are defensive. If I can figure out what people are afraid of, I can tell you why they are doing what they are doing.
In a way, if I can tell what they are afraid of, I can see clearly how they are using their swords or shields. In so doing, I know what to address in therapy and, equally important, how to address it.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.