Ever struggle with holding your tongue and giving in to the impulse to defend yourself, or attack another? Bite your tongue was part of the advice my great-grandmother taught me. Growing up, times were I thought I might bite my tongue clear in half. Probably why I went into mediation — so I wouldn’t!

I’ve always wondered why being cruel — with an unkind thought, word or action — makes us feel worse instead of better. What’s the true cost to us? The answer came to me decades ago, when I first fully understood what A Course in Miracles meant when it stated that defending and attacking are one and the same

My dear friend Robert, a devout Quaker, had been physically assaulted in Ireland by two young men and left for dead. The police report found no evidence of defensive wounds. Months later, when he was out of his coma and responsive, we had a conversation.

“Why didn’t you cover your head?” I asked him with true curiosity.

I consider myself a peaceful person, but I definitely would have put my arms up to deflect the blows. And I have to admit, I most likely would have also done my best to throw a few punches back. Which is why his response stopped me in my tracks:

“If I had defended myself, it would have been an attack.”

Any defense is an attack. And it’s always ourselves we’re attacking, even when we defend. Ouch. 

The impulse to be cruel, giving in to our ego, reminds me of Aesop’s Fable about the dog with the meaty bone. While crossing a bridge to take his treasure home, he saw his reflection in the river.

Angry to see this “competitor,” the dog on the bridge glared menacingly. He growled, then opened his mouth and barked. The minute he opened his mouth to deliver his “cruel” message, the bone dropped into the river, where the current promptly swept it away.

Instead of feeling better about having told the other dog (his own reflection) “what for,” the dog felt worse. Because he lost what he valued most at the time. He was afraid he would lose something. And in his lashing out, he made that loss true for himself. 

In the moment, being cruel surely feels righteous. In the moment after, however, regret lingers.

Like the dog in this story — and the young men in the previous story — those we lash out at are simply our mirrors. They reflect what we believe about ourselves. Because there’s truly only one of us here, when we lash out at another, even in our minds, we’re really lashing out at a reflection of ourselves. We’re attacking an extension or mirror image of ourselves.

And it goes even deeper. 

Psychologically — as odd as it may seem — we attack or defend because we want an angry reaction from another. 

We want someone else to be mean to us. Because then we don’t have to look at where we are mean to ourselves.

Our projection gives us permission to react and reinforce our own belief that we are whatever the “other” is naming us. We want them to reflect back to us what we deep down believe about ourselves so we can blame them instead of heal ourselves.

That’s why it’s so important to uncover and heal our deep core beliefs. 

Do you want peace on earth? Be the peace you want to see — in every moment. Even when you don’t want to hold your tongue. Even when you want to fight back. Even when you want to explain yourself.

And when you can’t hold your peace in the moment, give yourself a mulligan, a do-over, erasies, whatever you want to call it.

Do you want to remember there’s always enough for everyone; an absolute abundance at all times? Then stop lashing out at those you perceive as having more than you or being able to take something from you. Lashing out only reflects back to you your belief that you don’t have enough.

Do you want to remember you are enough? Then stop responding when others appear to attack who you are. 

Those who see themselves as whole have no need to defend themselves. 

That’s what my friend Robert knew. It was an extreme example, but it has great applications for every conflict in our lives.

We truly can choose to NOT engage in a conflict. Instead, choose to simply acknowledge the other person and release your desire to defend or attack. Then take it one step further and choose to extend kindness to that person instead. 

The folks who attacked Robert served seven years in an Irish prison. I asked him after their release how he felt, knowing they were walking around in the world again, while he was still in a wheelchair due to his injuries. His response?

Nothing I’ve gone through the last seven years can even compare to what they must have gone through spending those years in prison.

He had freed himself from the attack long before they were free. If he can do that, I reason, so can we.