04/03/2015 06:22 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2015

Are You Difficult To Get To Know? Three Ways to Tell

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An alcoholic parent hits you.
A close friend betrays your trust.
A co-worker throws you under the bus.
A significant other cheats on you.

How do you respond?

Unfortunately, some of you already know. You've been the struck child, the betrayed friend, the run-over co-worker or the jilted lover. For others, you may think about how film and TV characters respond to these kinds of events.

Either way, we've all experienced pain in our relationships. It's part of being human and living with other humans. Whether we intend to or not, we hurt each other.

Depending on how deeply and how often you've been hurt, you may believe that the simplest solution to the problem is to cut it off at its source: other people. By distancing yourself from those who might hurt you, you prevent the possibility of experiencing that same kind of hurt again. During that process, you become someone who's hard to know.

You may not even be conscious of that fact.

It's human nature to protect ourselves from pain. A small child only has to learn once not to touch a hot stove. Likewise, our animal brains quickly learn what experiences--and what people--to distance ourselves from so we don't get burned again.

For people who are hard to know, their fight-or-flight responses following a painful experience are magnified. They either become highly defensive or seek to withdraw themselves from the situation as quickly as possible.

So how can you know if you're hard to know?

In Chapter 4 of my bookThe Stories We Tell Ourselves, I lay out seven ways to know if you exhibit defensive behaviors. For brevity, I'll list three here:

1. You talk in circles.
When asked a direct question, you skirt the issue at hand by repeatedly offering a surface-level answer.

"How did your talk with the boss go? I know you were worried about it."
"Fine. Just the same old stuff."
"I saw you when you came out of her office. It didn't look like you two talked about the same old stuff to me. Really, how did it go?"
"Really, it was what we always talk about. Nothing to worry yourself about."

When pressed for an honest opinion or your true feelings about a problematic situation, you become defensive through conversational gymnastics. You find yourself giving curt answers about serious matters in an attempt to keep dodging the reality of your situation. Some people in your life may even call you out on your terseness and stubborn refusal to divulge more information or to provide your real feelings on the matter.

2. You talk in generalities.
When asked a specific question, you respond with a purposefully vague answer. Such an answer may hold just enough of the truth to make you feel good about your relational maturity, but it actually hides being truly relational and vulnerable.

"How did your talk with the boss go? I know you were worried about it."
"Good enough."
"That's it?"

Offering a few words in reply shows you're making a small attempt at connecting with another person, but you're not actually answering their question. You're not providing your honest opinion on the subject, nor are you relating how you felt about the interaction with your boss.
In the example above, it's possible that you may still need time to process the meeting, but rather than offering generalities, it's more relationally mature to specifically say, "I'm not sure. I still need time to process it."

3. You crack jokes.
Sarcastic replies and joking are deceptive defensive positions because you're making people laugh while trying to avoid a painful situation. Everyone wins, right?

"How did your talk with the boss go? I know you were worried about it."
"So well that I'm about to be your boss. You should probably start calling me 'Chief.'"
"Very funny. But really, how'd it go?"
"How'd it go, Chief."

There's a definite place for humor in our relationships, but beware of constant joking, especially when another person is attempting to connect with you on a deeper level. Responding with sarcasm creates walls of separation.

If you're hard to get to know, get to know yourself first.

To grow in relationally maturity, you must learn how to proactively respond to negative life events. Instead of allowing fight-or-flight to be your automatic response to troubling situations, learn to become aware of your defensive behaviors, which most often reveal themselves in the words you use when asked about problems in your life.

In breaking down your self-constructed walls of isolation, you may even find yourself becoming someone that's hard not to know.

For more on this topic, pick up a copy my book The Stories We Tell Ourselves.
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