I was standing on the train platform, waiting for the subway uptown. I’d been waiting for a few minutes, but no sign on the train. They made an announcement over the loudspeaker and the woman next to me angrily removed her earbuds in impatience. “What did they say?” I could tell she was late. “The downtown train is now running,” I told her. “But since you’re going uptown, you’re fine.” She was attractive and very dressed up. She also looked like Selma Hayek. My brain decided that she was probably going on a job interview. Maybe she was a model. If she was a model, perhaps she was teaching the class in how to dress and wear makeup like Selma Hayek. My brain tried to think of a way to continue the conversation.

In that moment, I reached for my phone. I sent a text to my wife, “hey, when can we go for coffee?” That’s my defense mechanism.
I’ve already planned for what happens in a situation like that. But I’ve noticed many other people haven’t.

On the train a few weeks ago, I saw a woman flirt with the conductor. Since I often take the same train, I know the conductors on sight, and they know me. This woman seemed on a mission.

The conductor collected all the tickets, then sat down across from the woman. Their legs were touching. I’ve been married for a few years now, but I can still read signals. I went into covert eavesdropping mode.

He was trying to convince her that getting involved would be a bad idea. “You don’t want to do this,” he told her. Then, he said loudly, “I have kids!”

Was that his defense mechanism? I don’t know.

My wife and I went out to dinner one night. I’m not a huge fan of going out to dinner, but my wife knows I’m a sucker for “drinks and appetizers at the bar” because it means we get to talk to the bartender and hear stories.  

There was a couple at the end of the bar all over each other. I wondered how they were going to eat. We tried not to stare. We surmised whether they were dating, married, or married to other people.

We mentioned it to the bartender.  “Oh,” he said in a way that sounded like he hadn’t noticed. “A lot of hookers come in here.” We weren’t expecting that answer. We were too close to our home.

“What’s your best story?” I asked him.

“One night, a couple comes in, they’re having dinner in the booth over there. A little while later, a guy comes in, sits in the corner, and sends the couple over a round of drinks. The waiter brings over the drinks to the couple, points out the guy who bought them, and he waves. It’s the woman’s husband. All 3 immediately get up and leave, and never come back.”

“What happened to them?” my wife asked.

“No idea,” the bartender responded.

I’m guessing that woman didn’t have a defense mechanism.

One time, I was at work, and an executive brought me his laptop. “I heard you can clean laptops,” he said.  I asked what the situation was. “I got an email”, he told me. “I clicked on the link guess I shouldn’t have.” I was pretty suspicious of this explanation.

I started to clean it, but since I wasn’t in the IT department, I didn’t have the necessary access rights to fix it.  I made a feeble attempt. “Sorry,” I told him. “The IT department is going to have to take care of this.”

He walked away, only to come back a short time later and ask me to look at his laptop again. So I started to work on it. While I was trying, he asked me if the company could track what websites people went to when they were at home. “Of course”, I told him. It’s true, there are logs. It’s a lot of data to sift through, but even if you deleted your history, a determined person could get it back.

He suddenly told me “I have a problem! I know it! Why do I look at things like that on the computer!” I didn’t know what to say.

I’m guessing he didn’t have a defense mechanism.

You need to have a plan for the most important things in your life. Your marriage, your kids, your job, whatever it is you value, you need to plan for what might lead to a bad decision. You can make other dumb decisions about other things. Go ahead, stay up too late or eat an entire box of cereal for dinner. That decision affects you. But your spouse, your family, you’ve already made a commitment to.

Here’s my recipe:

1. Ask yourself: What is part of your life that you’d be lost without?
2. Come up with some basic protections to keep that valuable thing safe. If you would be lost without your job, try to figure out what you could do if you lost it. Or work at being indispensable.
3. Rehearse for when that situation arises.
4. When that situation eventually arises, you’ll be eager to use the protection you created in Step 2 and practiced in Step 3.  

Sure, you’ll make mistakes. No one’s perfect. But you’ll just be fine-tuning your defense mechanisms.