Have you noticed that when someone says “you’re being quite defensive,” you become more defensive? Often difficult to avoid, defensiveness can block your growth so it is worth taking time to examine. Learning to recognize and unlearn defensiveness does not come naturally; it takes time, patience, and self-awareness Even though we are not experiencing physical danger, we can still feel under attack when someone threatens our sense of identity, key values, or self-worth.
Defensiveness is a coping strategy where we may shut down, run away, or retaliate when we perceive a threat. It often appears as an attack on another person to shift focus away from our faults and insecurities. Defensiveness is both a feeling and a behavior. It is the feeling that you need to defend yourself after a personal attack. And, in response to that attack, we try to counter or deny criticisms in areas in which we feel most sensitive (i.e. our worth, opinions, or values).
Defensive behavior distracts you from hurt or shame, the feelings triggered when you feel someone is critical. Your body interprets this as a threat to your self-esteem, and defenses are triggered to shift focus away from yourself. Criticism can stimulate fear, anger, shame, and sadness, and the brain interprets the situation as threatening and instinctively activates the ‘fight or flight response.
What does defensiveness look like?
Defensiveness is sometimes difficult to identify immediately because it does manifest in a number of different ways. Sometimes you may automatically disagree with a comment before thinking about it. There might be moments where you feel resentment or the need to convince others to agree with you rather than backtrack. Physiologically, defensives can manifest into shutting down, disengaging, or activating.
According to Psychology Today, defensiveness can manifest as
- Shifting the focus of the conversation from yourself or your behaviors to the other person’s mistakes or flaws
- Insisting on talking about your intentions rather than taking ownership of your impact
- Speaking in a condescending tone or taking a superior stance
- Listening to respond rather than listening to understand
Defensiveness and Perfectionism
For perfectionists or people with perfectionistic tendencies, defensiveness can feel much more intense because it triggers deeper feelings of shame. The activation of shame is associated with believing that you are wrong or missed something important. People with perfectionist tendencies have conditioned their self-worth on being perfect, so any evidence that they may not be can be painful. In other words, being incorrect or overlooking something that someone else has caught can feel shameful to an already self-critical perfectionist. There are higher stakes for being challenged because it reinforces a negative belief that may already feel about themselves leading to further defensiveness.
“The ego with its protective defense mechanisms is the biggest impediment to attaining spiritual growth.” ― Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls
Defensiveness and Belonging
Defensiveness can keep you from developing closer bonds in your friendships and relationships. When defensiveness is activated, it can be difficult to hear or be receptive to what others are saying because this can contradict your opinions, thoughts, or values. When your first instinct is to defend yourself, it can keep you closed off from building supportive relationships. Criticism is painful, and when it is interpreted as a personal threat by people we are closest to, bonds and connections can be compromised. It can be important to be able to spot defensive behaviors in ourselves so that we can enjoy healthier conversations with others.
“Humans have a primary psychological need to be valued and included by others—to feel that they are good and appropriate group members or relationship partners. When people do something wrong, this primary psychological need is threatened, driving a defensive response. But addressing that psychological need to belong can reduce their defensiveness” says Associate Professor Woodyatt (Science Daily).
Defensive behavior is common when people feel personally attacked. Addressing defensive behavior promotes conflict resolution, stronger relationships, and better decision-making. Reducing defensiveness helps meet the physiological need for belonging. Negative social responses to defensiveness only serve to exacerbate the problem and increase a person’s defensive reactions. But defensive reactions can be reduced when people feel secure in their group identity. That is when they feel respected, valued, and their inclusion is not threatened.
“Defensiveness is merely self-preservation against irrational fear. You need to acknowledge and heal from that fear otherwise the defense mechanism can destroy your relationship.”
Contact us today to schedule a complimentary 15-minute phone consultation or to book an appointment.
I aim to create a safe, healing environment for individuals of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, religions, and body sizes. I work with individuals and couples navigating through life transitions, self-esteem, racial/ethnic identity, LGBTQ+ identity concerns, relationships, and trauma. Please call or message our office today with any questions, or to schedule your first appointment.