Why You Get Defensive And How To Stop It

How do you respond when you are being physically attacked? You either fight to protect yourself, or you run. It is a natural self-protective instinct to defend yourself in the face of any (real or perceived) threat.

That same instinct kicks in when you feel as though you are being criticized. If you feel your abilities, competence or overall persona is being attacked, you get defensive.

You impulsively react to the perceived threat of criticism by either counter-attacking (being sarcastic, being critical in return, engaging in conflict) or fleeing (stonewalling, giving the silent treatment).

Most of the time you get defensive out of insecurity. The critic has touched on something you already perceive as your flaw. As a result feelings of shame, sadness and anger take over. 

In an attempt to “save” you from those unpleasant emotions and from viewing yourself in a negative light, your fight or flight response kicks in. 

Defensiveness is a reaction to feelings of insecurity, anxiety or inability to be assertive. 

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“I don’t get defensive, you get defensive”

Do you often find yourself reacting the following way to any real or perceived criticism:

  • Start making excuses (You go and do it better on 4 hours of sleep!)
  • Bring up past things to criticize the other person (Yeah, and you talk too loudly on the phone)
  • Blame someone else (It was like that when I got here)
  • Try to minimize any harm done (It’s not such a big deal)
  • Completely shut down and refuse to communicate

Then you know what defensiveness feels like. And you know how much harm it can do to your relationships. Defensiveness creates tension and hostility, resulting in alienation and loss of trust.

Acting defensive impedes your emotional and personal growth. It destroys your ability to identify and solve problems, to learn from your mistakes and grow.

How to stop acting defensive

Defensiveness is a learned behavior, and as such it can be unlearned. It is a mechanism you likely developed during childhood to try and self-protect. It might have done its job in certain situations but now you need to learn to control it.

Become aware of your defensiveness – learn to recognize when your buttons are being pushed. Be mindful of the way you feel when criticized. Pay close attention to each nuance of the feeling that causes you to put your shield up.

Acknowledge your feelings – Simply admitting to yourself that you are feeling ashamed, worried or insecure can help you lower the intensity of the feeling. Putting a name to the feeling helps you reflect and choose your course of action.

Pause – The first two steps allow you to be able to pause and not act upon the impulse to get defensive. Create space between the feeling and the reaction.

Choose an appropriate response – When you have diffused your own defensiveness you can now respond in a way that is aligned with your own values and goals.

Stand up for yourself in a calm assertive way

Learning to be non-defensive does not mean you should not stand up for yourself. You have the right to explain your point and communicate your side of the story. But you need to do this in an assertive and productive way.

Being criticized is hardest to hear when the criticism is on point. First and most important is to take responsibility where it is due. If you did make a mistake – own it. Acknowledge the facts and apologize.

If you feel the need to explain yourself, do it later. Tell the other person how the comment made you feel and give yourself time to cool off. You might need just a moment, or a bit longer.

When addressing the topic – stay on point. Focus on resolving the issue at hand and do not bring up past occurrences. 

Present your point in “I” statements and avoid generalization. Avoid using “you”, “always”, “never” etc. These will only create more tension.

Accept the fact that the other person may not agree with you. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and it has nothing to do with you. Learn to not take things personally.

Book recommendation on how to not get defensive: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

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