Defensiveness is an attempt to cope by denying your part in a problem and deflecting the responsibility to someone else. It is usually a response to feeling criticized or blamed and avoiding negative feelings about yourself. Defensiveness is destructive to relationships, but it is possible to learn how to stop defensive responses and address the underlying insecurities.
What Is Defensiveness?
Defensiveness is a negative defense mechanism in which we deny or deflect a complaint to protect ourselves from our perceptions of being insufficient or wrong. We might feel defensive when we perceive that we are being criticized or blamed, and we might act defensively to avoid the painful emotions stirred up. It is a very human and raw reaction: when we feel attacked, we react with defensiveness.
Specialists can tie a range of emotions to defensiveness, including shame, hurt, guilt, anger, and sadness. To avoid these feelings, we shift the focus away from our faults or insecurities and toward the other person. It can be turning the criticism or placing the blame on our accuser or denial of responsibility.
Defensiveness as One of the Four Horsemen
Defensiveness in any relationship can be very destructive behavior. According to renowned couples therapist John Gottman, defensiveness is one of four behaviors that predict the end of a marriage (or a committed relationship). According to Gottman, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt.1
Defensive behavior in relationships can become a profound communication problem when it occurs regularly. When the defensive partner is not taking any responsibility for the complaint or concern, nothing gets solved, and often both partners end up feeling frustrated or upset.
Positive vs. Negative Coping Strategies
Most people feel some regret when they later realize that their defensiveness made matters worse by causing more hurt feelings. Defensiveness is a harmful and unhealthy emotional coping strategy that leads to personal and relationship dissatisfaction over time by avoiding bad feelings in the short term and not actually solving the problem.
Some other examples of negative coping strategies include:
Each of these behaviors provides some temporary avoidance of painful feelings but causes more problems to deal with later. Instead, we can direct healthy coping mechanisms to manage our emotional regulation and solve problems that have led to feelings of shame, frustration, anger, sadness, or guilt.
Defensive Behavior Examples
Defensive behavior can happen in various situations in relationships at home, school, or work. It can be provoked by a spectrum of painful emotions related to situational or deeply embedded insecurities. When we consider how someone might become defensive, we might recognize defensive behavior in ourselves or in someone we live with or work alongside.
Some signs that you or a loved one are exhibiting defensive behavior include:
- You stop listening to what they say because you become anxious or upset by their words.
- Instead of admitting your mistakes and trying to make corrections, you gave excuses for them
- You shift the blame to the person who brought up a complaint about your action or inaction.
- You criticize them when they try to discuss a problem in your relationship with you.
- You accuse them of making their own mistakes when they point out your mistakes.
- You try to justify your behavior, although you know that you did something wrong.
- You bring up the past mistakes they’ve made rather than stick to the topic of the current complaint about your actions.
- You tell them they shouldn’t feel hurt or angry (or whatever they’re feeling) rather than accept their feelings as valid.
Defensiveness in Relationships
A common type of defensiveness in close partner relationships is criticizing the other person’s character when they make a complaint. For example, a wife might say, “You should have paid this bill weeks ago. Why didn’t you take care of it?” A husband being defensive might respond: “That wasn’t my fault. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. If you weren’t so lazy, you would have done it.” He has insulted her character rather than discuss with her whose responsibility it will be going forward.
Defensiveness at Work
Someone might ask you to review a coworker’s report for possible errors in a work situation. If you find an error and point it out to that coworker, you might hear, “That’s a minor mistake. You’ve made bigger mistakes than that in your reports!” By deflecting blame, your coworker might be trying to feel less inadequate for their mistake. They have created a new problem by insulting you rather than admitting the error and working on fixing it.
Defensiveness in a Family Setting
Sometimes, defensiveness takes the form of silence to get back at someone who has hurt your feelings or stirred up your self-doubts. A well-meaning but intrusive aunt might ask, “Why haven’t you had children yet? You’ve been married two years already!” If you’ve been asking yourself the same question and are feeling anxious about the situation, you say nothing to her and just avoid speaking with her. Instead of this defense response, you might be assertive and tell her that you prefer not to talk about that topic.
What Causes Defensive Behavior?
Various emotional reactions can trigger defensive behavior. These emotional reactions might be based on present circumstances or prior life experiences. The earlier life experiences might date back to childhood trauma or earlier relationship PTSD with a previous partner. These causes can be either chronic self-doubt and anxiety or situational feelings triggered by your present circumstances. 2
Causes of defensiveness due to long-term feelings can include
- Feelings of inadequacy related to childhood abuse, trauma, or emotional neglect
- Feelings of helplessness from lacking confidence in your ability to manage problems constructively
- Deeply embedded feelings of shame due to earlier trauma or neglect
- Irrational guilt due to being excessively blamed in the past
- Impulsive or reactive temperament related to having a chronic mental health disorder
Causes of defensiveness due to present circumstances can include:
- Lack of assertive communication skills for problem-solving
- Feeling that your character is being unfairly criticized
- Feeling guilt for having made a grave mistake
- Feeling remorse for lying or withholding the whole truth
Impact of Defensiveness on Relationships
Whether in a work or a close personal relationship, the ability to discuss complaints and solve problems together is critical. Couples cannot solve a problem or address a complaint if one person denies or deflects the issue. If this happens continuously, even the relatively small and solvable problems become more significant due to the inability to deal with frustration.
Damage caused by defensive behavior in relationships can include:
- Reduction in the level of interpersonal trust
- Prevention of any ability for effective problem-solving
- Developing hurt feelings for every party involved
- Triggered defensiveness from the person with the original complaint
Two people can easily get caught up in a cycle of defensiveness. This counter-defensiveness can result in the lack of a solution and an escalation of criticisms and blaming. This type of escalation with hurtful comments breaks down trust in the near term and might leave lasting emotional wounds in the longer term.
9 Tips to Manage Defensiveness in a Healthy Way
Defensive behavior is a learned coping mechanism triggered in early childhood or adult relationships. As a learned behavior, it can be modified into more constructive behaviors, but it does take increasing self-awareness and developing a willingness to take responsibility for your defensive behavior. The following are some ways to manage your defensiveness and change your responses to criticism for the better.
Here are nine tips for healthily managing defensiveness:
1. Notice When You are Becoming Defensive
Becoming more aware of what you are currently feeling and doing is a first step toward changing your defensiveness. Try to notice what happens at the moment someone comes to you with a complaint or a problem. This step is somewhat easier to do in situations that are not intensely emotional, as opposed to the most triggering cases for you. Start to increase your self-awareness of defensiveness in the least threatening circumstances and build that awareness in more complex situations.
2. Validate Your Feelings
Recognize what you’re feeling at that moment. Is it feelings of shame? Inadequacy? Guilt? Maybe it’s a disappointment in yourself or a sadness. Once you label it for yourself, you can know if it is a valid response and whether you want to feel it or not.
3. Avoid Acting On Your Feelings
After recognizing, labeling, and validating your feelings, you can avoid acting on them. While feelings occur instantly and without our intent, behaviors are a choice. You have the alternative to do something different than you have in the past to get a better outcome.
4. Act in Agreement With Your Values
Think about what you want as the outcome of your conversation. Maybe you want to be agreeable and solution-focused, leading to a result that you can feel good about manifesting. Acting assertively towards solving the problem is much more likely to bring about the outcome you desire for yourself and the relationship involved.
5. Take Responsibility for Your Action
This step is critical because it means you must overcome your defensive response. Accept whatever role you had in the problem, and state your responsibility for that part of it. After admitting your mistake, you can shift toward working on a solution.
6. Be Ready to Manage Your Defensiveness When It’s Likely to Happen
Sometimes, you can anticipate a situation that usually provokes your defensiveness. For example, your boss tells you they need to discuss your current work project. Or, your partner asks to have a conversation about the household budget. If these situations have made you defensive in the past, you might prepare yourself to keep the earlier five steps in mind.
7. Do Something to Improve Your Self-Esteem
Several of the causes of defensiveness are related to feelings of inadequacy or helplessness. Improving low self-esteem is one way to counter those feelings with feelings of competence.3 Competence requires effort toward gaining more skills to build confidence and not to feel hurt by criticism. This step requires a longer-term approach to reducing defensiveness but is well worth the effort.
8. Learn New Communication Skills
Assertiveness in communication is helpful in most home, work, or school circumstances. In the simplest terms, proactive communication helps you state what you think or feel without criticizing or blaming the other person. It is always respectful of the other person’s humanity and never hostile, even when you are expressing feelings of anger. Staying on topic and not bringing up the past (or any other personal issues) is another communication skill to minimize defensiveness.4
9. Work With a Psychotherapist
You might also consider seeing a therapist to work on building your self-esteem, identifying your feelings, and changing your behavioral reactions. If communication with a partner is a common trigger for you, couples therapy can be beneficial in improving these skills.5 There are some helpful ways to find the right therapist for you to consider and an online therapist directory on Choosing Therapies website.
How to Stop Making Other People Defensive
You might have noticed that you often get into conversations in which the other person becomes defensive. You may be unaware of how you’re coming across and how you might provoke defensiveness when you just want to solve a problem.
Make Requests, Don’t Criticize
Use a problem-solving mindset and suggest a solution to whatever is making you concerned. Keep the solution specific to the problem, and don’t generalize it to the person’s character. Alternatively, state your concerns calmly and ask if the other person has a resolution they can suggest rather than forcing your demands.
Acknowledge Your Failings
Admit your part in the problem, even if it’s a minor part. Taking responsibility makes it easier for the other person to assume their role or responsibility in the issue.
Express Empathy for Their Circumstances
Consider their current circumstances and how they might feel about the complaint or problem you want to discuss. You are showing respect for their character and good intentions by acknowledging that they have other concerns and responsibilities that could lead to their unintentional response.
Don’t Try to Control Their Behavior
Sometimes, your complaint might reflect that we each have our way of doing things. Unless it is a work or school context with strict guidelines, there should be room for individual differences. Don’t insist they must do things your way just to feel satisfied with the results.
How to Respond to a Defensive Person
Sometimes you have done everything you can to avoid defensiveness from the other person, and they still respond defensively. You will get a better outcome if you remain calm and do not get defensive in response to them. Staying calm can be very challenging, but remind yourself that the cycle of defensiveness and counter-defensiveness only creates more problems and hurt feelings. Focus on solving the initial situation and stay on topic.
It can be constructive to set a common ground early in the conversation. There is probably something you can agree on which will prompt a coordinated response. Even if you can’t agree to share responsibility for the problem, you might decide that you both want to avoid an argument and solve it.
If your relationships at home or work are struggling due to defensiveness, you might want to seek the help of mental health professionals. Although the feelings of defensiveness are triggered instantly, the behavioral response is something you can learn to control. A therapist can help you gain that self-control. Another option is to see a couples therapist for help with communication skills and building empathy between you and your partner.
For Further Reading
- The Four Horsemen: Defensiveness
- Defensive Pessimism: Definition & Effectiveness
- Projection: Definition, Examples, & Use as a Defense Mechanism
- 8 Tips for Healthy Communication in a Romantic Relationship
- How to Stop Feeling Guilty: 7 Tips for a Mindset Shift
- 15 Best Books on Confidence
- Best Books on Communication