Like a heavy shield, defensiveness has its uses, and can also get in our way. Defensiveness can protect emotional wounds left by trauma and abuse. At the same time, it blocks out the rest of the world. In conversations, defensiveness prevents connection and communication.
While we quickly notice defensiveness in others, we are slower to notice and acknowledge it in ourselves. We become defensive when we feel threatened, or when we are trying to protect ourselves from shame or fear.
Explore your reactions
Imagine someone just accused you of stealing a cookie. Notice how your body feels in response. You might feel your shoulders hunch, your legs twitch, or your chest puff out. Denials, excuses, or counterattacks might fly to your lips. You might feel angry, anxious, or defeated.
Is your internal feeling of defensiveness familiar? What happens when you acknowledge your response? “Something in me feels defensive and I say hello to that.” Take some time to listen inside and get to know your defensive reactions. What sensations, images, or stories come to mind? Your defensiveness gets to be there as long as it needs to. Say hello to any judgments that come up as well.
Defense against change
Like denial, defensiveness helps slow down change. We cling to the familiar and defend the status quo, especially when it gives us power. When we acknowledge defensiveness, it gives us room to grieve for our losses. We can open into curiosity and adapt to change over time.
Defense against shame
Defensiveness often arises when our self-image is threatened. We strenuously avoid the shame, embarrassment, humiliation, and self-hatred that arise when we fall short.
For example, when someone confronts us about a boundary transgression, it challenges our image as a good person. When we have more privilege and power than the challenger, we have access to a lot of tools to defend us. We might protest that we aren’t like that, or there must have been a misunderstanding, or they did something wrong first. We might criticize their tone rather than addressing the content of their message. We might shut down conversation by changing the subject, leaving the room, or ignoring their communications.
Unfortunately, those tools cause further harm by erasing the challenging person’s experience. They place more importance on our self-image than on someone’s pain. The challenger may repeat the message with more intensity in an effort to get through, or may give up and go away mad, but there is no resolution.
When we feel our defensiveness flare up, we can pause to silently acknowledge our feelings. We might even name them out loud. “Wow, I’m feeling defensive.” Acknowledgment brings relief and space to choose our actions. We can choose to listen to challengers’ experiences and pain. When we acknowledge the importance of their messages, we begin the process of resolution.
Paradoxically, it is harder to behave like good people when we are busy defending our status as good people.
Defense against external threats
Sometimes we feel defensive because someone is intentionally targeting a vulnerable area. Defensiveness can alert us to subtle bullying or manipulation.
The first step is the same. We pause to acknowledge our inner experience, including feeling defensive. We silently affirm our right to be vulnerable, and to be treated with kindness. This creates space to identify why we feel threatened and choose our response.
If it is unclear why we feel defensive, we can choose to address the content of the communication. In some situations, we might also name our discomfort out loud. For repeat offenses, we can express a boundary, avoid the attacker, or look for allies.
For example, we might notice defensiveness in response to a prying question. We can protect our privacy by simply not answering. “Why do you ask?” or “It’s complicated,” or silence are all valid responses.
Other people’s defensiveness
When we accept our defensiveness as a natural response to feeling threatened, it becomes easier to handle defensive responses in others. It still hurts when they shut us out, but we know the response is about their internal reactions, not about us.
Focus on the goal
During a difficult conversation, we can focus on our goal, whether it is to convey a boundary, establish a better working relationship, or salvage a friendship. When we acknowledge defensive responses and then re-emphasize the goal, they may be able to set defensiveness aside and listen. Even if they remain defensive, we can avoid getting entangled in rejecting or soothing their defensiveness.
We can choose to speak our message once and stop, even if the recipient gives no acknowledgment. Many people behave defensively in the moment, but then mull over new information later.
We can also choose the “broken record” technique, where we respond with the same message no matter what the person says. This can be useful for business transactions. For example, “I need to close my account,” repeated calmly in the face of questions and objections.
Post-conversation self care
When we encounter defensiveness, not only is our message not acknowledged, but we may receive painful attacks as well. It can be triggering to be ignored, and dissociation can make it difficult to stay on track in the face of defensive distractions.
After a difficult conversation, we can come back to center with meditation, journaling, movement, or venting with a friend.
Rather than obsessing about how to get our message through next time, we can choose to believe, “This problem is already solved.” The person might have heard us, and if not, we will find out soon enough.
If an angry attack still stings, we can reverse “I” and “you” in the painful statement. If someone says “You’re so selfish!” notice whether they behave selfishly. Defensive speeches usually reveal more about the speaker than the recipient. We can also inquire inside whether some part of us believes the attack, and say hello to that part. Listen for sensations, images, or stories around that belief.
Commit to listening
When we commit to listening inside for our defensiveness, we can communicate more clearly with the people around us. If they remain defensive, we can respond with empathy for our shared humanity rather than entering into battle.
In her book Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, Sharon Ellison analyzes defensiveness and offers three strategies to communicate non-defensively: sincerely curious questions, vulnerable statements, and careful predictions. More information at PNDC.com.