Understanding Defensiveness As A Coping Skill
By Alisen Boada
Updated November 20, 2019
Reviewer Audrey Kelly, LMFT
When we feel attacked, it's hard to hear what another person has to say with an open mind. Instead, our first thought is to defend ourselves. Or we may try to turn the tables by pointing out flaws in the other person's behavior. By the end of the conversation, it's likely no one feels heard. Criticism can feel painful, especially from the people we feel closest to, even when it's meant to help us. But defensiveness keeps us closed off from building supportive relationships. Learning to spot defensive behavior in ourselves and others can help us have better conversations that result in solutions instead of pointing fingers.
Why Do We Get Defensive?
Defensiveness is when we try to counter or deny criticisms in areas in which we feel sensitive. For many, this is a way to emotionally protect ourselves. Our brain instinctively kicks into "fight or flight" mode when we think we are in trouble, which can lead to overwhelming emotions like anger and anxiety. Even if we aren't in bodily danger, we can feel under attack when it seems like someone is threatening our sense of identity or worth.
We might not always interpret threats accurately, but that doesn't take away from the sense of danger we experience. However, we can choose to make ourselves feel safe again without giving into our first impulse, which might harm a relationship. This means replacing defensiveness with healthier coping skills. For example, practicing skills like self-compassion and problem solving lets us pause our instinctive reactions. This pause gives us space to hear the criticism, look why it makes us uncomfortable, and put our best foot forward on working toward a solution everyone can agree with.
Coping Strategies Versus Defense Mechanisms
In order to change our defensive behavior we need to become aware of some of the ways we avoid difficult feelings.
While we may know when we are acting defensive, it can be a bit more challenging to recognize the defense mechanisms behind why we react that way. Though they sound similar, defensiveness is usually a behavior we are aware of, while defense mechanisms are habits we use without realizing. These are unconscious reactions our minds have learned to protect us from painful thoughts and emotions.
Defensive behavior can come from multiple defense mechanisms we use in an attempt to avoid the threat to our self-esteem caused by criticism. A few examples include:
- Denial: Refusing to see our responsibility or that a problem exists at all
- Projection: Attributing our own thoughts and feelings to another person (e.g., "I'm not angry, you're angry")
- Acting out: Having an overblown response (like breaking something) instead of expressing the problem
- Rationalization: Bending the truth to justify our behavior
- Displacement: Taking out our frustration from another problem on someone not involved (e.g., getting in a fight with your partner because of trouble at work)
- Intellectualizing: Only focusing on the facts of a situation while ignoring their emotional significance
Defense mechanisms can range from "primitive" responses (like denial, projecting, or acting out) to "mature" ones (like rationalizing, displacement, or intellectualizing), with some being more effective at soothing painful emotions than others. But what they all have in common is that they help us avoid uncomfortable feelings without actually fixing the problem.
Coping strategies, on the other hand, are the ways we purposefully choose to handle difficult emotions and stressful situations. Some coping strategies work on changing how we face challenges (problem solving), while others target how we experience our feelings (emotion focused). They can be broken down between active coping strategies, which affect how we deal with stress head-on, and avoidant strategies, which involve distancing ourselves from the problem.
Like defense mechanisms, coping strategies vary in how effective or healthy they are. While active strategies are generally thought to be better than avoidant ones like isolating ourselves and abusing substances to numb emotions, sometimes we need a bit of space to get a hold on our feelings. For example, meditation and exercise are both great ways of relieving stress and improving self-esteem. Defensiveness can be seen as an avoidant coping strategy, which we choose to avoid dealing with the stress of taking responsibility for our actions. It may feel challenging at first, but we can train our minds into viewing criticism as an opportunity for problem solving and growth.
Healthy Ways of Coping with Criticism
Defensiveness is often a mix of defense mechanisms we use without awareness and unhealthy coping strategies we choose to avoid stressful emotions and insecurities. But with practice we can become more aware of our go-to patterns and explore new ways of guiding our reactions to criticism.
Defensiveness is a reaction to things we feel are a threat to our self-esteem. Practicing self-forgiveness helps us own up to things we've done wrong without feeling trapped by the shame that tricks us into thinking we can't change. Self-compassion is a form of mindfulness that allows us to notice our emotions without judgment, so we can take care of them instead of pushing the problem away. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three parts:
- Kindness: Be understanding toward yourself when you experience negative feelings instead of ignoring the pain or punishing yourself. Treat yourself as you would a friend who needs help.
- Connectedness: Recognize you are not alone with this problem. Everyone struggles with difficult emotions at some point in their lives and has made mistakes in dealing with them.
- Mindfulness: Be open to the difficult emotions you are experiencing in the moment without making them seem bigger than they actually are. Acknowledge you are in distress without being swept away by negative reactions.
The Gottman Institute calls defensiveness one of the "Four Horsemen" that predict the end of relationships. This is because whether or not the accusation is fair, defensiveness is about shifting the blame and not about finding a solution. Defensiveness changes conversations into contests over who is right instead of finding a way to relate to where the other person is coming from. Regardless of who is being defensive in the conversation, a good way to stop the blame passing is to take accountability for you own role in the issue at hand. Describing problems using "I" statements that highlight your point of view can make feedback seem less accusatory.
For example, you could say, "I've been feeling overwhelmed by all the dishes left in the sink" instead of "You never help clean the kitchen." You can explain yourself, but also respond with accountability for your part in the dilemma (e.g., "I've been very busy, but I see where I could have helped out more around the house"). This helps keep the conversation focused on being open, creating more space for all involved to let their guards down.
Give Yourself a Moment
Harvard Business Review suggests taking three breaths before responding to criticisms that put you on edge:
- Breath 1: Acknowledge your first reaction, but don't do it (which is usually to defend yourself from the perceived attack).
- Breath 2: Acknowledge your second reaction, but don't do it (which is usually to retaliate against the other person).
- Breath 3: Now that you've given yourself a moment to get past defending yourself and retaliating, try to find a solution.
One suggestion they have toward finding a solution is to be a "plusser." This means listening to what the other person says and then building on it, for example, by asking what they think the next step should be. Try asking something like, "I see where you might be coming from, could you say more about that?" Asking meaningful questions keeps the conversation cooperative and helps the other person feel heard.
Get Help Lowering Your Defensiveness
It can be a challenge to see the patterns that unconsciously influence our actions. This is especially true of defensive behaviors we use to protect the parts of ourselves that are most vulnerable. Talking with a licensed counselor can give you a fresh perspective on whether unhelpful thoughts are getting in the way of your full potential.
Defense mechanisms are often rooted in painful experiences. It can take time, patience, and practice to change lifelong emotional habits that we've used to survive difficult situations. Therapists can provide information about coping skills and a nonjudgmental space to try new ways of managing emotions. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"My experience with Billie has been outstanding. She is very validating of my concerns and feelings and redirects my focus with compassion when I am repeating negative or self-defeating patterns. Her perspective is helpful and she is consistent, focused on helping her clients make positive changes in their lives. I appreciate her time spent with me and look forward to continuing working with her."
"Gia understands how to communicate with a highly motivated, hard working, highly ambitious guy like my by cutting to the chase and getting right to the point. We are working backwards to provide me with a tool box of techniques to deal with the stresses I face day to day rather than bog down analyzing the root cause in the first part. She said 'we'll get to that but we need to make sure you are working to ensure you don't continue to repeat the negative behaviour patterns' ."
Let Your Guard Down to New Possibilities
Defensiveness is an instinctive reaction against things we believe are threats to us, but feedback can give us insight into improving ourselves. Learning new coping skills allows us to be compassionate toward our vulnerabilities and open to new perspectives so we can create better solutions with the people in our lives. All you need are the right tools to get there. Take the first step today.