Understanding Defensiveness As A Coping Skill

By Alisen Boada|Updated August 29, 2022

When we feel attacked, it's hard to hear what another person has to say while keeping 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 and some form of misunderstanding has occurred.

Criticism can feel painful, especially from the people we feel closest to, even when it's meant to help us. But a defensive reaction keeps us closed off from building supportive relationships. Learning to spot when we and others act with defensiveness can help us have better conversations that result in solutions instead of pointing fingers in a vicious cycle.

Want To Learn More About Using Defensiveness As A Coping Skill?

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 which can create a defensive response. Even if we aren't in bodily danger, we can feel under attack when it seems like someone is threatening our sense of identity, key values, or worth.

When a person acts with defensiveness, we might not always interpret threats accurately, but that doesn't take away from the sense of danger that we experience. However, we can choose to make ourselves feel safe again without giving into our first impulse of acting defensively, which might harm a relationship. This means replacing the learned behavior of defensiveness with healthier coping skills. For example, practicing skills like self-compassion and problem solving lets us remain calm and pause our instinctive reactions. This pause gives us space to hear the criticism, look at why it makes us uncomfortable, and put our best foot forward on working toward a solution everyone can agree with.

Sometimes people ask these questions about the subject:

What is defensive behavior?

If you are being defensive, this means that you may do or say something because you feel like or sense that you are being blamed or attacked. For example, if a person says something to you that you don’t like, you might lash out at them. Defensive behavior can range from minor to serious, depending on the circumstances. A person can show defensiveness in a few different ways.

What are examples of defensiveness?

One example of defensiveness would be if a person said something to you that you didn’t agree with, and you made a sarcastic comment at them or criticized them for saying something to you. You may experience defensiveness and feel like you don’t need to take responsibility for whatever they said to you.

What causes defensiveness in a person?

Defensiveness could be caused by a number of different situations. You may feel scared, guilty, or you may find yourself being deceitful. Other reasons that a person may get defensive are because they have been a victim of abuse or have a mental health condition that contributes to this. In some instances, there may be a positive need to be defensive, but this is not always true.

What does defensiveness say about a person?

If a person responds with defensiveness or in a defensive manner often, this could tell you a few things about them. One is that they have been exposed to abuse in the past and feel as if they must always protect themselves. This may not be something that a person is able to realize they are doing, however. For instance, a person may have defensive communication when it seems like they are being criticized, even if they are not. It may be challenging to have difficult conversations with them. Gently talk to them when you need to discuss matters, as this may help them know that they can trust you. This is especially important if you have relationships in which someone acts defensive.

Another thing this may tell you is that they may be lying or have another motive that is making them become defensive. Perhaps they are hiding something from you and when questioned about it, they start to act out in a defensive manner. This could indicate that they have difficulties admitting when they are wrong or taking responsibility for their actions.

How do you deal with a defensive person?

If you are having complications dealing with a defensive person, there are a few steps that you can take that may be able to help. One is staying calm, regardless of how defensive a person is acting. You can also focus on the issue at hand and avoid defensiveness on your part, so you are able to solve whatever problem needs to be solved or get to the bottom of a situation. If you start to act in the same way that they do, this may not help you reach a compromise.

What is defensiveness in a relationship?

When a person is exhibiting defensiveness in relationships, this means they may be trying to shift the blame of all of their problems onto you. They may do this because they fear an attack,have a righteous indignation, or they don’t know how else to respond. They could also be angry with you about something from the past that they have not let go of or are keeping a secret from you that is causing them to become defensive.

If you have noticed defensiveness in your relationships, it might be necessary to talk to them about low stakes situations, such as something that won’t start an argument or fight, and ease your way into difficult conversations, when these are called for. This could limit defensiveness, at times.

What does being defensive look like?

There are a few common signs that someone is acting defensively. These include acting out, placing the blame on another person, giving the silent treatment, and in serious cases, fighting or becoming violent. You may notice someone become defensive, and it seems like they change their behavior completely. Defensiveness can also be displayed through non-verbal cues, such as a change in vocal tone or crossing one’s arms.

Is defensiveness an emotion?

Defensiveness is a feeling that you may experience when there is a perceived attack. You may get defensive because you are feeling shame, anxiety, fear, or something else. Also, you may feel like you haven’t done anything wrong. Keep in mind that there is a healthy way to deal with your defensiveness.

Why do I get defensive with my partner?

It is possible to get defensive with your partner, even when you have the best intentions not to. You may feel like they are trying to put responsibility on you for something that makes you feel uncomfortable, or you might become defensive because you don’t know how else to respond. You may think your partner is wrong and don’t realize you become defensive when they talk to you.

Why do I get so defensive with my partner?

Again, if you are exhibiting defensive behavior with your partner, there are many reasons why this may be occurring. You might have a hard time taking responsibility for a mistake you made, when they talk to you a certain way, it may feel like a perceived attack, or you could simply feel defensive, and you don’t even realize why. If you are acting defensive in relationships, you should try your best to think about why you may be feeling this way. You may also consider doing some research into how to focus your defensiveness in a healthy way.

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 with defensiveness, 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 that we are aware of, while defense mechanisms are habits that we use without realizing it. These are unconscious reactions our minds have learned to protect us from what we perceive as 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 in order to manage defensiveness. 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 and better understand them. For example, meditation and exercise are both great ways of relieving stress and improving self-esteem while temporarily avoiding the situation. Defensiveness can be seen as an avoidant coping strategy, which we may choose to dodge 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

When we react defensively, it is often a mix of defense mechanisms that we use without awareness and unhealthy coping strategies that we choose to avoid stressful emotions and insecurities. With practice, though, we can become more aware of our go-to patterns and explore new ways of guiding our reactions to criticism into a more positive and constructive light.

Self-Compassion

A defensive way of acting is a reaction to things we feel are a threat to our self-esteem. Practicing self-forgiveness helps us own up to things that we've done wrong without feeling ashamed 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 in a misguided way to not feel worse. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three parts:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Taking Responsibility

The Gottman Institute calls defensiveness one of the "Four Horsemen" that predict the end of relationships. When one is defensive, they are shifting the blame instead of trying to understand their partner’s feelings or concerns. 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 responsibility for your own role in the issue at hand. Describing problems using "I" statements that highlight your point of view can make feedback seem less accusatory than “you” statements.

For example, you could say, "I've been feeling overwhelmed by all of 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 avoid an ad hominem attack and keep the conversation focused on being open, creating more space for all involved to let their guards down and come to a solution without feeling worse. Overall, this could prevent defensiveness from occurring.

Also, when feeling defensive, it is important at times to avoid the silent treatment which leads to avoiding the conversation altogether. When feeling insecure during a conversation, remember to try to stick to “I” statements instead of “you” statements, accept responsibility for your side of things, and avoid the blame game.

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 passed defending yourself and retaliating, try to find a solution.

Another suggestion from Harvard Business Review is 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.

Want To Learn More About Using Defensiveness As A Coping Skill?

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 and the defensiveness that 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.

Or, perhaps you are not the defensive person, and you deal with defensive people. It can be extremely difficult to engage in a conversation with someone who has low self esteem, mental illness, challenging stressors like poor physical health, or other behaviors including defensiveness that make a relationship difficult. There is a wide variety of options depending on the relationship, such as a marriage counselor or family therapist. When people talk in a defensive manner, it can be difficult to have a relationship with them. Therapists can help with this as well.

Online therapy is an incredibly effective solution that utilizes a range of therapy techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapy, art therapy, narrative therapy, and a variety of others. All of these can be incredibly useful in identifying and understanding any defensive tendencies that we may be struggling with. In fact, studies have found that online therapy is not only just as effective as face-to-face therapy, but is immensely helpful in improving social and communication understanding and knowledge in clients working through issues related to those, such as defensiveness.

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. Licensed therapists can provide information about coping skills and a nonjudgmental space to try new ways of managing emotions. BetterHelp’s remote platform allows for this to take place anytime, anywhere, including the comfort of your own home. There’s no need to sit in an office if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, or to even see your therapist – instant messaging, phone calls, and live voice recordings are all available options in addition to video calls.

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"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."

“Brian has helped me immensely in the 5 months since I joined BetterHelp. I feel completely comfortable with him and appreciate that he also feels comfortable sharing his honest thoughts with me. I have noticed a change in my attitude, confidence, and communication skills as a result of our sessions. I feel like he is constantly giving me the tools I need to improve my overall wellbeing and personal contentment.”

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.

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