What Is Defensive Behavior and What Does It Look Like?

By: Julia Thomas

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

At some point in your life, someone might have said to you, "Why are you being so defensive?" Maybe you've said similar words to someone else. However, often people talk about defensiveness without truly understanding what it means.

We understand how to use “defensive” in a sentence, sure, but the word has a special meaning in psychology.

Here's a brief explanation of what it is, how to recognize it, and what to do about it.

Defining Defensive Behavior

To understand defensive behavior, you need to think about what it means to defend. Our modern word “defensive” from the middle English “defensif” meaning “Guarding or shielding from attack or injury.” We have a number of words from defensive that are in common use today that more-or-less convey the same idea.

Defending something or someone is protecting them. A country can take military action to defend itself. Or parents might defend their child against danger. When you're being defensive in a psychological sense, you're often attempting to defend yourself from someone or something important to you.

But what are you protecting? Usually, you're protecting your ego when you're being defensive. You want to think that you're a good, intelligent, or likeable person, and you want others to think the same. You want to justify the decisions you've made, the things you've done, or even who you are as a person.

Everyone employs defensive strategy from time to time, and that’s normal if you’re under attack. However, some people feel like they need to wear a full suit of defensive armor just to have a chat. Some people feel this way because they have experienced emotional abuse in the past. Others feel this way because they’re up to something.

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Why Does Defensive Behavior Happen?

Your brain is wired to protect yourself against threats. That's a good thing, because otherwise you would be helpless. However, psychological defensiveness can be destructive. It's a very complex type of behavior. It's based on a combination of your beliefs, your attitudes, your feelings, and your personality.

People usually start engaging in defensive behaviors early in their lives. When you were young, you may have learned defensive behaviors from others. When you felt threatened, as everyone does occasionally, you found a way to deflect the threat so that you could feel safer.

As you got older, you may have employed those same defensive behaviors both when you recognized a threat in your environment and even when you only anticipated a threat. And often, the defenses you rely on aren't ones you need now, but only the ones you learned in the past.

One thing to remember is that usually people who engage in defensive behaviors aren't doing it for malicious reasons. Their only concern may be to feel better about what's happening. However, defensive behaviors are usually harmful for both the person doing them and those on the receiving end.

In short, defense mechanisms aren’t inherently a bad thing, but sometimes they are employed inappropriately, or in ways that prevent the individual from communicating effectively.

What Are the Consequences of Defensive Behavior?

So, if you only behave defensively to protect yourself, how is that a bad thing? What harm can come from it?

The truth is that it can affect all your relationships with the individuals in your life and in the groups you interact with. If you often react to others in a defensive way, you might end up in a relationship that becomes unhealthier day by day. If you're defensive with your loved ones, you may create a very hostile, tense environment in your home.

Defensiveness at work can make it harder to get along with coworkers and supervisors. It can keep you from doing your best collaborative work, as well. Being emotionally defensive in your social group could make you an outcast, or you might remain at the center of the group but be secretly despised and unwanted.

Rather than preventing you from aggression or attack, defensive behaviors can create animosity or distrust towards you that may not have been there before. This can lead to a vicious cycle of defending, frustrating, guarding against future frustration, and causing more bad feelings. All when being clear from the beginning instead of being defensive would have lead to a more positive outcome for everyone.

Recognizing Defensive Behavior

Recognizing defensive behavior in someone else is usually fairly easy. You may be trying to solve a problem with them or just trying to have a pleasant conversation. But for some reason, maybe because of something you've said or done or maybe for their own personal reasons, they feel threatened. When that happens, they may respond in several ways. Here are a few of them.

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  • They appear to not be listening to you.
  • They make a lot of excuses.
  • They blame you for the problem.
  • They say that you did the same thing that you're unhappy about them doing.
  • They talk a lot about why they caused the problem, trying to justify their behavior.
  • They focus on things you've done wrong at other times rather than the current issue.
  • They try to tell you how you feel.

Psychologists over the generations have identified basic defense mechanisms that are common used and misused. You may have also noticed that a number of examples of defensive behaviors listed above also line up with common logical fallacies. While they aren’t always one-to-one, recognizing these signs of illogical reasoning can often tip you off to someone’s subtle defensive behavior.

While you might notice these behaviors in someone else, they can be hard to recognize in yourself. A part of the reason is that you justify your behavior in your own mind. Another piece of the puzzle is that you're so concerned with protecting yourself that you don't realize the impact of what you're saying.

However, if you want to have positive relationships at home, at work, and in social situations, it's important to think through the ways you behave with others. Only then can you work on changing those destructive ways of interacting with the people in your life.

If you’re worried that your being defensive, opposing others without provovation, and lack of ease with communicating clearly might be hurting your relationships, talking with a therapist or counselor can help you to strengthen these relationships – and get to the psychological root of your defensiveness.

What Makes Defensive Behavior More Likely?

One way of thinking about defensive behavior is that it's as if you come prepared for war in a situation that's basically neutral. You're ready to fight for yourself, even when no one is interested in attacking you.

However, there's more to defensive behavior. Sometimes, the way you behave may precipitate defensive behavior in others. Here are some of the behaviors to avoid if you don't want to elicit defensive behavior from those around you:

  • Your words and actions are focused on judging, criticizing, or evaluating the person you're talking to.
  • You treat the other person as an object rather than a human with feelings.
  • Your words and actions seem carefully designed for some purpose other than interacting with them. If people think you're being fake to get something you want, they may become defensive.
  • Your words and actions seem to be geared toward controlling the other person. They may be even more defensive if it seems like you're hiding the motives behind your behavior.
  • You emphasize that you're superior to the other person.
  • You're so sure that you know the right answers and the real truth that you aren't willing to entertain the possibility that you might be wrong or even to listen to the other side.

The good news is that there are other behaviors that will create a less defensive and more supportive climate. These are the behaviors that make defensive behavior less likely:

  • Rather than placing a judgment on the person you're talking to, you merely describe whatever actions, words, or qualities you want to discuss.
  • You show care, concern and empathy for them.
  • Instead of planning out what you're going to get from someone and the words and actions that you think will get it, you stay focused on the present moment and respond to what's happening right now.
  • You don't try to control someone else with your words and behavior. Instead, you try to work with them to solve a problem that's coming between you.
  • You treat the other person like an equal person. Even if you may have certain things or abilities they don't have, you do see them as an equal partner in solving the problem.
  • You take an investigative approach rather than taking sides. You honestly consider the other person's viewpoint.

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What's the Best Way to Respond to Defensiveness?

Suppose you're in a situation where the person seems to be defensive despite your best efforts to be supportive. How do you respond? The first thing you can do is to use the above tips to shift the climate to one that's more supportive.

It's great if you can find something to agree with them about, even if it's a small thing. If they resort to extremely childish defenses, you may need to ignore at least some of those behaviors. It's usually helpful if you can remain calm and talk about the issue as simply, directly, and honestly as possible, depending on how close your relationship is and the social setting you're in at the time.

It may help you to avoid reacting to their defensiveness in a negative way to remember that it probably isn’t anything personal. As mentioned above, most defensive people learn the behavior early in life. Sometimes it is because they were the victims of emotional abuse themselves.

How to Manage Your Own Defensive Behavior

What can you do if you realize you're engaging in a lot of destructive defensive behavior?

First, you need to understand that there's a reason you're feeling so threatened. A part of decreasing defensive behavior is identifying the subjects that you feel threatened about. You might be able to discover those subjects by journaling.

Journaling is a common psychological technique that involves writing about your day with an emphasis on how events or interactions made you feel. For many people, this makes it easier to understand how certain things can trigger feelings that you may need to understand better.

Once you understand where the perceived threat lies, you can often find ways to increase your feeling of safety. In some cases, you might decide that it's best to avoid those subjects. However, it's important not to become withdrawn or to emotionally abandon relationships that are important to you.

So, you may need to learn how to communicate more effectively and positively. Individual counseling can help you learn what's behind your defensiveness. Your counselor can also help you develop strategies for decreasing your defensive behavior.

You may also need to work on building up your self-esteem. If you feel comfortable with who you are, you're less likely to feel threatened when someone else doesn't. And if you grew up in a very defensive household, it may be very hard for you to let go of those behaviors.

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If you're being defensive with your partner, you may both benefit from couples counseling where you can learn together how to interact more productively. Talking to a counselor may change the way you behave with others and improve your relationships significantly.

You can talk to a counselor at BetterHelp to understand and decrease your defensive behavior, learn how to respond to the defensiveness of others, and improve the relationships that matter most to you. If the idea of remote counseling seems strange to you, consider reading the following reviews from real BetterHelp users.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is a defensive person?

A defensive person is someone who shows behaviors that are defensive. Psychology’s “Defensive” definition is important to understand.

One definition of defensive is “devoted to resisting or preventing aggression or attack”. Psychology Today shares that many times someone is defensive because of criticism they’re receiving. This can be an unhealthy cycle that relationships fall into.

People can be defensive because they struggle with their self-esteem. It’s difficult to handle criticism when you already feel bad about yourself. You don’t want others to point out this behavior in your life as well. It makes you feel even worse.

Then, there are defensive people that struggle with mental health challenges such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Their behavior can also be linked to a lack of healthy self-esteem.

What is defensive behavior?

Understanding the definition of defensive can help you know more about what it looks like when someone is defensive. Defensive means “in the state or condition of being prepared or required to defend against attack or criticism”. While it sounds good for someone to be ready to defend against an attack, the word can be used in different ways.

For example, defensive driving is good because you’re driving in a way to keep everyone on the road safe.

Defend can mean “serving to defend”. You can see how the explanation and definition of defensive would make sense from that.

However, the problem with the definition of defensive is that it really leaves the negative emotion out of it that can be connected with the experience. For example, if a person constantly shows defensive behavior, it’s not a positive thing. This is when someone constantly tries to make excuses for their actions or explain why something happened or isn’t their fault instead of taking responsibility for it.

When this happens long-term it can become a big problem in relationships: romantic, friendships, and at work. If a person feels that they need to be “serving to defend” themselves at all times, they can come across as confrontational. People can get in the habit of feeling they need to defend anything.

How do you use defensive in a sentence?

Understanding the definition of defensive is important if you want to know how to use it properly in a sentence, particularly in a psychology context. There are actually different definitions of defensive based on what part of speech it is. There is defensive – adjective and also defensive – noun. It’s important to understand meanings, word choice can improve when you know exactly how to use it.

In the English dictionary, Merriam Webster, the defensive – adjective meaning is “serving to defend or protect”. Other definitions of defensive (adjective) include “devoted to resisting or preventing aggression or attack” and “sports: of or relating to the attempt to keep an opponent from scoring in a game or contest”. “Defensively” (adverb) describes the nature of a behavior.

But, simply reading the definition of defensive might not always help a person understand how to use it in a sentence. You can use it to describe the way that a person is acting or the state that someone or something is in. A person’s response can be defensive. Or you could keep someone on the defense during your debate.

What do you call a defensive person?

A defensive person can be someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It can also be someone that is a regular victim of emotional abuse that is constantly criticized. A defensive person can also be someone that has low self-esteem or that has a difficult time listening to criticisms about themself.

It’s best not to try to self-diagnosis why someone’s behavior is defensive. If you want to explore this behavior in yourself or your partner, you could try working with a therapist. Even then, knowing how a person is classified can be helpful but referring to them in that way may not be. Try to think of the other person as a person rather than as a “narcissist,” a “victim,” etc.

What is the synonym for defense?

To find the accurate synonym for defense that you’re looking for, you want to know how you plan to use the word. For example, trying to find alternate words for “attack defensive”, “defensive attitude” or just the word “defend” will bring different results.

Synonyms for “defend” could be: contend, fight, or guard

Attack defensive is more about a type of fighting style

Defensive attitude synonyms could be opposing or thwarting

When you understand the meanings, word choice is easier.

If you’re interested in learning synonyms that match the definition of defense to expand your vocabulary, you may want to try using things like using a synonym of the day or word of the day calendar. You can even do things like play word quizzes, crossword solver, scrabble, or other games that help you use new words. Parent-teacher center tips for parents in schools can also provide resources for educational activities like this.

If you are looking for synonyms for things like the definition of defensive to use in school papers (English, science, technology, literature), look for tools, writing prompts, grammar 101, writing 2 or other classes that can help you expand writing skills and word choice.

What is the antonym of defense?

When it comes to learning new words or understanding the meanings in a better way, it can help to look at the antonym of the word as well. For example, if you want to understand better the definition of defensive it can help to understand the opposite of the word.

The opposite of the definition of defensive is “unprotective” or “unwary”. Someone who is not defensive is not concerned about protecting themselves.

When you understand both what a word means and exactly what it doesn’t mean, it can help you avoid mixed-up meanings, word choice can be important in getting your message across.

What are the best ways to learn new words?

There are many fun ways to learn new words. Some of them include doing a daily crossword puzzle, learn word of the day, play every day word games like Words with Friends, or use a word finder.

If you’re looking to expand your vocabulary, it can also help to study the different parts of speech that applies to a word. For example, defensive – adjective vs noun. While there many only be slight differences between definitions and usage of defensiveness – adjective vs noun, there are other words where there’s a bigger gap. Learning this can help you understand the right usage of the words to use and the right times to use them.

Remember, you can have fun while you learn, learn new words by trying the following:

Word of the day calendar

Study words to choose a “word of the year”

Practice finding a synonym of the day to replace some words you commonly use

Grab a paper and do the daily crossword puzzle, learn new words as you find right answers

Make it fun and get friends involved. Keep a game of Words with Friends going. Look for quizzes, crossword solver, scrabble and other activities using words that you can do.

Get creative with the arts, writing, writing, writing and writing some more forces you to look for new words to get your point across

If you have a child in school, it can be easier to help them learn new words. Parent-teacher center tips for parents can be a place to start looking. It’s also important to know that emoji, slang, acronyms, pop culture, memes, gender, sexuality have given new or secrete meanings to some words.

How can I learn new words?

If you’re ready to expand your vocabulary the best thing to do is learn, learn new words that you can start to use in your daily life. There are many different things that you can do to get started. There are apps that will send you a new word of the day each morning. You can also study a synonym of the day to start to replace your commonly used words with better choices.

If you’re really interested in improving creative arts, writing, writing, writing can help you. You can find tools, writing prompts, Grammar 101, writing workshops and other classes that can help you. The more you’re able to learn, you can avoid mixed-up meanings, word errors, and mistaken pronunciation. This can help you in life and studies including English, science, technology, literature and more.

Studying new words is different now than it was in the past. You may want to pay attention to the association with emoji, slang, acronyms, pop culture, memes, gender, sexuality and more. There can be alternate meanings for some words and it’s important to make sure you’re saying what you think you are.

What causes defensive behavior?

A wide variety of things can contribute to defensive disorders. Any time that your mental health or physical health is compromised, it can lead to defensive behavior.

Symptoms of certain mental disorders may cause defensive responses. Bipolar disorder, panic disorder, personality disorders, eating disorders like binge eating, or sleep disorders which are called parasomnias, are some of the types of disorders that may cause a defensive response as part of their symptoms.

A defensive person may have developed a chronic defensive response as a result of the way they’ve been brought up as it was modeled by their parents or other adults in their lives. In other words, a defensive reaction may be a result of learned behavior. While people that react defensively can be difficult to relate to, chronic defensive communication is highly treatable.

Because the causes of most of these behaviors are social rather than chemical, when you approach an expert about becoming less defensive medicine is seldom the answer. Instead, various forms of talk therapy will attempt to get at the life experiences that led you to adopt this defensive approach in the first place.

How can you tell if someone is defensive?

A defensive person has trouble accepting responsibility for their speech and actions. They have difficulty with constructive criticism and may mistakenly take it as a perceived threat.

Anyone can be triggered by a personal issue that causes them to have a defensive reaction. But, it’s not normal to spout off a defensive response on a daily basis. If that’s a problem for you or someone that you know, you may want to find a therapist to help you respond to others and interact with them in more appropriate ways.

What is an example of a defensive behavior?

As mentioned earlier, certain mental disorders can cause someone to react defensively.

Bipolar disorder causes alternating bouts of depression and “mania” - a state that some people experience as a form of anxiety. People living with bipolar disorder may deny things that are obviously true or false to someone else, even when they’re presented with evidence to support the truth. When someone with bipolar disorder gets pushed too far, they may react defensively, or even aggressively.

Binge eaters and people with other eating disorders often react defensively when someone confronts them about eating too much or too little, or for purging after eating. Many people that deal with binge eating find that support groups can be very helpful.

Defensive people also tend to vent on social media to help support their positions.

How do you deal with a defensive person?

Clinical psychology is helpful for people that react defensively on a regular basis, as well as other people that are in a relationship with a defensive person. A qualified therapist is able to put together an anxiety treatment program for people dealing with a panic disorder or other mental disorder. Goal setting ensures that you’ll make progress in your treatment program.

Many clinical practices offer support groups to supplement individual treatment.

How do you communicate with a defensive partner?

A marriage and family therapist that has either a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree makes a wise choice for a therapist to help someone dealing with relationship issues. Your therapist can also help you to find an appropriate support group if you need one.

Marriage and family therapy is designed to help people feel secure and non-defensive as they work on problem solving together. A therapeutic session is a safe place where partners don’t feel intimidated or criticized. Typically, after a few therapeutic sessions, people feel like they can communicate better.

Do liars get defensive?

People that lie very often get defensive. Chronic liars may appear fidgety and uncomfortable. Not only do they get defensive, they may go on and on. They tend to give an excess of information in an attempt to try to justify their position. They believe that excessive talking will motivate others to believe them.

Note that this won’t necessarily be the case for compulsive liars. Compulsive liars are often able to spin their yarns without the usual tells – often because they don’t know themselves that the things that they are saying aren’t true.

How do I stop being defensive and argumentative?

Social media has become a haven for controversial discussions and public arguments. If you’re struggling with being defensive and social media is one of your weak spots, you might try to cut yourself off from it until you can get your behavior under control. Many people find this difficult at first but realise after a couple of days that social media made them feel worse rather than better.

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