Defensive behavior can be a common coping mechanism for many to defend oneself from perceived or actual threats. It can look different for everyone—however, it generally involves adopting aggressive, dismissive or suspicious behaviors to distance oneself from the perceived threat to stay as emotionally and physically safe as possible.
Learning to recognize and address these behaviors can help you be more aware and proactive in your interactions with others, possibly helping you find ways to try to decrease your use of defensive behavior.
Types Of Defensive Behavior
Many believe that there are various types of defensive behavior, each possibly coming with a unique set of characteristics and consequences. We’ve summarized several of the most common defensive behaviors below:
Someone who is adopting this type of defensive behavior might choose to express hostility or resentment indirectly rather than directly.
When someone feels defensive, they might try to deflect responsibility for their actions by blaming others. This is a type of defensive behavior that may be commonly seen in arguments.
This type of defensive behavior can occur when a person refuses to acknowledge or accept reality.
This defensive behavior can occur when a person attributes their thoughts, feelings or behaviors to others, rather than realizing possible core causes within themselves—or taking responsibility.
This can occur when a person chooses to justify their actions by providing explanations or excuses.
This can occur when a person downplays the significance or importance of something. This type of behavior may happen in the wake of a disagreement, especially when parties may have strong differences of opinion.
This type of behavior generally occurs when someone compares themselves to others to avoid acknowledging their shortcomings.
Possible Causes Of Defensive Behavior
Defensive behavior can be influenced by a variety of factors, including Trauma and past experiences: These life occurrences might shape how you view the world and your relationships. For example: If someone experienced abuse, neglect, or other traumatic events, they may have developed coping mechanisms (such as defensive behavior) to try to defend themselves from further harm.
*If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat.
Fear Of Rejection Or Abandonment
Such fears might lead to defensive behavior as one tries to defend themselves from potential rejection or abandonment.
Low Self-Esteem Or Insecurity
Feeling insecure might make someone more likely to engage in defensive behavior.
Difficulty In Expressing Emotions
Some people might have trouble expressing their emotions, and might choose to use defensive behavior to cope.
Lack Of Trust In Themselves Or Others
A lack of confidence in yourself or others might lead to defensive behavior as a way to defend yourself from potential betrayal or hurt.
Power Imbalances In Relationships
This can lead to defensive behavior if one perceive that they need to maintain control in the relationship.
Possible Consequences Of Defensive Behavior
Defensive behavior can have a significant impact on both your relationships and personal development. It could cause frustration and resentment in others, leading to strained relationships and difficulty resolving conflicts. Additionally, defensive behavior may make it hard to take responsibility for your actions, which may result in a loss of trust in yourself and others.
Understanding the consequences of defensive behavior can be helpful as you work to recognize how to address it—instead choosing to invest your energy into positive changes in your relationships. Online therapy and other supportive strategies can be helpful resources to use throughout this process.
How To Stop Defensive Behavior
Stopping defensive behavior can be challenging, but it is generally possible with the right approach. One of the first steps for many who are trying to stop defensive behavior in themselves might be to recognize and acknowledge it. This can mean being honest with yourself about the ways in which you use defensive behavior and how it affects others. You can do this using several of the following strategies:
- Exploring past experiences, emotions, and relationships that may be contributing to the behavior
- Practicing self-compassion and self-care
- Setting boundaries and communicating effectively
- Building trust in yourself and others
- Seeking professional help
How Can Online Therapy Help Limit Defensive Behavior?
Additionally, therapists can help clients build critical skills, including boundary-setting, effective communication and emotional expression. Mastering these skills can prevent the need for defensive behavior altogether.
This progress can be made more expedient with the use of online therapy, as patients may perceive that they’re able to be more transparent and honest than they otherwise would be in other settings. This can facilitate rapid growth in certain areas, possibly encouraging additional progress.
Is Online Therapy Effective?
Studies have suggested that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be especially helpful in addressing defensive behavior. For example, a study-led analysis by the National Council on Aging has found that online therapy is especially effective at addressing mental health conditions (such as anxiety disorder, depression, and bipolar disorder). These conditions can underlie defensive behavior—which is why online therapy can be a useful tool to resolve both the behavior and symptomatic expressions in some.
What are some examples of defensive behavior?
Some common defensive behaviors include:
- Criticism. Someone defending against criticism may turn that criticism back on to the initiator
- Sarcasm. Using an insincere form of communication to avoid real feelings
- Blaming. During an argument, a person may deflect responsibility for an action by blaming the other person
- Denial. This is when a person refuses to accept the reality of a situation
- Projection. A person attributes their thoughts or behaviors to another person to avoid responsibility
- Silent treatment. Refusing to engage with another person to avoid difficult words or feelings
- Passive aggression. An indirect way of expressing resentment or hostility that allows the person to deny these feelings
What is considered a defensive behavior?
Defensive behaviors are behaviors that result from a feeling of a perceived or actual threat. This type of response is considered a form of coping mechanism that can be used to distract an individual from feeling hurt or shamed. You can think of it as an adult form of the childish response “Nuh-uh—you are!”
The person may not even necessarily understand that they’re engaging in this behavior.
However, the problem with defensive behavior is that it prevents the completion of the conflict cycle. Conflict may not come to a natural resolution if one party ends honest communication.
What is defensive behavior in communication?
When a person is engaging in a difficult conversation with someone, they may be triggered by certain words or situations, and their reaction at that moment is to preserve their own sense of self. At this point, a person often stops listening and begins to set up a communication barrier. This can be through silence, sarcasm, or any other number of psychological defenses.
What are defensive actions?
Defensive actions are behaviors that humans tend to perform when they feel under attack.
What is an example of a defensive statement?
Defensive statements can look different depending on the situation. An example of a defensive statement might be if one person tells another, “I’m feeling upset that you have been leaving a mess in the sink at night for me to clean up” and the other person responds with “I work all day, and I think it’s really horrible that you always want to yell at me about chores.”
This response has elements of indignation, criticism, and blaming. The initial speaker was simply discussing their thoughts about a problem in the household, while the other a refusal to listen and responds in a defensive way. Their response leaves no path to resolution of the problem.
What is defensive vs offensive behavior?
Offensive vs defensive is action vs reaction. Offensive behavior is when a person attacks (or says something that feels like an attack to another person), while defensive behavior defends. However, these actions often overlap and a person who uses offensive behavior can shift into defensive behavior and vice-versa.
Are defensive people sensitive?
A defensive person can be sensitive to certain behaviors or situations, although this isn’t always the case. Often defensive behavior is used as a defense against the ability of certain words or feelings to hurt them. However, sometimes defensive behavior is used to hurt or control another person.
Is control a defensive behavior?
While control is not considered a defensive behavior, defensive behaviors can be used to control others. Defensive behavior may be used to take the focus off of themselves and to point criticism at the other person. It can act to muddy the waters, stop communication, and even create feelings of confusion by suggesting that a person who is trying to communicate a problem is “crazy” (gaslighting).
What are the 6 defensive behaviors?
Here are six common defensive behaviors (though there are more than six):
- Bringing up the past. During a conflict, one person involved brings up past issues to cast blame and muddy the waters of discussion
- Indignation. One person acts outraged that another would accuse them of an action
- Gaslighting. When one person uses misdirection and lies to make the other person feel that they’re in the wrong. Often they will accuse the other of overreacting or lying regardless of what’s really going on
- Victimization. Putting on an act of being wronged. Agreeing with criticism but then crying or blaming themselves to create feelings of guilt
- Ad hominem. Verbal attack to discredit another person
- Silent treatment. Shutting down further communication by refusing to speak, or leaving the room
Why do people have defensive behavior?
People use defensive behavior as a form of shield. There are a number of reasons that they may use these behaviors as a go-to, including:
- They experience feelings of anxiety
- They experienced trauma in childhood
- Feelings of helplessness
- May be a symptom of personality disorders, or another type of mental health disorder
- Hiding the truth of a situation
- As a guilt or shame reaction
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