What Is Defensive Behavior and What Does It Look Like?

Updated November 15, 2021
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.

Why Does Defensive Behavior Happen?

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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

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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.

  • 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:

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  • 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.

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.

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.

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