What Is Defensive Behavior? Ways To Limit Defensiveness

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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.

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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:

Passive-aggressive behavior

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 experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

*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?

Those who experience defensive behaviormay wish to consider seeking online therapy. A therapist can assist clients in understanding how their present defensive behavior might be related to their past experiences, subsequently moving through those experiences to a higher quality of life.

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.

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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.  


Addressing defense mechanisms may help you feel more confident and empowered in social situations and can improve your relationships with others. Online therapy can be a useful resource on your journey of self-improvement. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.
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