Defensiveness: How It Works and What to Do About It

Defensiveness is a coping strategy where we attack another person in order to shift focus away from our own faults and insecurities. The key to being less defensive in your relationships is learning how defensiveness really works and how to manage it in a healthy way.


A client of mine told me recently that she was considering divorcing her husband.

When I asked why, she explained it like this:

It probably sounds silly but he just gets too defensive. Anytime I bring up a difficult topic, ask him to do something different, or point out a mistake, he lashes out in anger and usually criticizes me—often for something I did years ago! I just can’t live with someone who isn’t mature enough to have tough conversations or accept responsibility for their mistakes. I’ve had it.

Ironically, the very next hour, I had a first session with a client who explained why he was coming to therapy like this:

Honestly, I’m here because my wife is threatening to divorce me if I don’t come.

When I asked why she was threatening to divorce him, he said this:

I guess it’s my anger issues. I just get so angry when she criticizes me. I know it’s not fair, but I just blow up anytime we have an argument. This isn’t me—it’s not the person I want to be—but it’s like I turn into The Hulk anytime we argue. I guess that’s what I want to work on.

In case you’re wondering, the second client wasn’t actually the husband of the first. But it’s a good illustration of how common a problem defensiveness is. And how serious the results can be if it’s left unchecked.

In the rest of this guide, I’m going to explain what defensiveness actually is—including where it comes from and how it works—and then walk you through a handful of practical strategies you can use to stop getting so defensive and improve your relationships.

Feel free to jump to any section of the guide using the following links:


What Is Defensiveness: A Quick Explainer

Defensiveness can be a confusing concept, in part because we use it to describe two related but distinct things: Defensiveness as a feeling and defensiveness as a behavior.

When people talk about feeling defensive it usually refers to how we feel emotionally after someone criticizes us (or we perceive that they’re being critical). It usually involves a collection of feelings, including sad, hurt, ashamed, and often angry.

But we also talk about getting defensive which describes the actions we take after being (and feeling) criticized. For example, we criticize back, say something sarcastic, give someone the silent treatment, etc.

Technically speaking, it’s usually best to reserve the term defensiveness for the behaviors we engage in after we’ve been criticized.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. Using the term defensive to describe how you feel can be unhelpful. We often use overly intellectual or conceptual language to describe how we feel as a subtle avoidance strategy. Saying “I felt defensive” feels a little less scary than saying “I felt sad and ashamed.” In general, it’s a good idea to avoid intellectualizing your emotions and use plain emotional language instead.
  2. Using defensiveness to describe your behavior is more helpful because your behavior is the only thing you have direct control over. If you’re working on improving your relationships by being less defensive, you want to make sure the thing you’re working on is something you can actually change. And while you can’t actually change how you feel directly, you can always change what you do.

Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s define defensiveness as simply as possible.

Defensiveness: A Simple Definition

Defensiveness is a coping strategy where we attack another person in order to shift focus away from our own faults and insecurities.

When someone points out a mistake we’ve made or otherwise says something critical about us it hurts. This is completely understandable and natural. We all make mistakes and recognizing these mistakes always hurts.

We use defensiveness to distract ourselves from that hurt feeling. By criticizing the other person back, we shift the attention onto the other person’s mistakes or faults, thereby temporarily feeling less bad about ourselves.

At the end of the day, defensiveness is nothing more than a way to feel better. Unfortunately, its feel-good effects are usually short-lived and frequently lead to feeling much worse in the long-run.

We’ll discuss more about how defensiveness works in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at the causes of defensiveness and where it comes from.


Where Defensiveness Comes From

On the basic level, defensiveness is a reaction to fear and insecurity.

An extreme example of this is bullies. Most bullies are not sadistic psychopaths who enjoy inflicting pain for no reason. Instead, most bullying is a response to being bullied. The kid who gets abused and bullied by a parent at home ends up bullying smaller kids at school.

Why does this happen?

Because when you’re bullied, it often makes you feel small and weak. And if you don’t have a healthier way of feeling strong and competent, picking on other people can give the illusion of power and security. In other words, bullies bully because it’s the only way they know to cope with feeling insecure and powerless.

This same dynamic happens in defensiveness:

We get defensive because we’re afraid and we don’t know how to feel better.

So we rely on this primitive coping mechanism of lashing out and criticizing the other person to temporarily make us feel better. In other words, defensiveness gives the illusion of confidence and self-worth.

Let’s look at a concrete example.


Defensiveness: An Origin Story

Remember my second client I described who came to therapy because his wife was threatening divorce unless he got his defensiveness under control? Well, here’s how our work together unfolded…

My client—we’ll call him Tom—understood that his defensiveness was a problem but he didn’t really understand it—where it came from and why he kept doing it.

Interestingly, for most of Tom’s marriage (and really, most of his life), defensiveness hadn’t been an issue. It only started cropping up in the last couple years. When I asked Tom about any major changes in his life around that time, he initially couldn’t think of anything. But with a little probing, I discovered something interesting.

Right around the time when Tom started getting defensive at home, he was passed over for a promotion at work he thought he was a lock for. And it really hurt. In fact, Tom described how, after missing out on the promotion, his whole attitude toward work began to get very negative. He started telling himself that he was undervalued and unappreciated; that his bosses didn’t like him; and that he had probably picked the wrong career in the first place.

I won’t get into too many of the nitty-gritty’s, but the point was pretty clear once we unpacked it: Tom started getting more defensive at home at exactly the same time when his self-worth took a major hit at work. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Because Tom was already feeling discouraged, overly-criticized, and insecure at work, even a little bit of normal criticism at home felt devastating. It’s basically the straw that broke the camel’s back phenomenon.

When Tom was feeling secure and confident at work, bits of criticism at home didn’t have much of an effect on him. But after missing the promotion, his confidence and self-esteem were shaken and he became much more vulnerable and sensitive to any kind of criticism, but especially from his wife—the most important person in his life.

So how did Tom work through his defensiveness?

Interestingly, we didn’t focus much at all on his wife and their communication. Instead, we focused on his attitude at work.

Turns out, he had been passed over completely by accident and he was in fact highly valued by his bosses and coworkers. With a little experimenting, he not only came to realize this but took some steps to go for another promotion and got it.

And as soon as Tom’s confidence was restored at work, defensiveness with his wife almost ceased to be an issue.


How Defensiveness Works

The point of the above story is to illustrate a specific instance of a more general principle: defensiveness is a reaction to feeling insecure.

For Tom, the source of his defensiveness was a misconception about his competence at work. But there are many places this same reaction can stem from:

  • For some people, the habit of defensiveness stems from early childhood abuse or trauma.
  • For some people, defensiveness comes from anxiety and poor assertiveness.
  • For others, defensiveness can arise out of some hidden guilt or shame.

But whatever the particulars of your story, if you’re struggling with defensiveness there are likely two key components:

  1. Some form of fear or insecurity
  2. A set of behaviors that temporarily alleviate those fears at the expense of someone else (and eventually, your relationship with them).

We’ve talked about the types of situations that can give rise to the insecurity and fear that triggers defensiveness, but what about the second part?

What does the behavior part of defensiveness actually look like?


Common Types of Defensiveness and Defensive Behavior

What follows are some of the most common forms that defensiveness takes:

  • Ad Hominem Attacks. A common indicator of defensiveness is attacking someone else’s personal character or history. If you are in an argument with your spouse, for example, an ad hominem attack would be pointing out that they’re a lazy person when the argument is really about who should have been responsible for paying that late bill.
  • Dredging Up the Past. Similar to the ad hominem attack, dredging up the past is using an event in the past against someone today. For example, suppose you give your coworker some critical feedback on a recent piece of work and they respond by listing three times during the past three years when you’ve made similar mistakes.
  • The Silent Treatment. While defensiveness often takes the form of proactive criticism or attack, it can also look quite passive. The silent treatment is when you use silence and non-interaction as a way to get back at someone as a result of feeling hurt or injured by them.
  • Gaslighting. In a nutshell, gaslighting is when you manipulate someone else into thinking that they’re crazy or irrational. Often when people feel attacked or vulnerable, they will counterattack by making their attacker seem unreliable. For instance, if your brother criticizes you for not spending enough time with your elderly parents, then you make up imaginary instances of when you did visit them and convince your brother he’s having memory issues.

Of course, there are many types of defensiveness, but if you can learn to spot these common ones—either in yourself or other people—you’ll be much closer to being able to handle it effectively.


6 Tips to Manage Defensiveness in a Healthy Way

There are two types of people who read articles about defensiveness:

  1. People who get defensive themselves and would like to learn how to not get so defensive
  2. People who have to deal with defensive people

The following strategies are useful for the first category—if you tend to get defensive and want to stop.

However, if you struggle to live with or work with someone who tends to get defensive a lot, I would suggest learning more about assertiveness. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Okay, let’s move on to the main event: 6 practical strategies for managing your defensiveness and improving your relationships.

1. Increase self-awareness in difficult conversations

The first step to getting a handle on your defensiveness is to become more aware of it. Because it’s very difficult to change any habit, including defensiveness, if you’re not aware of it—what it looks like, when it shows up, how long it lasts, etc.

The problem is defensiveness is, by nature, an outward-looking phenomenon. Defensiveness focuses your attention on the other person and their faults rather than your own. In fact, that’s the whole point of defensiveness—to avoid having to own up to your own possible mistakes or shortcomings and the difficult emotions that go along with that.

The most important thing you can do to become more self-aware about your defensiveness is to be honest with yourself about when it’s happening. The fact that you’re even reading this guide is a good indicator that you’re willing to start taking a look at.

Once you’ve accepted that you (like everyone else in the world) get defensive from time to time, the next step is to try and notice it in real-time. This is the hard part…

The best way to get better at noticing your defensiveness in the moment is to practice in low-stakes situations.

For example, let’s say your relationship with your spouse, and specifically, arguments about money, are where you really struggle with defensiveness.

Well, start practicing self-awareness of defensiveness in some other area of your life first where the stakes are lower. Maybe you have a co-worker you tend to get mildly defensive with during staff meetings. Or maybe you tend to get mildly defensive when your mother brings up politics.

The point is, like any skill, it’s important to start small and work your way up gradually.

Once you get better at recognizing defensiveness in the mount in low-stakes situations, you’ll be much more competent at doing it when the stakes are higher.

2. Validate your fears and insecurities

Once you’ve increased your self-awareness around defensiveness, the next step is somewhat counterintuitive: Instead of trying to “fix” it or eliminate it, you want to get in the habit of validating it.

Validation is the simple process of acknowledging that something is valid and makes sense on some level even if it’s ultimately undesirable.

For example, suppose a friend calls you up and says they’re nervous that they might lose their job because their boss gave them really critical feedback on a recent project. How would you respond?

If you’re a good friend, you probably would not say something like: Oh that’s ridiculous—you’re just being paranoid. You’re not going to lose your job. That would be invalidating.

On the other hand, a good friend would say something like: Yeah, I can see why you’d be nervous. But in the scheme of things, even one really bad piece of work usually isn’t enough to get someone fired, right?

In both cases, you suggest an alternative to their negative outcome, but when you validate their fears first, it’s much more comforting and ultimately helpful to them because it communicated that while they may be afraid, they’re not crazy.

Well, it’s important to be validating of your own defensiveness in the same way. Even though you may want to work on being less defensive, it’s important to remind yourself that it’s understandable that you feel the way you do.

Defensiveness is a natural instinct and a powerful one. And while we can overcome it, it’s not easy.

Validating your defensiveness is crucial because it avoids a common but deadly trap: compounding painful emotions.

See, feeling defensive is hard enough, but when you feel bad about feeling defensive, your overall level of painful emotion goes up. Which means you’re even less likely to be able to handle things calmly and rationally.

On the other hand, validating your defensiveness reduces that second layer of painful emotion, ultimately making it easier to tolerate your defensiveness and then move forward in a healthier way.

To sum up, validating your defensiveness simply means taking a moment to remind yourself that even though you don’t want to act defensively, it makes sense that you would feel the way you do.

3. Apply a little self-compassion

Similar to validation, self-compassion means being gentle and understanding with yourself rather than harsh and judgmental when you’re getting defensive.

It means reminding yourself that:

  1. Everybody gets defensive sometimes. One of the things that makes defensiveness so hard to manage is that we often feel alone in it. By reminding yourself that everyone gets defensive sometimes, you cut down on that isolation and loneliness.
  2. Even though I still get defensive, I’m working on doing it less. This step is key because it boosts your self-efficacy, which is your belief that you can accomplish something. Reminding yourself that, even if things don’t seem to be going well now, I am working to improve gives you a little boost one confidence in your abilities.
  3. Just because I feel the impulse or desire to act defensively doesn’t mean I have to do it. This is one of those things that we all know but easily lose sight of in the moment: the impulse to do a thing and the behavior of doing it are different. And the first doesn’t have to lead to the second. By acknowledging the feeling of wanting to act defensively and separating that from a possible behavior, you actually make it less likely that you’ll follow through.

In short, self-compassion simply means treating yourself like you would treat a good friend who was struggling. You’d be honest and perhaps firm, but at the same time understanding and gentle.

4. Clarify your values

One reason it’s so hard to avoid acting defensively is that we’re actually not all that clear about how we want to act instead.

We’re so used to counter-attacking every time we’re attacked, that we don’t actually have many other options to choose from. And if you don’t have any clear or compelling alternatives to acting defensively of course that’s what you’re going to choose despite your best intentions!

Clarifying your values simply means taking the time to answer the following question:

When I start to get defensive, how do I actually want to act and behave? What’s the best version of myself in a situation like this?

Here are a few examples:

  • When my teenage son criticizes me, I want to be able to set firm boundaries about respectful language in a calm way.
  • When my husband tries to distract from my criticism of his behavior with a tangential story, I want to be able to assertively suggest that we return to the topic at hand without criticizing him for “always going off-topic.”
  • When my girlfriend makes a sarcastic comment about what I’m wearing, I want to be able to tell her that it makes me feel bad when she says that instead of counter-attacking with a sarcastic point of my own.

So, think about the two or three most common situations where you get defensive, then make a list of the ideal outcomes in each.

It’s no guarantee that they’ll happen, of course, but it’s awfully hard to imagine having any chance of doing something different if you don’t at least have some clear options.

5. Anticipate your defensiveness

So far, the first four strategies we’ve talked about have all been things to do in the moment when you feel defensiveness coming on. But as the old saying goes, prevention is the best medicine

What I mean is, it’s easier to avoid defensiveness if you don’t get too defensive in the first place. And one of the best ways to do this is to intentionally anticipate yourself getting defensive.

For example, suppose your spouse or partner sent you a text during the day saying “we need to talk.” While your natural reaction might be to tell yourself it’s nothing or just not think about it, often this is a mistake. The reason is, surprise magnifies defensiveness.

When we feel caught off guard or ambushed by criticism, it tends to intensify our defensiveness. On the other hand, when we know it’s coming, the overall intensity is far lower.

So try to think through the most frequent situations where you tend to get defensive. For example, if you tend to get into fights with your spouse at night when you’re in bed, try to make it a habit when you’re brushing your teeth to anticipate defensiveness. Imagine something your spouse might say that’s overly-critical, then imagine yourself starting to get defensive but handling it well.

Like an athlete visualizing the perfect swing, shot, or stroke, anticipating your defensiveness and how to handle it well can be a surprisingly effective way to simply not get very defensive in the first place.

6. Boost your self-esteem (the right way)

As our example of Tom earlier showed, insecurity and feeling bad about ourselves is the biggest risk factor for defensiveness. Which means, the more you can do to bolster your self-esteem and confidence, the less susceptible you’ll be to defensiveness.

But here’s the thing about self-esteem, it’s not something you can just wish your way into. Smiling in front of the mirror and telling yourself how great you are is not going to improve your self-esteem.

The right way to build high self-esteem is through your actions. When you consistently do things that you can be proud of, your self-esteem goes up.

It’s really that simple.

So, pick an area of your life where you’re not feeling great about yourself—let’s say sticking to an exercise routine. Now, choose a very small commitment to exercise that you can stick to for a week. Going for a 20-minute walk each day on your lunch hour, for example. Track your progress and then reward yourself for sticking with it.

This is the opposite of a quick fix for defensiveness: it takes a long time to start consistently doing things you can be proud of and raising your self-esteem. But if you do, there’s no better way to improve your resilience to defensiveness.

Genuinely confident and emotionally secure people rarely get defensive.

And while that might seem like a lofty or even impossible goal, it can be done with a commitment to small but meaningful changes to your behavior over time.


Summary and Key Points

Defensiveness is a coping strategy where we attack another person in order to shift focus away from our own faults and insecurities.

If you want to become less defensive in your most important relationships, it’s important to understand how defensiveness actually works.

In almost all cases, defensiveness is the result of emotional insecurity and fear. And when we feel insecure and don’t know how to manage our fears—especially in the relationships where there’s a lot at stake—we tend to fall back on primitive coping strategies like defensiveness to feel better.

Working through defensiveness in a healthy way means learning to acknowledge our defensiveness and cultivating healthier options for responding to criticism.

There are 6 basic steps you can take to get better at dealing with defensiveness:

  1. Increase your self-awareness in difficult conversations
  2. Validate your fears and insecurities
  3. Apply a little self-compassion
  4. Clarify your values
  5. Anticipate your defensiveness
  6. Boost your self-esteem (the right way)

28 Comments

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This article brings so much light to what we face in relationships and how to better understand one another. Thank you for sharing this!

The person that is typing this comment right now is not the same as the person who clicked on the link to read the article.
Thank you so much Nick, I really appreciate your work.

Great article! As someone who gets defensive a lot, this article has shared some insightful ways to deal with it. Appreciate the knowledge.

Thank you Nick! I really value your work and come away from each article with new insights. This article in particular was very helpful and a good start in dealing with my own defensiveness.

Very informative article. You wrote that people who read articles on defensivenss are either someone who gets defensive or someone who has to deal with someone else who is defensive. I’m both actually (Hoo-boy!)

Thank you so much for this article, Nick! I’m amazed at how timely your articles are for me. I’ve read pieces on negative self-talk, insecurity, this one on defensiveness, exactly at times when I was experiencing these. You write in a very inspiring yet concise and pragmatic way. Thank you for making this available!
Cheers

As usual, a very well written one with almost all of them practical guide. A good one to help self and others with whom we interact closely,

My husband and I signed up for your weekly emails just a few weeks ago and your spot on insight has helped us both in so many ways. But this article has helped us tackle the one thing that has been a constant challenge in our 35 year marriage. We read it separately then discussed it in length afterwards. Let’s just say I thought my marriage was happy and fairly healthy before, but now I am certain it will continue to grow during our golden years! Thank you, Nick.

Nick, thanks x10 for writing this–being less defensive is a growth edge of mine. I have a question, though: while sometimes I will counterattack and deflect when I feed attacked, my go-to move is justifying my actions and bringing up all the data points that make me out to be the good guy. Is this “defensive” behavior or something else?

I hate the cycle of defensive reactivity and then shame when I lash out at my partner. Thank you so much for this helpful healing guide and I can’t wait to read more articles.

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