Defensiveness: Break the Cycle and Improve Your Relationships
How many times have you wished that the other person would just understand what you were trying to say? How many times have you felt misunderstood, unappreciated, or unheard in your relationships? How many times have you said something that you didn’t mean in the heat of the moment?
Defensiveness is a natural, reflexive and automatic response that helps us protect ourselves from perceived threats. When we experience the feeling of being attacked, misunderstood, or “not good enough”, we may interpret the situation as harmful or potentially dangerous. When we feel attacked or criticized, our first instinct is to defend ourselves-to put up a shield to protect our feelings and our view of the world.
This often leads to a defensive spiral where both parties become increasingly defensive and less able to listen and communicate effectively. Defensiveness is a natural human reaction that can get in the way of healthy, productive relationships.
Defensive reactions can lead to misunderstandings, resentment, and anger, and can ultimately damage or destroy our relationships. There are several steps you can take to break the defensive cycle and improve your relationships.
Acknowledge your defensiveness.
We’ve all been there. That moment when we feel like we’re under attack, and our first instinct is to defend ourselves. It might be an argument with a partner, or an interaction with a coworker that gets under our skin. We can start to feel like we’re constantly on the defensive, and it can be tough to break the cycle. But it’s worth it. Because the truth is, defensive behaviors can damage our relationships. They can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even estrangement. Be aware of how you and your partner tend to react when things get tense.
Make a conscious effort to remain open and receptive, even when you believe you are being attacked.
When we feel defensive, our feelings and thoughts can take over and override our ability to think rationally or act collaboratively. We may become so focused on our need to protect ourselves that we can’t hear what the other person is saying, or worse, we may attack them or say something we might later regret.
This is not a healthy way to interact with the people in our lives, nor is it an effective way to get what we want. When we remain open and receptive, we are better able to establish a healthy dialogue in which we are more likely to be heard and get our needs met.
Take responsibility for your actions, beliefs and emotions.
Recognize that with any habit, if there is no awareness and accountability, there will be no direct change. Begin to notice how you experience your defensiveness- what does it look like in your behaviors, how does it sound when you verbalize your thoughts, and how long does the feeling last? The goal is to become aware in real time when you notice your defensiveness rising.
You might say to yourself in your mind to draw attention to this change in emotional state: “I can feel myself becoming more defensive. I am noticing my heart beating faster, my cheeks getting hot, my urge to respond quickly and aggressively increasing, etc.”
Taking responsibility might also even look like pausing once you have heard feedback, and saying “I need to take a moment to process the information that I have just heard.” In this pause, you have the opportunity to reflect on what is being said and try to understand the other person’s perspective. Can you acknowledge that you said something harshly, insensitive or in a strong tone or that you may have misunderstood the plans for the weekend?
It is okay to acknowledge that not everyone has the same viewpoints, values, knowledge, skills, perspectives or experiences and therefore not everyone will agree with each others’ interpretations, perspectives or beliefs. To accept this idea is not necessarily to say that you like that people will inevitably disagree or be in conflict, but rather to say that you understand that this makes reasonable sense given the variability of the human experience.
It is difficult to accept that someone might not see what you see or truly understand what you are trying to convey. That is hard and a difficult part of life. To accept this, means that you let go of the suffering you might experience in trying to change this. Express yourself and your needs as best you can, and know that sometimes this will help and sometimes, we recognize that people are entitled to their views just as we are.
Change your inner dialogue to be more self-compassionate.
Allow yourself a chance to acknowledge that everyone can get defensive when put in a stressful and triggering situation in which their needs are being invalidated, misheard, misunderstood, ignored or completely neglected. Be gentle with yourself when periods of frustration or defensiveness arise and practice saying to yourself:
“Even though I may still get defensive or have the urge to respond in a protective way, I am working on decreasing the amount of defensiveness in myself.”
This step is crucial, because it can boost your sense of self-efficacy. Reminding yourself that, even if things happen to be going poorly now, I am working to improve, boosts your sense of confidence.
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