Why people get defensive and 3 tips for breaking the habit
"Minds are like parachutes; they work better when they're open."
"Wow, soooorry! I must have touched a raw nerve there! Why are you so defensive?"
Well, why are you (if you are)? Or maybe you're just curious as to why others get very defensive. Some are defensive about lots of stuff generally. Others emotionally over-respond when it comes to specific areas such as their religion or appearance. If you really want to see over-defensiveness in action, go onto any forum or chat room. The speed at which people take offence (as a way of defence) is as startling as it is depressing.
But nothing's all bad.
In praise of automatic defensiveness (up to a point)
Being defensive has its place. Over much of human history, we all had to be defensive to survive.
And knee jerk reactions can be wonderful...sometimes. Spontaneous, unthinking defensiveness is great when, for instance, we have to dodge a fast approaching steam train - or defensively blink to block the fast approaching fly making contact with your eyeball.
If we're caught in an avalanche, it's a natural instinct to adopt the defensive posture and make like a foetus. But being emotionally defensive as a general strategy is self-destructive.
Why do I say this?
Stop being defensive to grab opportunities whilst they're around
Nature embellished you with emotions for a purpose.
All your emotions drive you either toward or away from what you're emotional about. Anger, love, lust, greed, curiosity, and the feelings of addiction drive us toward, but fear, revulsion, disgust, and hate (unless we are too angry) drive us away from what we're emotional about. This, generally, is a pretty good system. We avoid what may kill us and pursue what will help us survive better. In principle...supposedly.
But sometimes, maybe through 'faulty learning', we start to flee what would actually be good for us. This happens just as some people pursue what is very bad for them. This is a kind of emotional 'crossed wires' situation. Very defensive people tend to remain unfulfilled because they fail to spot opportunity.
Being overly defensive may:
- Stop you forming relationships. Other people find it hard to be around a defensive person.
- Prevent relationships from truly working in the long term (1).
- Lose you opportunities.
- Prevent you from learning and developing, as any new knowledge will seem threatening.
The emotional consequences of over-defensiveness include anxiety, doubt, trepidation, indecision, and regret. But why are some people just so defensive?
Defensive? What's pushing your buttons?
Sometimes other people really are not trustworthy or situations may be genuinely risky. On occasion, we really do need to err on the side of caution.
But true over-defensiveness can seem like the four-minute siren going off to the slightest north-westerly breeze.
If someone responds disproportionately to something, their defensiveness will likely be happening for one of three reasons (or all three, of course):
- You seemed to them to have done or said something that conflicts with an idea or behaviour they have a vested interest in protecting (perhaps it's simply because they have spent a lot of time or money or faith in this thing). You'll know they're defensive if they seem reluctant to even consider the possibility that their own way of looking at things might be incomplete. Perhaps part of them fears they may have been wrong all along. The established Church was extremely defensive to new ideas from both Galileo and Darwin, for example.
- They may just be very stressed at the moment. When we are stressed, we are more likely to respond defensively, because all emotional responses are more easily triggered.
- They have been genuinely attacked in the past, either physically or verbally, and are now 'once bitten, twice shy'. I recall a cat we had when I was a child. It had been abused by a former owner and now, even when you went to stroke it gently, it would cower defensively, shrinking from any touch.
So how can you stop being overly defensive?
1) Don't feel you have to defend everything
Only a fool (or a politician) thinks that everyone else must always think the way they themselves do.
"Are you calling me a fool?!"
"No, relax. I was just saying..."
You build and convey genuine confidence when you can relax with other people having their own perspectives and not seeing things your way. People who use a lot of personal pronouns (I, me, mine, myself) may be more defensive than most because they are relating more things back to themselves personally. When you can relax confidently with knowing what you like and believe in, then you won't have to justify your ideas all the time.
Is defensiveness a form of 'control freakery' in some people?
2) Are you responding now as you needed to back then?
Most people are not out to get you. Not now. But it might seem as if they are if you've lived through periods in which you genuinely were set upon, targeted, or abused. Regularly ask yourself: "Am I responding like this because of the way I was treated in the past?" Then make a point of focussing on all the differences between then and now.
3) Practice letting water slide off a duck's back...
...Or, since I'm offering aphorisms: "a rolling stone gathers no moss". Like Tip 1, practice letting others' words or actions (up to a point, of course) run off you.
Think about times when you were typically overly defensive. Times where, in retrospect, your response seemed above and beyond what was necessary. What got your goat? Close your eyes and relax whilst imagining yourself responding more evenly and in a measured way.
For a free flavour of this, click on the free audio clip below.
People have a wide variety of skills and psychological and practical tools. Defensiveness, like anything, has its uses but also, like anything, it can be chronically over-used.
When you start to live less defensively, you begin to prepare yourself to seek what is possible.