Chronic defensiveness is so irritating, like living beside a village square where the town criers daily proclaim their innocence. Dodging honest conversation in this squirmy way is quite possibly the number one pollutant of relationship harmony.
It’s worse than a bad habit or disagreeable personality trait. Driven by inner conflict, chronic defensiveness is compulsive behavior. Fortunately, even dummies can overcome it by learning about the psychological dynamics behind it.
Even when we try as gently as possible to discuss an issue, the defensive person often goes negative: “I don’t want to talk about that!” or “It wasn’t even my fault because …” or “Why are you talking about this again!” or “I haven’t had time to take care of that!” Often their words are expressed in hurt, indignant, offended, or angry tones of voice.
Sometimes, in contrast, the defensiveness becomes self-pitying or pathetic when, for instance, a person says repeatedly, “I can’t change the past;” “I try so hard;” “No matter what I do, it’s never enough;” or, “If only I had known in time.” Defensiveness becomes entangled in self-doubt or self-reproach, as in, “I’m just a hopeless case;” or, “I can never figure out the right way to do it.”
We’re certainly upset when the person we care about or love is suddenly erecting these kinds of emotional roadblocks to deeper connection and intimacy. Then again, we might be the culprit ourselves, the grumpy or self-pitying dispenser of an ever-ready defensiveness that is very upsetting to others.
Oddly enough, people often aren’t aware of how defensive they are. They have a tendency to take their defensiveness for granted, as if it’s just another way of relating to people, even though the behavior is often expressed quite negatively. They usually believe their prompt defensiveness is appropriate to the occasion, whether with loved ones, friends, or coworkers.
In fact, people often take satisfaction in being defensive because it feels as if they have expressed or represented themselves effectively and forcefully. They feel they’re protecting their honor, but usually they’re only protecting a fragile ego. Defensiveness is essentially an expression of negative feelings and self-doubt that arises from inner conflict. Often defensive people are at their most defensive on an inner level, through their silent yet painful thought processes.
They often jump into defensiveness with others even when nothing explicit has been said in the way of criticism. They can simply misinterpret statements as if criticism of them is implied. This is because, unconsciously, defensive people often go looking for the feeling of being criticized because they’re emotionally attached to the feeling. That means they have an unconscious readiness or willingness to experience themselves through a familiar old sense of being wrong, flawed, or somehow bad. The emotional attachment to this negative sense of self is a lingering effect from how they experienced themselves as children.
Within our psyche, most of us experience conflict between our inner critic and our passive side. This passive side tries to represent us against the inner critic’s intrusions into our emotional life. People aren’t usually aware of how inwardly passive and defensive they are in relation to their inner critic. So defensiveness begins “at home” where a passive side of our psyche defends against the critical aggressive side.
People who are stronger emotionally—and thereby not defensive—have subdued their inner critic and don’t allow it to hold them accountable or butt into their life. Subduing it involves a process in which we become more aware of the conflict, see the inner critic for the primitive negative energy it is, and stop representing—in thought or feelings—that passive side which is defensive to the inner critic. Now we’re guided by our true, authentic self. We aren’t defensive, either inwardly or outwardly, because inner conflict has been resolved.
If someone now happens to be appropriately (or inappropriately) critical of us, we don’t take it personally. If their criticism is valid, we listen and learn from it. If their criticism is invalid, we don’t take it seriously and we’re not easily offended. When criticized in a way that’s inappropriate, we might just laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Often when someone appears to be finding fault with us, we don’t need to say anything much. Sometimes a healthy response is simply to show through facial expression and body language whether or not we take the criticism seriously.
When inner conflict has been resolved, negativity has been flushed out of our emotional life. We’re now much more likely not to have a negative reaction when challenged in some manner. Chronic defensiveness is always a negative reaction.
Defensiveness, which is inherently passive, often switches into an aggressive attack. The person who initially feels under attack can be quick to shift gears and go on the attack. Why does he do this? On an inner level, his passivity is deemed to be a deplorable trait. He feels that being aggressive, even inappropriately and unwisely aggressive, is a better alternative than being passive. Later, guilt is likely to arise for his inappropriate, negative aggressiveness. Rather than acknowledge the passivity at the core of his defensiveness, he “pleads guilty” to having been inappropriately aggressive.
Sometimes a person’s defensiveness is invisible to others. The person keeps his defensive thoughts and feeling holed up inside him. At such times, the defensive person doesn’t attack back, but, resenting very much the alleged criticism or disapproval, later retaliates with passive-aggressive behaviors such as withholding or refusing to cooperate. In this way, defensiveness can unwittingly be used by the passive individual, who is often afraid of intimacy, to keep others at a distance.
My late wife, Sandra, wrote about the problem in her book, Is Anyone Listening? Repairing Broken Lines in Couples Communication. She listed defensiveness as one of twenty styles or patterns of unhealthy relationship communication. Here, in part, is what she wrote:
Defenders adeptly avoid the issue being discussed by drawn-out attempts to explain their behaviors, or by justifying themselves, presenting a case that they are innocent, or analyzing how they got the way they are. Here are some examples: “I talk too much because my father never gave me any attention.” Or, “I had too much to drink because I’m under a lot of stress.” Or, “If you worked as hard as I do, you’d be crabby too.” Acting indignant is another common defense: “How could you ever think I’d do such a thing?”
Becoming defensive denotes insecurity about yourself and your position. The intensity of your reaction may be an indicator of how truthfully your partner is describing you and your behaviors. The more you protest, the more you give yourself away.
Often the defender defends even when her partner’s judgments about her are unjustified. Almost any accusation makes her defensive because she resonates with feeling criticized or condemned. The accusations may represent how she really feels about herself and how, through the inner conscience or inner critic, she “hits herself up” with accusations of inadequacy and incompetence. For example, if her partner accuses her of handling a situation inadequately, even though she knows she did a good job, she may end up feeling inadequate because she used her partner’s criticism—unjustified though it might be—to soak up feelings of being judged and disapproved of.
Most books and online articles offer only advice—not insight—about how to stop being defensive. Examples of such advice are: don’t take it personally; listen carefully; like yourself; accept that you aren’t perfect; and respond rather than react. But these simple maxims don’t penetrate deeply enough into our psyche. The best way to eliminate defensiveness from our emotional life is to become smarter about the dynamics of inner conflict.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.