Why Am I Getting so Defensive?

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Yes, there are a few progressive changes in how our culture is embracing individuals’ rights to share emotions, feelings, and to express pain. Through social media, television, literature, activism, and the devastation of the pandemic, our public language is slowly beginning to shift. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be angry, hurt, or sensitive. As a therapist, a major part of my job is to sit with and accept the painful emotions we experience. That being said, what about the other side of this? How is it to be with someone who is angry with us? Someone who was hurt, offended, or felt targeted by our words/actions? How can we learn to tolerate and collaborate with the people in our lives without completely shutting down or blaming them in return? Defensiveness is the quickest way to end resolution and begin a war.

Defensiveness is hard-wired into our brains and bodies to “protect” us from other people. But, is it always protective? Former judge and collaboration specialist Jim Tamm argues that defenses mostly protect us from our own uncomfortable feelings. Some of these feelings are: fears of our significance, competence, and likability being called into question. I notice these patterns often within myself. Last week, I spent time with some old friends from high school. Many of them had started or restarted individual therapy during the pandemic. As the discussion ebbed and flowed, people brought up times their therapist had “got it wrong” or said something “unhelpful” or “stupid.” I noticed my chest tighten, heart rate increase, and my stomach felt nauseous. Why was I getting defensive? They were not talking about me. This had nothing to do with me! While I offered empathy in the moment to my friends, I noticed myself ruminating about the discussion and unable to let it go.

Jim Tamm might say that I was getting overwhelmed with fear about my incompetence as a therapist. Are my clients sitting around with their friends recollecting all the dumb shit I’ve said? While I managed to get through most of the evening without defensive behavior, I could not control myself when I left. As my friends jokingly pressured me to stay up late with them, I stated that for me to be a good therapist, I needed plenty of restful sleep. I backed up my claim with, “If I’m not fully rested, think of all the unhelpful stuff I might say? You’re holding on to that one comment your therapist made, I have to show up as best I can every single day.” Woof, that was defensive, I wasn’t even working the next day!

Defensiveness is often connected with many cognitive distortions and thinking errors that are part of life. It also has several common behaviors that indicate its presence, for example:

  • Recalling past mistakes: Bringing up a time the person made a mistake or was wrong.
  • Silent treatment: Stonewalling a person and acting like they do not exist; repeatedly stating “I’m fine” when it is clear you are not.
  • Playing the victim: Passively accepting the criticism and then crying/reacting with excessive emotionality to elicit guilt from the other person. This is done so that they do not criticize you or confront you in the future.
  • Attack: Confronting the other person with an attack or accusation so the focus moves away from your actions.
  • Blaming: Reversing the blame from you to the other person to feel righteous and justified in your actions.
  • Righteous indignation: Not allowing criticism for your actions because you are doing the right thing or sacrificing your time for others (e.g. saying you should not be held accountable to calling your partner names because you did all the dishes last night).

We utilize most or all these defensive behaviors and patterns at work, home, in our relationships with friends, family, lovers, with strangers on the street, truly anyone can be the object of our defensiveness. So, what do we do about this? As we are learning, it is usually not at all about what the other person is doing or saying, but instead which of our personal fears are surfacing and how terrifying/vulnerable this feels.

First, we need to identify our individual markers of defensive thinking, feeling, and behaving. What happens when someone criticizes your work, favorite musician or author? Is your competence threatened? Your likability? How do you notice this? For some, they begin to think quickly and are flooded with arguments and points about why this criticism is wrong. Others begin to tear up and cry, but later notice they have hateful or judging thoughts about the other person. Our brain’s ability to effectively use logic diminishes when we are defensive. This is one of the major reasons couples and family therapists recommend you take breaks during heated arguments. We want to bring our brightest and most compassionate selves, defensiveness shrinks our ability to think.

Chest tight

Lungs heavy

Breath short, hot, and shallow.

Heart pounding

Throat closing

Tears at the surface

Stomach in knots

Fists clenching

These are just a few of my personal physiological responses when I feel defensive. What are yours?

So, what can we do about this? Relationship researcher and author John Gottman suggests taking 5 long, deep breaths prior to responding. He also recommends noticing the individual’s “bid” within the comment, instead of narrowing in on their tone of voice, delivery, or word choice. A bid = A bid for connection. Aside from deep breaths, we can also use small gestures to help minimize our defensive reactions. Saying “That’s interesting” vs. “You’re wrong” can help soften our interactions. If you are in a meeting at work, try placing a hand on your belly and feeling the air quietly fill your diaphragm. If this feels too obvious, try placing your hands gently on your thighs in an open position and roll your shoulders back. When we are defensive, our body language tends to show this; we can help move towards connection by softening our bodies.

The key to managing defensiveness? Connection! When we reduce our defensive reactions and behaviors, we increase our ability to connect, collaborate, and repair. If you find yourself getting defensive watching the news, on social media, talking with friends – try asking yourself what you’re afraid of, it may bring you closer to yourself and others. I was lucky to have friends who accepted my mini pity-party and validated my feelings instead of challenging them. This helped me let go of my defenses and relax into more rational, uninhibited thinking. How can we show up in these everyday interactions with an intention to join forces vs. start a battle? 5 long, deep breaths.