Dealing with Defensiveness: Why they do it and How to deal with it

Defensiveness is a complex topic and often surfaces in important relationships such as romantic relationships, friends, families, and even within a work setting. If you are struggling with a relationship where an individual is defensive, it may be helpful to understand why they are behaving that way, then work towards an anecdote to the defensiveness to continue to grow the relationship.

“Stop being so defensive”

This is a common response to a defensive person, and perhaps a response you have even used. It is safe to say that it most likely did not help the situation. That is because the root of the problem with someone behaving defensively is that they feel attacked. It is the meaning of the word after all. If you perceive that you are being attacked, then you will naturally defend. The definition of defensiveness is to form a sense of self protection in the face of a perceived attack. If you were in a war, would you call off the army simply because the other army said to “stop”? It is a bit more complicated than just stopping the behavior. Action needs to be taken beyond just saying to “stop” from the other party.

Defensiveness can take on many forms. These are often called defense mechanisms in the psychology world. It is important to remember that everyone has defense mechanisms and that they are a normal and primitive part of social development. They are most obviously seen in small children. If a toddler wants to avoid bath time, they run away. This logically doesn’t mean they are going to successfully avoid bath time but they are avoiding the conflict or perceived “threat”. Yes, bath time is the perceived threat, even though it logically is not a threat, the mind of a 2 year old views it as something they don’t want to do. This is an important point because it can be difficult to understand sometimes what the “perceived threat” is and sometimes can be hard to pick up on the defense mechanism. As we get older, we get better at defense mechanisms. Instead of running out of a stressful meeting, perhaps we simply shut down and don’t contribute. A good sign of someone feeling defensive is if there is some form of passing blame and/or taking a victim role. Common defensive mechanisms are denial, avoidance, acting out, compartmentalization and even regression, especially amongst children.

How do I deal with someone being defensive?

Easy. Neutralize the threat. Just like in the war analogy, if you want the army to retreat, they need feel like they can do so without being attacked. Okay, so maybe the analogy is easy, but in real life this may be complicated. The first step would be to try to figure out why the other person is feeling attacked or threatened. Perhaps the criticism plays into a bigger part of their insecurities. Another great tip to dealing with defensiveness is to take responsibility in a conflict. When pointing out a critique, take a moment to share what you are working on and struggling with. This is a great way to quickly diffuse the defense mechanism because suddenly it isn’t an attack that needs to be defended against.

Becoming aware of your own natural defense mechanisms is also a great way to build empathy towards someone who is being defensive toward you. A reminder that we are all human and naturally react in different ways. Working with a psychologist on identifying your defense mechanisms can be helpful in allowing you to grow in your relationships. You can also utilize a therapist to help you navigate how to deal with an individual being defensive toward you.
Book in a time to speak to a psychologist call us on (02) 6262 6157 or book an appointment online.

Related reading:

For Better or For Worse: Keeping Your Relationship Strong Through Crisis
Communication Styles to Improve Relationships
Top Reasons for Divorce- How to Prevent it from Happening to You

Looking for support?