We have all, at some point, reacted by becoming defensive. It mainly happens when we feel attacked. However, there are people who are always on the defensive. It could be your partner, but also your father or mother, a friend or a work colleague.
Generally, this defensive attitude prevents you from addressing the issues that concern you, bringing up your dissatisfactions or even talking about your differences. In the long run, it is possible that some of these conflicts are serious enough for you to feel emotionally invalidated and you decide to distance yourself from that person, since you fail to communicate your needs and perceive that this relationship is affecting your mental health.
Why is a person always on the defensive?
Emotionally mature adults understand that it is essential to maintain relationships within a framework of mutual respect. They also understand that perspectives will sometimes differ and that it is necessary to listen to the other and even give up a little ground to reach an agreement or compromise.
However, that maturity usually disappears when we feel attacked and an emotional hijacking occurs; That is, the most reactive part of our brain takes control, “disconnecting” the most rational part.
In these cases, the defensive attitude is expressed in different ways. Some people may go into denial mode – even in the face of irrefutable evidence – and others may respond with insults and verbal attacks. Some may resort to recriminations and others may blame you. Deep down, all these defensive behaviors send a clear message: “take a step back, you are wrong.”
What are the main reasons why a person is defensive most of the time?
A study conducted at Flinders University suggested that people become defensive to take a breather when they have done something wrong. Therefore, the reasons behind this behavior are usually:
1. Misrepresent what happened or try to forget it
2. Shift blame onto others
3. Try to maintain social status
4. Denying their responsibility
5. Disengage from the situation
However, people can also become defensive due to anxiety and fear. In fact, we all tend to react defensively when we perceive that a situation is threatening, even if it really is not. It is no coincidence that these researchers have observed that defensive responses are reduced when people feel safe.
On the other hand, people who continually become defensive also tend to have a more rigid and closed mentality. For this reason, they perceive criticism as an attack, which causes them to shut down and categorically reject anything that does not fit with their vision of the world. These are people with a high level of resistance to change, so rejecting anything that promotes it is a form of self-protection to avoid facing the possibility of admitting that they’re wrong.
Another reason why a person is defensive is their inability to adequately manage the emotions that arise in interpersonal conflicts. In reality, these people have a kind of “allergy” to the emotions, negativity and drama that discussions exude, so at the first sign of disagreement they close the exchange.
At the same time, they are quite impulsive people, which leads them to overreact to situations in which they feel threatened and lose perspective. In the end, we cannot forget that from a psychological point of view, a defensive attitude is nothing more than a self-protective response.
In other cases, the reason a person is defensive is shame. When someone feels ashamed of what they have said or done, fears as atavistic as the fear of rejection and abandonment or even the feeling of uselessness or failure can be activated, so that person can react by closing themselves off from acknowledging their mistake to protect themselves from all those consequences. The problem is that getting defensive is usually a bad coping strategy since it will backfire in the long term.
The consequences of always being on the defensive
It should be noted that in certain cases a defensive response can be beneficial as it helps us to recover after a failure, allows us to maintain a certain optimism and even protects self-esteem and the image we have of ourselves, but we cannot forget that this attitude also has costs, especially when it becomes a habitual response pattern.
Being defensive ends up creating psychological blind spots on ourselves and in our decision making. When we respond defensively, we don’t recognize problems, we ignore conflicts, and relationships deteriorate.
Getting defensive with others is often counterproductive, because it alienates people and sends the message that we are not capable of managing our emotions and maturely handling criticism or dealing with differences. Of course, in the moment when we feel attacked, going on the defensive may seem like the only way to deal with the threat, but in the long run it will end up harming us.
For this reason, the best antidote to defensive attitudes is to learn to listen while assuming a psychological distance. Since we get defensive when we feel attacked, we need to not take criticism or opinions too personally.
To stop being defensive, we must learn to keep our emotions under control, understanding that most people are not our enemies, so that we can accept their criticism as opportunities to get to know ourselves better and grow. Ultimately, it is about channeling our energy toward self-improvement instead of self-defense.
Wenzel, M. et. Al. (2020) The effects of moral/social identity threats and affirmations on psychological defensiveness following wrongdoing. British Journal of Social Psychology; 59 (4): 1062.