How to stop being defensive

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Kevin Mangelschots

  1. Understand what triggers you

    The best way to learn how to stop being defensive is to understand what triggers you. It can also give you valuable new insights into your personality, and more importantly, what your weaknesses are that can set you off.

    Nobody’s perfect. But we should always strive for improvement. Defensiveness isn’t desirable, and it’s a clear sign that we’re self-conscious about something. When we’re feeling certain about ourselves and our actions, then there’s very little reason to get worked up most of the time.

  2. Anticipate your triggers

    Anticipating when your triggers might happen or when you’re entering into situations that might set you off can help control your temper and emotions.

    It won’t automatically make you less triggered, but it can aid in lowering the intensity of your response because you remain thoughtful and rational instead of becoming irrational and unable of objective reasoning.

  3. Don’t automatically assume the worst

    The quote, “never assume that every critic is a hater. Not everyone is hating on you. Some people are telling you the truth.” Written in white letters on a blue background.

    Not everyone’s out to get you. Thus, we shouldn’t always assume the worst. I’m not saying that you should be naive, or that certain people aren’t trying to take advantage of you, because there are malevolent individuals like that inhabiting the world.

    But luckily for us, most are quite indifferent, and sometimes even empathic toward the folks they don’t know. As a result, we should try to engage with those around us in good faith by viewing it as a great opportunity to build new relationships along the way.

  4. Don’t take it personally

    Getting protective can be the consequence of taking things too personally. Just because someone voices their concerns, criticism, and perhaps even discontent about us doesn’t mean we have to start justifying ourselves. Remaining calm, stoic, and even entirely silent can be the best practice most of the time.

    That’s hard to do at times, especially when the very things they’re saying concern us personally, or when they’re using their words in an attempt to rile us up, or even hurt us. If that’s the case, then we have the right to defend ourselves. But don’t try to justify yourself since they’re most likely trying to get a reaction out of you, and giving them what they want is probable to be used as ammunition to antagonize you even further.

  5. Practice a continuous growth mindset

    Apply a continuous growth mindset to keep growing and to prevent yourself from becoming overly shielding. It’s much less likely that you want to defend yourself if you’re viewing everything as a chance to improve rather than an attempt to chastise you.

    You’ll learn a lot more, and there’s no telling what kind of improvements you can make to your character and life when truly applying yourself. It’s about creating rather than finding ourselves. And for that, we need to keep evolving constantly.

  6. Be compassionate

    Remaining empathic can be a difficult thing to do in a world driven by productivity, materialistic wealth, and fame regardless of what we need to do to accomplish these things.

    Yet, it’s vital if we want to keep ourselves from becoming cold and aloof to our own and others’ feelings. And that’s one of the key features that sets us apart from machines that simply operate without the capacity to feel any emotions.

  7. Practice active listening

    Active listening is a precious, undervalued skill that everyone should have in their toolkit to deal with people.

    You would be surprised how just feeling understood can change the dynamics of interaction between two parties. It makes them so much less likely to criticize and scold you because they feel like you’re trying to learn and listen, while actually trying to help them.

  8. Set boundaries

    Image of two people's feet facing each other, but being separated by a yellow line, indicating that's the boundary.

    Even though people are more alike than they are different, we still have wildly differing personalities based on our values, ethics, experiences, and upbringing.

    That’s precisely why we have to set boundaries based on what we’re comfortable with, and what’s an absolute no-go. Sure, these bounds should be reasonable, but without the ability to say no and be assertive, others simply can’t respect us because we’re willing to let others walk all over us without retaliating.

    These limits will keep you from being overwhelmed and doing things you don’t enjoy and want to do. It’ll suppress you from becoming dissatisfied, vengeful, and bitter in the process. That’s what we need if we wish to be and remain content. And when we’re happy, we’re less inclined to get protective.

  9. Ask how you can aid

    Instead of desperately trying to justify yourself, ask how you can help others. It’s much more positive and productive to solve problems rather than create more difficulties in our existence.

    Not to mention that others will be appreciative because you’re lending a helping hand instead of making it all about you and how you’re feeling. We love to feel heard, and appreciated, and to be assisted when we’re in a pinch. So don’t be afraid to aid those in need. Just realize that you can’t help everyone out there.

  10. Take responsibility

    Image of the quote, “personal responsibility, get some” written in white letters on a blue background.

    Taking responsibility is the sign of a mature adult who’s unafraid to take accountability for their actions. Yet, it’s not something that everyone can, or wishes to do.

    Nevertheless, it’s essential to become better since we can’t improve something if we refrain from taking the blame, or seeing that we have some things we need to learn before we can become adept at that given thing.

    There’s always something we can do better. And so I urge everyone to take accountability for their successes, and fortune, but also failures and errors to thrive in the future.

  11. Seek out clarifications

    Instead of defending yourself from a perceived attack, try to seek out clarifications to figure out where they’re coming from, and to find common ground to work with rather than fueling animosity.

    People love being paid attention to. And nothing shows that you’re paying attention than practicing active listening and asking for clarifications to paint a clear picture of the situation.

  12. Fix the concern

    Fix the problem they’re dealing with instead of enlarging the already existing issue.

    They will be glad their difficulty is dealt with, and you will receive far less hassle since their desires and needs are being met. That’s precisely why you should always think of solutions instead of problems. It’s simply much more productive and constructive to have such an attitude.

  13. Remind yourself of your values

    The quote, “it's not hard to make decisions once you know what your values are” by Roy E. Disney.

    Reminding yourself of your values serves the important purpose of grounding you in reality rather than allowing yourself to get riled up.

    Try to be the person you would personally look up to. If you treat others how you would want to be treated yourself, then you have the peace of mind that you carried out all the things you did with the best intentions. That remains true even if things don’t end up panning out the way you wanted to.

  14. See criticism as a chance to grow

    There are two main ways to take criticism. One way is to take it as a personal attack that you need to defend yourself against, and the other manner is to take it in stride and see it as the perfect opportunity to grow. Just because someone offers constructive criticism doesn’t mean that they dislike us, or want to hurt us.

    As a matter of fact, it might be exactly because they love us, and actually want the best for us. Hence, we should cherish and hold on to those who truly want to see us happy, and consequently, want the best for us.

  15. Don’t start criticizing back out of pettiness

    Refrain from making painful comments in return, even when someone criticizes you unwarrantedly.

    That would simply show how immature we are, and how we couldn’t handle a different perspective. It reeks of insecurity and exhibits a fragile mental state.

    You can calmly state that they’re overstepping their boundaries when they’re crossing the line, but you shouldn’t do the same thing that you dislike others doing to you. You need to be the bigger man. And sometimes, that involves keeping yourself from acting impulsively and harshly.

  16. Remain calm

    Image of stones resting on top of each other in the water.

    You shouldn’t let yourself be guided solely by your emotions. Especially not when you’re not emotionally mature enough to recognize that you’re highly irrational and prone to responding subjectively at times.

    Listen to reason, and employ your rational thinking. The only way you can manage that feat is if you remain calm instead of getting emotional and heated. Plenty of highly intelligent people have ended up making critical mistakes and failures just because they couldn’t keep a clear head.

  17. Don’t interrupt others

    Interrupting others isn’t respectful, or appropriate, nor do people typically take it in stride. For some, it can happen unconsciously, and others might have a nasty habit of chiming in when their peers are talking due to being conditioned that way, or because they don’t like sharing the spotlight.

    Still, you shouldn’t do that because it’s annoying, and others will be on guard around you if you keep interrupting your peers constantly. Be confident enough to give others room to speak their mind without feeling the need to take the limelight at all times.

  18. Accept other people’s perspectives

    Image of the quote, “acceptance is the road to all change.”

    Accepting other people’s perspectives is key if you wish to build healthy, long-lasting relationships with other folks.

    It also helps to not take things personally, or the wrong way. Everyone has their unique perks and imperfections. Thus, it’s only logical that everyone has their own identity and personality.

    You don’t have to agree with other people’s personal views, but what you have to do is accept that what they believe to be true is their reality. Life will go much smoother that way, and you’ll feel less need to defend yourself.

  19. Know your limits

    Knowing your limits is always important because nobody likes arrogant folks who overestimate themselves. It also makes you more prone to making mistakes and to fail since you assess yourself poorly.

    Others might point out your mistakes, or that you simply don’t live up to the big game you talk yourself up to. Since prideful individuals measure their own abilities wrongly, they’re unlikely to take kindly to the evaluation of others. They’re extremely liable to become defensive and justify their actions, no matter how wrong they might be.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Signs of defensive behavior

Image of a black man looking angry with a pink background.

  • Blaming the other person.
  • Insulting others.
  • Victimizing themselves.
  • Accusing others of being too sensitive.
  • Justifying your actions.
  • Bringing up the past.
  • Not listening.
  • Actively ignoring others.
  • Making excuses.
  • Telling the other person they shouldn’t feel how they do.
  • Making excuses about the things you’re being critiqued for.
  • Lying or denying any wrongdoing.
  • Down talk their errors.
  • Over-explaining.
  • Changing the subject.

Why do people get defensive?

Illustration of a man scratching their head while holding a yellow question mark.
 
People typically get defensive when they’re hurt, trying to avoid accountability, or trying to get the other person to back off. It is considered one of the 7 psychological defense mechanisms that we employ to fend for ourselves verbally.
 
When our feelings get hurt, or when we’re feeling ashamed, then we may get protective to distract ourselves from this harmful experience. Shifting the attention and/or blame to the other party aids us to feel better about ourselves in that given moment.
 
While people are usually quite predictable and even-tempered, getting defensive sends a clear message that we want them to get off our back, and that we do not appreciate their criticism.
 
The other party is typically left confounded and shocked since they don’t expect that direct and assertive behavior from us. This defense mechanism is justifiable and in proportion to the perceived threat at times, but it can also be irrational and exaggerated in an attempt to protect our ego.
 

Why am I so defensive in my relationship?

A man and woman arguing while pointing their finger at each other.

You’re probably getting defensive in your relationship since you feel disrespected, misunderstood, trying to get your spouse to back off, or perhaps because you want to avoid having to take responsibility.

It’s also a potential response to our feelings getting hurt by our partner. Whether deliberately, or unintentionally.

Why am I so defensive at work?

Image of multiple employees having a conflict at work.

There are multiple reasons why you get so defensive at work.

Perhaps you’re feeling overasked by your boss or colleagues, like your opinion doesn’t matter, or because you’re so overanxious that you feel the need to protect yourself constantly, regardless of the intention, or what’s being asked.

You should aim to become skilled and self-assured enough, so you don’t feel the need to prove yourself perpetually to your peers and superiors.

If you feel overwhelmed because the higher-ups and co-workers demand too much of you, then it’s up to you to set clear boundaries and safeguard them. That’s required for all of us if we don’t want to get drowned in work and stress.

Why do some get defensive when you ask a question?

While there’s nothing wrong with asking a question, it can provoke a negative response.

It might be the case that they took the question the wrong way because of the tone, who it’s coming from, or the way we worded our inquiry. As a consequence, our conversational partner can feel attacked, humiliated, or even hurt.

Some might feel like their intelligence is being questioned, and feel the need to explain themselves to eliminate these negative thoughts and feelings of insecurity.

Is someone guilty when they get defensive?

The word “guilty” written on a piece of paper with handcuffs lying next to it.

Someone isn’t automatically guilty when they get defensive because the grounds for justifying our actions can vary greatly.

We might feel insecure, hurt, assaulted, and trying to get others off our backs.

Even so, it can be a sign that they’re guilty of trying to avoid having to take accountability, or that their behavior doesn’t match what they truly believe in.

Examples of defensive communication

An example of defensive communication could be feeling the need to explain yourself to your boss when they simply ask whether everything is going smoothly with the project you’re working on out of interest and as a sign of respect.

Instead of simply saying that everything is going according to plan, you experience the necessity to justify what you’ve been doing simply because you feel insecure, attacked, questioned, and hurt.

Final note

Image of the word, “conclusions” written on a black backboard with white chalk.

People can get defensive for a variety of reasons. Refusing to take accountability, trying to get another person to back off, because we’re hurt, and to distract ourselves from the pain being the most common ones.

Aim to be skilled and surefooted enough to be yourself, and to refrain from feeling the requirement of having to prove yourself perpetually.

If your actions align with your thoughts, then you will automatically feel less arousal to explain or justify your behavior. Whether it happens to be correct, or not.

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