How to Stop Being Defensive
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How to Stop Being Defensive

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Being defensive is a common human response to perceived threats or criticism.

However, this behavior can often do more harm than good, damaging relationships, hindering personal growth, and preventing effective communication.

Here is what it means to be defensive and how to stop being defensive.

What Does It Mean to Be Defensive?

Defensiveness is a psychological mechanism that people use to protect themselves from perceived threats or criticism.

When someone feels attacked or challenged, they may react by becoming argumentative, making excuses, or shifting the blame to someone or something else.

This can manifest in a variety of ways, such as:

  1. Justifying: Providing lengthy explanations or rationalizations for one’s actions, rather than taking responsibility.
  2. Counterattacking: Responding to criticism with criticism or personal attacks, rather than addressing the issue at hand.
  3. Denying: Refusing to acknowledge or validate the other person’s perspective or concerns.
  4. Minimizing: Downplaying the significance of the issue or the other person’s feelings.

Defensiveness is a common human response that arises when we feel threatened, criticized, or misunderstood.

It’s a natural self-protective mechanism, but it can also hinder our personal growth and damage our relationships.

Understanding the root causes and negative effects of defensiveness is the first step towards overcoming this habit.

The Negative Effects of Defensiveness

Defensiveness can have a significant impact on our personal and professional lives.

It can lead to strained relationships, poor communication, and a lack of personal growth.

When we’re defensive, we often shut down, become argumentative, or shift the blame, which can alienate others and prevent us from learning and improving.

Why Do People Become Defensive?

There are various reasons why people become defensive, including:

  • Low self-esteem or insecurity
  • Fear of criticism or failure
  • Traumatic past experiences
  • Learned behavior from childhood
  • Desire to protect one’s ego or image
  • Lack of self-awareness or emotional intelligence

Signs of Defensiveness

Recognizing the signs of defensiveness is crucial for addressing the issue. Some common signs include:

  • Becoming argumentative or aggressive
  • Making excuses or blaming others
  • Interrupting or talking over others
  • Avoiding eye contact or closing off body language
  • Feeling the need to constantly justify your actions
  • Becoming overly sensitive to feedback or criticism

How to stop being defensive

Being defensive is a natural human response, often triggered by criticism, perceived threats, or challenging situations.

However, being defensive can hinder personal growth, damage relationships, and prevent effective communication.

Fortunately, there are strategies one can employ to overcome this tendency and become more open-minded and receptive.

To overcome defensiveness, start doing the following:

1. Recognize the Triggers

The first step in overcoming defensiveness is to identify the situations or behaviors that tend to trigger it.

This self-awareness can help individuals anticipate when they might become defensive and take proactive steps to manage their reactions.

Some common triggers for defensiveness include:

  • Criticism, even if it’s constructive
  • Feeling misunderstood or unheard
  • Perceived threats to one’s ego or self-image
  • Challenging or confrontational conversations
  • Feeling attacked or blamed

By understanding these triggers, individuals can better prepare themselves to respond in a more constructive manner.

2. Practice Active Listening

One of the most effective ways to reduce defensiveness is to focus on actively listening to the other person.

This means putting aside any preconceptions or urges to defend oneself and instead, concentrating on fully understanding the other person’s perspective.

Active listening involves:

  1. Maintaining eye contact
  2. Asking clarifying questions
  3. Paraphrasing or summarizing what the other person has said
  4. Avoiding interruptions
  5. Withholding judgment or criticism

3. Cultivate Empathy

Closely related to active listening is the ability to empathize with the other person’s point of view. Putting oneself in the other person’s shoes and attempting to understand their feelings, concerns, and motivations can help reduce defensive responses.

Empathy involves:

  • Recognizing and acknowledging the other person’s emotions
  • Considering the context and circumstances that may be influencing their perspective
  • Suspending one’s own agenda or biases to focus on the other person’s experience

Related: How to remain calm when angry 

4. Reframe Criticism as Feedback

One of the most common triggers for defensiveness is criticism, even when it is well-intentioned or constructive.

To overcome this, individuals can learn to reframe criticism as feedback, which can be a valuable tool for personal growth and improvement.

When faced with criticism, try to:

  • Resist the urge to become defensive or reactive
  • Approach the feedback with an open and curious mindset
  • Ask clarifying questions to better understand the criticism
  • Focus on the information provided, rather than the delivery

5. Embrace Vulnerability

Being defensive often stems from a desire to protect one’s ego or self-image. However, embracing vulnerability and being willing to acknowledge one’s flaws or mistakes can be a powerful way to reduce defensiveness.

Vulnerability involves:

  • Admitting when one is wrong or has made a mistake
  • Asking for help or support when needed
  • Acknowledging areas for personal growth and improvement
  • Being open to feedback and constructive criticism

Related: How to stop being sensitive

6. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness, the practice of being present and aware at the moment, can be a valuable tool for reducing defensiveness.

By becoming more attuned to their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, individuals can better recognize when they are starting to become defensive and take steps to respond more constructively.

Mindfulness practices may include:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Journaling
  • Paying attention to one’s body language and tone of voice

7. Manage Stress and Anxiety

Defensiveness is often exacerbated by high levels of stress and anxiety. When individuals feel overwhelmed or threatened, they are more likely to revert to defensive behaviors as a means of self-protection.

To manage stress and anxiety, individuals can try:

  • Engaging in regular physical exercise
  • Practicing relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation
  • Prioritizing self-care activities, such as getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy diet
  • Seeking support from friends, family, or a mental health professional, if needed

By reducing overall stress and anxiety levels, individuals can become more resilient and less prone to defensive reactions.

8. Communicate Assertively

Effective communication is key to reducing defensiveness. Instead of reacting defensively, individuals can learn to communicate their thoughts and feelings in an assertive, yet respectful manner.

Assertive communication involves:

  • Using “I” statements to express one’s own perspectives and experiences
  • Clearly stating one’s needs, boundaries, or concerns
  • Actively listening to the other person’s point of view
  • Seeking to find common ground or compromise

9. Practice Patience and Empathy

Overcoming defensiveness is a journey, and it’s important to be patient with oneself and others. Recognizing that everyone has their own triggers, experiences, and perspectives can help foster a more understanding and compassionate approach.

When faced with a defensive reaction, either from oneself or someone else, try to:

  • Slow down and take a moment to reflect
  • Approach the situation with empathy and understanding
  • Avoid escalating the conflict or making assumptions
  • Focus on finding a mutually agreeable solution

10. Seek Feedback and Accountability

Overcoming defensiveness can be a challenging process, and it’s often helpful to seek feedback and accountability from others. This may involve:

  • Asking trusted friends, family members, or colleagues for their honest feedback
  • Working with a therapist or coach to identify and address defensive patterns
  • Joining a support group or community of individuals who are also working on reducing their defensiveness

11. Cultivate Self-Acceptance

At the root of defensiveness is often a lack of self-acceptance. When individuals are overly focused on protecting their ego or image, they are more likely to react defensively to perceived threats or criticism.

To cultivate self-acceptance, individuals can:

  • Practice self-compassion and self-kindness
  • Recognize and celebrate their strengths and accomplishments
  • Acknowledge and work on their weaknesses with a growth mindset
  • Surround themselves with supportive and affirming relationships

By developing a greater sense of self-acceptance, individuals can become less reliant on defensive behaviors to protect their self-worth.

12. Embrace Constructive Criticism

While it’s natural to feel defensive when faced with criticism, learning to embrace constructive feedback can be a powerful tool for personal growth and development.

When receiving constructive criticism, try to:

  • Approach it with an open and curious mindset
  • Actively listen and ask clarifying questions
  • Reflect on the feedback and consider how it might be helpful
  • Express gratitude for the other person’s willingness to provide feedback

13. Set Boundaries

Defensiveness can also arise when individuals feel their boundaries are being violated or their needs are not being met. Learning to set and communicate clear boundaries can help reduce defensive reactions.

Effective boundary-setting involves:

  • Identifying one’s own needs, limits, and comfort zones
  • Communicating those boundaries to others in a clear and assertive manner
  • Enforcing the boundaries when they are crossed, without becoming defensive

14. Challenge Negative Self-Talk

Defensive behaviors are often fueled by negative self-talk, such as “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t handle this.” Learning to challenge and reframe these negative thought patterns can help reduce defensiveness.

Strategies for challenging negative self-talk include:

  • Identifying and naming the negative thoughts
  • Examining the evidence for and against the negative thoughts
  • Replacing the negative thoughts with more positive, constructive alternatives
  • Practicing self-compassion and self-encouragement

15. Develop a Growth Mindset

Closely related to challenging negative self-talk is the cultivation of a growth mindset. Individuals with a growth mindset believe that their abilities and skills can be developed through effort, practice, and learning, rather than being fixed or unchangeable.

A growth mindset can help reduce defensiveness by:

  • Fostering a willingness to take risks and embrace challenges
  • Encouraging a focus on learning and improvement, rather than perfection
  • Promoting a more open and receptive attitude towards feedback and criticism

16. Practice Gratitude

Cultivating a sense of gratitude can also be a powerful tool for reducing defensiveness. When individuals focus on appreciating the positive aspects of their lives and relationships, they are less likely to feel threatened or defensive.

Gratitude practices may include:

  • Keeping a daily gratitude journal
  • Expressing appreciation to others
  • Focusing on the things that are going well, rather than dwelling on the negative
  • Recognizing and acknowledging one’s own strengths and accomplishments

17. Develop Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others, can be a valuable asset in reducing defensiveness.

Aspects of emotional intelligence that can help with defensiveness include:

  • Self-awareness: the ability to recognize one’s own emotional reactions and triggers
  • Empathy: the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others
  • Emotional regulation: the skill to manage and express emotions in a healthy and constructive manner

18. Practice Forgiveness

Defensiveness can also be fueled by resentment, grudges, or a lack of forgiveness towards others. Learning to let go of these negative emotions and embrace forgiveness can be a powerful way to reduce defensive reactions.

Forgiveness involves:

  • Acknowledging and accepting the hurt or wrongdoing that has occurred
  • Letting go of the desire for revenge or retaliation
  • Choosing to offer compassion and understanding, even in the face of adversity
  • Focusing on personal growth and healing, rather than dwelling on the past

By practicing forgiveness, individuals can free themselves from the burden of resentment and become more open to constructive dialogue and problem-solving.

Final thought

Overcoming defensiveness requires self-awareness, empathy, and effective communication.

However, never forget that changing a habit takes time.

Be patient with yourself as you struggle to become the best version of yourself.

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How to Stop Being Defensive

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