How to Stop Being Defensive

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Defensive Behavior

Defensive behavior involves justifying your behavior or making excuses for yourself when faced with anger, criticism, guilt, or embarrassment.

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve received negative feedback, faced someone’s wrath, felt guilty about our actions, or been embarrassed.

Being defensive means rushing to defend yourself when you’re faced with an uncomfortable situation, rather than listening and really talking about the problem, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.”

If you’re guilty of this behavior, you’re not alone. Defensiveness is an automatic psychological mechanism that is triggered by internal or external emotional stressors. This reaction may be conscious or unconscious.

This article explores the characteristics of defensive people, potential causes of defensiveness, strategies to be less defensive, and the benefits it can offer you.

Examples of Defensive Behavior

These are some examples of defensive behavior, according to Dr. Daramus:

  • Making excuses: If someone critiques you, you might bring up excuses and explanations as to why you aren't to blame.
  • Deflecting blame: If someone accuses you of doing something wrong, you might deflect by reminding them of something they've done wrong, in order to shift the focus to them and make them feel hypocritical about challenging you.
  • Responding dramatically: You might exaggerate what they're saying. For example, if someone asks you to do a better job cleaning up after yourself, you might say, "Oh, so you're calling me a slob?"
  • Making false promises: You might rush to promise things you probably can't deliver to avoid the confrontation.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Defensiveness feels good in the moment because it takes the pressure off of you, but later on you have to clean up the problems it causes.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Characteristics of Defensive People

These are some characteristics of defensive people, as compared to those who are more acceptive.

Defensive People
  • Have a knee-jerk defensive reaction

  • Are not receptive to feedback

  • Make excuses for their behavior

  • Can’t stand to show any weakness

  • Care about protecting their self-image at all costs

Acceptive People
  • Are willing to hear someone out

  • Are open to constructive criticism

  • Can admit to their mistakes

  • Can be vulnerable and honest with others

  • Focus more on finding solutions and learning from their mistakes

Potential Causes of Being Defensive

These are some of the potential causes of defensiveness, according to Dr. Daramus:

  • Perfectionism: If you often handle difficult discussions by getting defensive, you might be perfectionistic and fear getting caught being human. Making a mistake can feel like having a weakness that you’re not comfortable showing the world.
  • Fear: You might have a childhood background, home life, or work life where mistakes and imperfections are punished. As a result, you may go to any lengths to avoid showing you’ve made a mistake.
  • Insecurity: If you’re insecure about who you are or what you’re capable of, you may try to hide behind defensiveness.
  • Uncomfortable emotions: Emotions like guilt, shame, or embarrassment can be uncomfortable to experience. Defending yourself with an excuse can be easier than feeling guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed.
  • Learned behavior: You may have unconsciously learned this tactic from a parent or another influential figure, who responded to criticism with defensiveness instead of taking responsibility for their actions.
  • Mental health conditions: Defensiveness may also be a symptom of a mental health condition, such as an eating disorder or anxiety disorder.

7 Ways to Be Less Defensive

Dr. Daramus suggests some ways to be less defensive:

  • Listen: Listen to the person’s issues before you rush to defend yourself. Sometimes, just listening to the person can help them feel seen and validated.
  • Seek clarifications: If someone is accusing you of making a mistake, ask for clarifications so you understand what they’re accusing you of and how it’s affecting them.
  • Take responsibility: If you’ve done something wrong, own up to it and take responsibility for it. Treat it as an opportunity for personal or professional growth and try to learn from it.
  • Ask how you can help: Ask the other person what you can do to improve the situation. Be honest about what you can do to fix it. Don’t make promises you can’t keep for the sake of it.
  • Fix the problem: If it’s within your power to do something to fix the situation, do it and get the job done. For instance, if you're being called out for not washing the dishes, wash them instead of making excuses about why you didn’t.
  • Pay attention to your triggers: When you get defensive, ask yourself why and with whom you're feeling this way. It may also help to notice who you are comfortable with and why. If someone else's behavior is bringing out your defensiveness, is it possible to discuss how you can both do better?
  • Set boundaries: If the person is being harsh or disrespectful, you can set boundaries for the discussion, such as "I'm willing to talk about this, but I need it to be a calmer and more mutually respectful discussion. Let me know when you're ready.”

Benefits of Being Less Less Defensive 

Below, Dr. Daramus lists some of the benefits of being less defensive:

  • More effective problem-solving: Remember that defensiveness doesn't solve the actual problem. For instance, if your boss asks you to correct a mistake and you get defensive instead of solution-focused, it could prevent you from finding and fixing the problem. Being less defensive will help you solve problems more effectively.
  • Improved relationships: Being less defensive can help improve your relationships. Otherwise, maintaining successful relationships will be much harder if people can't rely on you to work together on relationship issues.
  • Better reputation: Research shows that people who are honest about their mistakes appear much more believable and trustworthy than people who try to defend themselves by deflecting blame.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I be less defensive at work?

    These are some ways to be less defensive at work:

    • Take your time to respond and reply calmly.
    • Ask for clarifications if you haven’t understood the person’s expectations.
    • Keep the focus on finding solutions rather than playing the blame game.
  • How can I be less defensive with my partner?

    These are some ways to be less defensive in a relationship:

    • Hear your partner out.
    • Try to see things from their perspective.
    • Accept your mistakes and work on them.
    • Remember that a relationship is not something you need to “win,” and trying to be right all the time may cause a breakup.

A Word From Verywell

If you often find yourself responding to uncomfortable situations with defensiveness, it can be helpful to become more aware of why you’re doing it and work on responding more honestly instead. 

If your tendency to be defensive is harming your relationships or your career, it can be helpful to talk to a mental healthcare provider who can help you develop healthier communication skills.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Di Giuseppe M, Perry JC. The hierarchy of defense mechanisms. Front Psychol. 2021;12:718440. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.718440

  3. Jamilian HR, Zamani N, Darvishi M, Khansari MR. Study of defensive methods and mechanisms in developmental, emotional (internalization), and disruptive behavior (externalization) disorders. Glob J Health Sci. 2014;6(7 Spec No):109-115. doi:10.5539/gjhs.v6n7p109

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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.