What Is Defensiveness?

Woman being defensive at work.

Getty / SDI Productions / Getty Images

What Is Defensiveness?

Defensiveness refers to both a feeling and a behavior. The feeling is typically elicited when you feel as though someone is being critical or you, and results in shame, sadness, and anger.

In turn, behavior usually results from the feeling, such as being sarcastic, giving someone the silent treatment, or being critical in return.

Purpose of Defensiveness

Defensive behaviors have the purpose of distracting you from your feelings of being hurt and feeling shamed. The objective (whether you realize it or not) is to shift attention to the faults of the other person, so that in turn you feel better about yourself in the moment.

While defensive behaviors might help you to feel better in the short term, in the long term they generally result in you feeling worse.

As you point out the flaws in the other person to avoid feeling attacked, you end up making the other person defensive as well. This results in a vicious cycle of back-and-forth defensive behavior that neither of you saw coming (or probably even understand).

Signs You Are Defensive

Are you unsure whether you have been engaging in defensive behavior? Defensiveness can be hard to recognize when it is coming from within. Let’s take a look at some of the common signs that you might be acting in a defensive way.

When you feel criticized, do you engage in any of the following behaviors? Read through the list and see if any resonate with you:

  • Stop listening to the other person.
  • Make excuses about whatever you are being criticized about.
  • Blame the other person for what they are criticizing you about.
  • Accuse the other person of doing the same thing.
  • Try to justify your actions.
  • Bring up past things that the other person did wrong and avoid talking about the current issue.
  • Tell the other person that they should not feel the way that they do.

Causes of Defensiveness

If you have started to recognize defensiveness in yourself, you might be wondering why it started, what caused it, and what might be underlying it. 

Below are some of the typical causes or origins of being defensive:

  • A reaction to feeling insecure or fearful. For example, if you were bullied as a child, you might turn into a bully yourself to feel more powerful in the moment by creating an illusion of security.
  • A reaction to early childhood trauma or abuse. Once again, being defensive is a way to feel more powerful.
  • A reaction to anxiety or inability to be assertive. If you lack the skills to communicate in an assertive way, or feel anxious socially, this might translate into defensive behavior.
  • A reaction to shame or guilt. If you are feeling guilty about something and someone else brings up a related topic, then you might respond in a defensive manner.
  • A reaction to hiding the truth. You may become defensive if you are trying to hide the truth about something or lying.
  • A reaction to attacks on your character or behavior. If you feel as though you need to justify actions you have taken or some aspect of your character, then you may respond in a defensive manner.
  • A reaction to feeling helpless to change. If someone points out a part of you that you want to change but feel helpless about, then you may respond in a defensive manner.
  • A symptom of a mental health disorder. Sometimes, defensiveness is part of a larger mental health problem such as a personality disorder, eating disorder, etc.
  • A learned behavior. Defensiveness can also be something that you learn from a parent or spouse, as a way of relating to others.

In general, being defensive is usually the result of psychosocial causes rather than biological or chemical causes. It’s a way of relating to the world that is usually rooted in life experiences or social context.

Types of Defensiveness

Now that you know about the signs of being defensive, you might also be wondering if there are different types of defensiveness.

In fact, there are a number of different styles of being defensive. See if any of the following types of defensiveness resonate with you:

  • Ad hominem attack: Attacking the other person in some way to discredit them.
  • Bringing up the past: Reminding the other person of when they made a mistake in the past.
  • Silent treatment: Not speaking to someone in order to get back at them for criticizing you.
  • Gaslighting: Making the other person question their sanity or memory by denying doing things or lying about doing things. This usually involves insinuating that the other person is being irrational or not thinking clearly.
  • Blaming/aggression: Shifting the blame to the other person for whatever you are being criticized about.
  • Righteous indignation: Acting as though you should not be questioned on this topic for some reason (e.g., saying that you work hard and that is an excuse for not spending time with family).
  • Innocent victim: Agreeing with the criticism but then crying and blaming yourself in order to make the other person feel guilty and elicit sympathy (and prevent further critiques).

Impact of Defensiveness

If you have a problem with becoming defensive, then you know that it can have a negative impact on your life. Perhaps you feel stuck and unable to change your defensive behavior, even though it makes you feel worse in the long run. 

Below are some of the negative impacts that acting defensively can have on your life:

  • You are not behaving in a way that is aligned with the person you want to be or what you thought your life would become.
  • You end up making other people feel bad without the intention to do so and this makes you feel even worse.
  • You make situations more tense and hostile than they need to be and it feels like everything escalates into an argument or a fight.
  • You end up feeling like an outcast and that you don’t fit in with anyone no matter where you go.
  • You end up feeling worse because of your defensive behavior.
  • Problems are never solved; rather, it just feels like you keep rehashing the same issues.
  • Over time, your goodwill and empathy toward others has been eroded.
  • You end up in situations of stonewalling, where other people refuse to change because of your defensive behavior.
  • Overall, you feel negative a lot of the time and have lost your ability to see the positive in anything in your life.

How to Be Less Defensive

Are you wondering how to be less defensive? There are a number of strategies and coping techniques that you can employ to help you feel less defensive, which will result in you behaving in a less defensive way. Below are some ideas to get you started on a path toward being less defensive.

Become Aware of Your Defensiveness

The first step to stopping your defensive behavior is to actually become aware of when it is happening. It’s easy to avoid confronting your behavior or acknowledging that you are behaving in a defensive manner.

Instead, try to pay attention in the moment to how you are feeling and how you react to others. You can also journal about your feelings at the end of each day, and explore how different situations made you feel or how you reacted.

Validate Your Feelings

Once you have started to notice when you become defensive, it’s important to start validating your feelings when you are criticized. The simple act of acknowledging that you feel hurt, worried, ashamed, fearful, or insecure can help to defuse the situation.

Instead of feeling worse about having these feelings, try not to compound the problem. Instead, acknowledge the feelings so that you do not become hyper focused on them.

Avoid Acting on Your Feelings

As you validate your feelings of being hurt or feeling ashamed, and show compassion toward yourself for how you are feeling, you can also acknowledge the fact that you don’t need to act upon the impulse to react defensively.

While it might make sense that you feel defensive, that doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to take action. Instead, you can show yourself compassion for how you are feeling, and recognize that everyone feels this way from time to time.

Choose to Align Yourself with Your Values

Is acting defensively lining up with how you want to be as a person? If not, it’s time to get clear on how you want to behave. When you feel as though you are becoming defensive, how would the best version of yourself handle the situation? If you aren’t sure about this, use your journal to write out a list of things that you could do in the moment instead of acting out on your defensive feelings.

Below are some ideas of actions that you could take that would prevent you from acting defensively in the future:

  • Tell the other person how their comments make you feel and why you feel hurt
  • Behave assertively and ask for respect from the other person regardless of what criticism they choose to offer
  • Stay on topic and discuss solutions to the problem rather than getting sidetracked

Anticipate When You Are Likely to Become Defensive

Do you have a good idea of when you are most likely to become defensive? Perhaps it’s around a certain person or in a certain situation. The best thing that you can do is to make a list of the situations that are more likely to cause you to become defensive.

Feeling caught off guard or surprised by someone can make it more likely that you will react defensively. Therefore, if you can anticipate when it is more likely to happen, you can plan how to show compassion to yourself as well as how you would like to react.

Boost Your Self Esteem

If there are specific issues or areas of your life about which you are more likely to become defensive, then it may be helpful to do things that make you feel more confident or boost your self esteem.

For example, if you feel badly when someone brings up your physical health, you might feel more confident if you already know that you are doing everything possible to be the healthiest version of yourself.

See a Therapist

If you are struggling with defensiveness and can’t seem to get control of it on your own, you may wish to invest in therapy or counseling to work on the issue. This could be particularly helpful if you are experiencing defensiveness in your relationship.

In fact, you could even attend couples counseling to work on your communication as a couple.

Take Responsibility

Instead of immediately reacting to your feelings of being hurt or feeling criticized, you could try taking responsibility for whatever part you might be responsible for in the situation.

For example, if you were asked to do something and did not do it, you could respond by saying, “You’re right, I should have done that. I apologize.”

Acknowledging that you play some role in the problem will help to defuse the situation and allow you to work together with the other person to solve the issue.

Improve Your Communication Skills

Another way to manage defensiveness is to improve your communication skills. If you know a particular topic always makes you feel hurt or angry, it’s acceptable to tell the other person that you don’t want to discuss it unless the goal is finding a solution.

Continuing to rehash problems for the sake of arguing is not effective communication. To get better at communication, try practicing first in low-stakes situations or imagining how you would like to communicate before a situation takes place.

Imagine yourself staying calm and collected while you discuss a problem, instead of reacting defensively.

How to Stop Making Other People Defensive

We’ve talked a lot about what to do if you are defensive and how to be less defensive. On the other hand, you may wish to know how to stop making other people react in a defensive way.

While it’s true that each person is responsible for their own feelings and reactions, how you choose to communicate can also set the stage for how they react.

Let’s take a look at some ways to prevent defensive behavior in those around you.

Make Requests, Don’t Criticize

Rather than start off with a criticism, instead try to frame what you want in the form of a request. Do this by expressing something positive that you need from the other person.

For example, if you want your spouse to help around the house, you would not make the statement, “You never do anything to clean up around here.” Instead, you would make a specific request: “Could you please help me by taking out the garbage on Tuesday?” or “Could you help me by vacuuming the carpets on Saturday?”

In one case, it sounds like you just want to complain. In the other case, there is a clear goal to your communication and an easy way for the other person to comply. If you want to further reduce the risk of the other person being defensive, add something to the end of your request such as, “It would be a great help to me,” or “I would really appreciate the help.”

Stop Trying to Control the Other Person

If you are trying to control the other person, this is likely to lead to a defensive reaction. Remember that you are responsible for your own behavior and your own reactions; the other person does not need to behave in a certain way to make you feel better.

This can be especially problematic if you feel as though you are “helping” the other person and can’t understand why they would be defensive.

Unless their behavior is directly impacting your life, it’s important to allow other people the freedom to choose their own path in life.

Acknowledge Your Own Failings

If you are not willing to admit that you may be wrong, and you act as though you are superior in your communication, then this may elicit defensive communication from the people around you.

Above all else, it is important to be aware of and acknowledge your own failings. This not only makes you seem more affable and humble, but it removes the defenses of the other person who feels like they are being attacked for their own problems.

Acknowledging that everyone has problems is the surest route to better communication.

Avoid Being Judgmental

Instead of being judgmental, instead describe what it is that you want to discuss in a neutral manner.

For example, if your neighbor is playing loud music, ask for the music to be turned down instead of offering judgment about what the neighbor is doing. Direct communication will always be received better than judgmental attitude.

Express Concern and Empathy

Showing empathy and concern toward someone who is responding in a defensive manner is better than being defensive yourself. As you’ve learned, being defensive is a result of feeling ashamed, hurt, guilty, attacked, etc.

If a person is feeling this way, responding with further criticism is likely to end only in stonewalling or an argument. Instead, show empathy and concern for the situation that the other person is experiencing. There’s a reason why they call it “disarming” someone with your charm. 

Be a Problem Solver

Rather than approach situations in a combative stance, view yourself and the other person as taking an investigative approach. Consider and weigh all viewpoints and try to reach a resolution to the problem together.

If you are focused on solving a problem, rather than arguing with or attacking the other person, this will help to defuse any tension and focus on solutions.

How to Respond to a Defensive Person

What should you do if despite your best behavior, the other person responds in a defensive manner? Below are some tips on how to cope and defuse this situation when you are faced with a defensive person.

  • Ignore the other person’s defensiveness and focus on problem solving and good communication even if it feels hard.
  • Remain calm even if you feel like becoming defensive in return (as this won't solve anything)
  • Find something that you can agree on before trying to problem solve so that you start on common ground.

Overcoming Defensive Behavior in the Long-Term

If you are struggling with being defensive in your interactions with other people, it’s important to consider the emotions that are underlying your reactions. It’s possible that you don’t recognize that you are in fact hurt, angry, sad, ashamed, or feeling belittled when you react defensively.

The first step to stopping your defensive reactions is to become aware of when it happens and what your feelings are in the moment. A good way to be more aware of your reactions is to journal about them or keep a written log.

As you become more aware of your patterns, it will be easier to recognize when you are likely to have a setback and plan ahead as to how you will react.

Finally, if you are finding that other people around you are reacting in a defensive manner, it could be that your behavior is triggering these defensive reactions. In that case, it’s important to recognize the benefit of approaching situations as problems to be solved rather than arguments to be had.

Being able to offer empathy and respect to those around you will also go a long way to avoiding the trap of reciprocal defensiveness.

A Word From Verywell

Defensiveness is a learned behavior, meaning that it can also be unlearned. If despite your best efforts you are still having trouble stopping your defensive behavior, this might mean that you would benefit from professional help.

Don’t hesitate to speak to a therapist, counselor, or other mental health professional. This could mean the difference for you in terms of improving your communication skills and managing your defensive reactions.

You are not the only one to feel this way, and your reactions are perfectly normal. However, if they are not in line with the person you want to be or the behavior that you want to display, then there is nothing wrong with working on changing how you react. You and everyone around you will benefit as a result of taking this action.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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.
  1. Davey L. Are You Being Defensive?

  2. Woodfellow D. Why Do People Get So Defensive?

  3. Wignall N. Defensiveness: How it Works and What to Do About It