Defensiveness: How to let go of your armor

by | Dec 2, 2017 | Defensiveness

Do you feel bad if somebody gives you less-than-positive feedback? Do you automatically deny, resist, deflect, or counter with arguments?

If so, this is blocking growth in your relationships.

Don’t worry, defensiveness comes from a place of survival. You’re probably only trying to protect yourself from a perceived attack on your self and your “reputation.”

What feels like judgment by people we care about hurts.  So if you get defensive, it means you’re a fighter, which is good!

The problem is that defensiveness assumes you are being transgressed and justifies the victim role.  It feels totally understandable, and so becomes insidious and habitual.

You may not even know you are doing it. But if you really think about it, you realize it only escalates conflict, and NEVER solves problems.  In fact, chronic defensiveness is a sure sign of decline in any relationship, because it blocks empathy and puts you in opposition to your partner.

Highly respected researcher Dr. John Gottman found defensiveness to be one of the top four accurate predictors of divorce in married couples. He does a fantastic job of identifying the defensive maneuvers most often used by couples.

See if any of these common defensive tactics apply to you:

  • Denying responsibility: You take this approach when you know it wasn’t your fault: “I never said I would.”  “I didn’t do anything wrong.” “I can only do so much.”  “That’s not my job.”
  • Making excuses: You do this because there is a good reason why you did (or didn’t do) whatever is called into question. “There was bad traffic.” “I couldn’t because my boss called and it took awhile.”
  • Disagreeing with negative mind-reading: This is when your partner makes unflattering and just plain wrong assumptions about your feelings or motives. You argue with exasperation or respond with a lack of generosity/reassurance.
  • Cross complaining: This is when your partner does something just as bad as what you feel accused of. When they say: “I wish you would have done the dishes like you said you would,” you say  “Well I wish you would not leave your clothes on the floor.”
  • Rubber Man/Rubber Woman: (from the expression “I’m rubber you’re glue: whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”):  This is when your partner does the exact same thing they are accusing you of!  When they say: “You didn’t call and I worried about you.”  You say “well, how about when you drive like a maniac, is that any different?”  This is turning the tables.
  • Yes-butting: This is approach gets used when you know they are right, but you have a morally justifiable reason that outweighs your transgression. “Yes I know I didn’t pay that bill,  but I was waiting for you to make a deposit.”
  • Repeating yourself: You do this because if they would just hear you, they will be convinced of your point. You keep rephrasing your point of view, perhaps more loudly each time, not really responding to what they are saying.
  • Whining: This is self-explanatory. But you can also whine without the sound, by acting like the victim and feeling sorry for yourself, like “why are you picking on me!?”
  • Body language: This is for when you are above verbal defenses. You keep your arms folded across the chest, give a false smile, or shifting your body from side to side. Women, you touch your neck.

 What can you do to break these patterns?

I personally have  been known to use some of these maneuvers in my relationship, and so have some of my clients.

Here is what I have found to be most useful in avoiding defensiveness:

  1. The first thing is to just be aware of the above techniques, and which ones you tend to use. Notice when you start doing it, even if it’s after the fact. You will get better at stopping yourself in time.
  2. When you feel criticized, try paraphrasing your partner’s statement in a neutral tone. Acknowledge their feelings but don’t rush to defend. Offer an alternative to address the complaint. Your partner can be disarmed by a rational response, and will see you as a , not sparring, partner. Remember you are actually safer when you lower your defenses because your partner becomes your ally.
  3. Try to find the truth in the statement that triggered your defensiveness. There will always be some basis of reality, even if small.
  4. You can defend yourself without being defensive. Lowering your defenses does not mean letting yourself be attacked. You can describe your reality and honor yourself: “No that wasn’t my intention,” or “That is not how I experienced it.” Rather than countering, you are simply sharing your point of view. Even if the current situation isn’t emotionally safe to share your response, trust your own perception.

If you think your partner is the one with a defensiveness problem, first make sure you are not triggering their defenses (see my blog on criticism). And if your partner still responds defensively, know the tactics and don’t get pulled in. For example, if your partner turns the tables on you, recognize it. And rather than defending yourself, stop and don’t let the subject be changed.

If you can’t make any headway, just disengage.  Cooling off lowers everyone’s defenses.

What have you found that helps you be less defensive? Let me know your thoughts below!


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