When someone comes to you with negative feedback, do you get defensive?
Do you automatically come up with reasons why you did something, building a case for the way you did it?
Do you shift the blame onto someone else?
Or does your heart start racing?
If this resonates, you are not alone. It is human to want to defend your choices, actions, and beliefs.
But defensiveness damages our relationships, which is why this episode is all about becoming more aware of defensive behavior and what you can do instead.
I am covering the signs and symptoms of defensiveness, why we get defensive in the first place, and seven strategies you can use to become less defensive.
Prefer the audio? Listen here.
What Does It Mean to Be Defensive?
I want to begin with one of my favorite quotes about defensiveness from one of my favorite therapists:
“Defensiveness is the arch enemy of connection and intimacy.” ~ Dr. Harriet Lerner
Dr. Lerner also says, “Defensiveness is the arch enemy of listening,” which it is.
According to the online dictionary, one definition of defensiveness is: “the quality of being anxious to challenge or to avoid criticism.” The example given is, “their supporters have reacted with defensiveness and hostility to the disclosure.”
The second definition is, “behavior intended to defend or protect.” The example listed is, “defensiveness of the hive was related to the size of the colony.”
As humans, our intent is to defend and protect – ourselves and our egos – by denying or refuting criticism. Becoming defensive helps us avoid feeling vulnerable, rejected, or wrong.
If you automatically become defensive when someone gives you negative feedback, you may be afraid of criticism or being told you are doing something incorrectly.
Defensiveness As a Physiological Experience
Another definition I love comes from Sharon Ellison: “To be defensive is to react with a war mentality to a non-war issue.”
When we feel threatened, our fight, flight, freeze, and fawn response gets activated and floods our system with adrenaline.
Defensiveness is not just a psychological or emotional experience, it is a physiological experience as well.
It is important to discern between being in actual, imminent danger and what our ego perceives as danger (being wrong, fearing embarrassment, looking foolish). We can feel physically activated and threatened in both situations, but if there is no imminent attack, we are, as Sharon says, responding with a war mentality to a non-war situation.
Being aware of this response can help you know when to self-regulate because even though it may feel like you are in mortal danger, you’re not.
Why Defensiveness Harms Relationships
You might be wondering, what is harmful about being defensive, anyway?
When you are regularly defensive, people stop wanting to share the truth about their experience of you with you.
It causes people to walk on eggshells around you, which does not invite deep and authentic conversations. Instead, it blocks intimacy.
There is a high cost to being defensive. It can make you feel lonely, even within your relationships.
The first step to becoming less defensive is wanting to be more open and seeking to understand why you feel defensive. You need to understand why you are the way you are, which we’ll cover below.
You also need to move from reacting to being consciously curious. Rather than going with your initial defensive reaction (which will block conversation), ask, “What happened to make me feel this way? What was said that inspired that reaction?”
Becoming proactive will help you curb your defensive reactions and stay calm enough to listen to what the other person has to say in the heat of the moment.
What Are the Symptoms + Signs of Defensiveness?
Before we dive into getting proactive with strategies, you need to develop self-awareness around defensiveness. Knowing when you are being defensive makes it easier to change your behavior and choose a different reaction.
Go through these signs of defensiveness and see how many you recognize in yourself:
#1: You list a series of points to justify your behavior.
I did this when I was an assistant at a talent agency in my early twenties.
I didn’t realize I was being defensive by telling my boss why I did something a certain way until he said, “Terri, I am not interested in why you did it your way. I am telling you the way I want you to do it, and your defensiveness is really unprofessional.”
I wanted to cry because my boss had just bawled me out, but he was 100% right.
This experience helped me recognize when I was being defensive, which helped me change my behavior.
(I learned a lot from this job and my talented boss, Scott Sedita, who is still in LA teaching acting and writing books. Shout out to Scott!)
Back to the signs of defensiveness…
#2: You stop listening to what the other person says.
#3: You blame other people. This might sound like, “You did not give me enough time!” or, “Well, Jenny did not do her part, which made my job harder.”
#4: You feel anxious the moment someone starts giving you feedback, almost like you are bracing yourself.
#5: You reply to most criticism with, “But…,” and want to list various excuses or reasons.
#6: You throw someone else under the bus. “Bob did not do his the ‘right’ way, either!”
#7: You become sarcastic to deflect feedback. “Oh, okay, Queen!”
#8: You use closed body language, like crossing your arms, toward the person giving you feedback, as if to say “Get lost.”
If you recognize yourself in any of these signs, don’t worry. You are in exactly the right place to learn how to become less defensive.
All of these signs and more can be found inside the guide, which you can download here. There is a checklist you can use to see just how defensive you are.
7 Strategies to Stop Being Defensive
Now that you’ve raised your awareness around defensive reactions and which ones you lean toward, let’s cover seven ways you can become less defensive today.
#1: Do An Inventory
One way to raise your awareness even further is to take an inventory of your relationships to discover how often and with whom you react defensively. Does anyone in particular come to mind?
I tend to want to defend myself around people whom I’ve known to be judgmental in the past. I feel threatened by them because I feel judged.
But I don’t assume other folks are judging me if they question how I did something, nor do I have negative feelings towards them.
#2: Reframe Feedback
I went from being defensive in my twenties to someone who has grown to love honest feedback.
For example, when you guys give me feedback, I trust that you are coming from a loving place.
Of course, there are trolls on the internet. Not every single person is well-meaning. But for the most part, I am happy to get feedback, especially if it is related to a course or workshop. I do not take it personally and it inspires me. I feel gratitude when people take the time to give feedback because I know it is easier for them not to.
Part of this is pivoting towards seeing feedback from people you respect as a good thing.
You want to be someone people can talk to and voice their needs with because this strengthens your relationships with others and yourself.
You can also reframe negative or critical feedback as a growth opportunity because it is. (As long as the person is not personally attacking you; be discerning about who is doing what and why.)
#3: Discover Your Defensiveness Blueprint
All of us have a defensiveness blueprint, especially if you are fairly defensive. You can get to the root of why by looking at how the adults in your life acted, reacted, and responded.
Were they defensive? Were they hypocritical of you? Were you punished if you made mistakes? Or were you regularly shamed?
You might naturally feel self-protective and become defensive when someone expresses anger, frustration, or disappointment with you if you experienced any of the above in childhood.
But you don’t want to project these unresolved or activated childhood injuries onto the people in your life.
If you do, it may be a sign those experiences need your attention. Journaling about them may help you realize now is not then.
Inside the guide, you will find a couple of questions to get more insight into your defensiveness blueprint.
#4: Understand Your Triggers
To go deeper into your defensiveness blueprint, focus on a few key people you know you get more defensive around, and ask the three Qs for greater clarity on the situation:
- Who does this person remind me of?
- Where have I felt like this before?
- Why or how is this behavioral dynamic familiar to me?
For example, the person you feel more defensive around may remind you of your critical or punitive father, which makes you more reactive.
In therapeutic terms, we would say you are having a transference to this person because your unresolved feelings from the past are fueling your reactivity to this person.
The 3 Qs will help you get clarity around the situation, and I’ve included them in the guide for easy reference.
#5: Raise Your Self-Esteem
The more secure you feel in yourself, the less defensive you are because you are less afraid to make mistakes.
The more you accomplish, the more solid you feel in yourself.
Here is a quick self-esteem boost if you need it: you have survived 100% of every horrible experience you’ve had. You are not fragile.
If this is something you need to work on, check out this blog for five tips you can use to create unshakeable self-confidence.
#6: Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation help us create space between our thoughts and our actions. Often, all we need is a two-second break to think, I do not have to be defensive. Maybe I could listen to this person instead.
Do a daily meditation, 10 minutes a day, whenever you can consistently fit it in. I have a bunch of free guided meditations on Insight Timer (which is a great mindfulness app in general).
#7: Listen to Learn
We want to listen with an open mind to the people whose opinions we value.
I do not let every person in my life give me critical feedback. I am not necessarily open to negative feedback if I do not know the person or if I am not seeking input. Not because I am defensive, but because I am discerning and life is just too short to worry about what everyone thinks.
Having boundaries helps us be discerning. As a guideline, listen to the opinions of those you respect, of those who truly care about you, and of those you care about, with the intent to learn.
Plus, it is much easier to take critical feedback when you know it is from a loving source.
I hope this episode of The Terri Cole Show added value to your life or inspired an “aha” moment. If this lessened your suffering and increased your joy, let me know on Instagram (@terricole) or in the comments below. I hope you have an amazing week and as always, take care of you.
P.S. The Boundary Boss Workbook is available for pre-order right now! I am still a new author, and we need to show bookstores you guys care about boundaries and my work. The best way to show support is to buy a bunch of gifts for people for Christmas and have them all be The Boundary Boss Workbook. 🤣 Go to boundarybossworkbook.com for all the details, including the three bonuses available until October 31!