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10 Tips for How to Overcome Being Defensive

Learning how to spot the signs of your own defensive behavior is key to overcoming poor responses.

While there are many things that can cause a defensive response, it’s important to recognize that defensive behavior can show up in many different forms.  From facial expressions, tone of voice and body language on up through snappy comebacks and unfortunate yelling matches, a defensive attitude can manifest itself in many ways – but all ways typically lead to uncomfortable situations.

We have all had moments where we feel personally attacked but before engaging with any knee-jerk reaction or defensive behavior, it’s beneficial to pause and gain a better understanding of what is really happening.

The more self-awareness you can create around how you handle things like constructive criticism, negative feedback, different perspectives or navigating difficult conversations, the better chance you have of improving your own reactions and responses.

Characteristics of Defensive People

Even with the best intentions, it can be entirely natural to have a defensive reaction every now and then.  But ongoing defensive behavior can sometimes be marginalized, causing behavioral blind spots.  You may demonstrate aspects of defensive behavior yet not realize it because you are not aware.  A deeper level of awareness comes with the ability to reflect. A deeper level of awareness comes with the ability to reflect.

The list below highlights some characteristics of the typical defensive person:

  • Quick to make excuses for behavior
  • Not open to constructive or critical feedback
  • Trouble accepting responsibility for actions
  • Often perceives healthy criticism as a threat

Being able to reflect on your own behavior is the first step towards overcoming defensiveness.  Understanding how you typically respond and where you have room to improve will help you focus your efforts appropriately and work on your most relevant issues.

Effects of Defensive Behavior

From the moment your defensive response is ignited, you begin to lose your ability to take in new information and effectively listen to the other person.  Negative emotions take over and trigger a defense mechanism that shuts down your receptiveness, leaving you open to misperceptions and creating uncomfortable situations.  

The laser focus is on reacting, rather than trying to understand a different perspective, keep an open mind and respond in a more appropriate manner. 

In the absence of effective communication, defensive behavior can take over and negatively impact several aspects of your life including:

Your ability to cultivate healthy relationships – whether it’s regarding romantic relationships or professional relationships, the need for healthy connections is key for your growth and development.  If you tend to be a defensive partner, those types of communication patterns may cause your intimate relationships to suffer.  From a professional perspective, you may not be seen as a team player if you can’t accept constructive feedback in a productive way.  

Your mental health – spending time locked into a defensive posture or focused on defensive feelings can increase stress levels, promote negative emotions, and trigger anxiety.  It can also decrease your ability to see things in a more positive light or process conflict in a healthy way.

Your capacity to welcome a growth mindset – if you feel you need a suit of armor to receive constructive feedback or view it as a perceived attack, you are missing out on the learnings that bloom from different perspectives. 

If your natural response or initial reaction is to consistently present in a defensive way, the emotional and mental costs that accumulate over time will hinder you from developing healthy relationships, take a toll on your mental well-being and block overall personal growth.

10 Ways to Overcome Being Defensive

The good news is that there are many effective ways to start overcoming defensive behavior. The most important thing is to recognize you have room for positive change and to accept that there is a different way to handle certain situations.

The easiest way to start is to read through the list below and begin to get a good idea of which techniques feel most comfortable for you. 

1. Breathe

The best way to intentionally pause defensive behavior is to take a deep breath, or series of deep breaths.  The deliberate act of pausing to focus on taking a breath allows you a moment to reevaluate and reset.  Many therapists suggest using the STOPP exercise in conjunction with deep breathing.  STOPP is a simple, yet effective mindfulness technique that is commonly practiced in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

STOPP is an acronym that stands for:

Stop (deliberately pause for a moment).

Take a breath to calm and gather yourself.

Observe (your thoughts, behaviors, body sensations, and feelings. What are you reacting to?)

Pull back and gain perspective (what would an outside observer see in this moment, is there another way to look at this, what would I advise someone else to do in this moment, how important is this in 6 months or 1 year from now).

Proceed (to act mindfully on any action that you have decided to take, what actions align with your values?).

2. Practice active listening

Effective communication starts with active listening.  Seek to understand the other person’s perspective on a deeper level more than focusing on defending yourself. There are times when others just want to be heard.  It’s not about you, it’s about them.  Perhaps they are looking for validation or maybe they just want someone to understand their point of view.  Understanding and acknowledging someone else’s perspective doesn’t necessarily mean you agree.  Rather, it provides an opportunity for you to respond from a calmer, more empathetic place.  Sometimes a simple, “I hear what you are saying,” is enough to diffuse the discussion and bring everyone down a notch.

3. Set boundaries

No matter the setting, work or personal, there is no room for disrespectful behavior.  If someone is addressing you in a harsh or vulgar manner, then get specific with boundaries for the discussion.  Sometimes the only way to do this is to be direct and blunt.  Let the other person know, “I’m willing to speak about this, but in a calmer way. So please let me know when you’re ready.” Or “I would be happy to have a constructive conversation that is respectful.  Let’s schedule some time on the calendar if it can’t be done now.”

4. Assess your desired outcome

When emotions are running high it’s easy to forget what really matters.  Of course, what is being said may bother you, but at the end of the day how much does the issue itself mean to you?  Before you give in to a potential knee-jerk reaction, take a moment and ask yourself what outcome are you hoping for or what is the significance of the result that you want?

Think about what you want from the conversation or situation and what actions will support you in getting there.  In some cases, it may be letting it go and walking away.  In other cases, the issue may hold greater significance and that alone may be enough to remind you of what behaviors will be most helpful.

5. Cultivate a growth mindset

Feedback is often a learning opportunity and not a personal attack.  There are times when others share information to be helpful, not hurtful.  The way in which you perceive that information is critical to how you process it and what you choose to do with it. Hence, giving yourself the opportunity to cultivate a growth mindset. All feedback is valuable, even negative feedback, so be open-minded and invite different perspectives. Ask yourself what you might be able to learn from the other person or situation.  Channeling your energy into self-improvement, rather than expending it on defending yourself, is a surefire way to help move forward and achieve personal growth.

6. Accept responsibility

There are also times when you are at fault, and it is important to accept responsibility rather than make excuses.  If it is within your ability or power to fix the situation or issue, then do so.  Making mistakes, forgetting to do things, or even hurting someone else’s feelings are all a part of life.  Even in the case of something being unintentional, the best course of action is to make it right and own up to it.  Making excuses only makes things worse and does nothing to right the wrong.

7. Practice positive self-talk

Defensive behavior can be a sign of low self-esteem or the result of feeling inadequate.  But often, our own limiting beliefs can reinforce these feelings.  Practicing positive self-talk, using daily affirmations, is a great way to work on building confidence and increase self-esteem.  Infusing positive affirmations into your daily routine can help to defeat limiting beliefs and leave you more open to receiving feedback.

8. Know your core values

Identifying and understanding your core personal values helps you stay true to yourself.  Knowing what you stand for is especially key in times of conflict.  Giving yourself a quick values check can be a simple way to refocus and rebalance.  Your core values give you a sense of direction and steer you towards the best course of action, decisions and choices that are aligned with your inner principles and goals. 

9. Improve your communication skills

A person’s behavior is communicated in tons of different ways – through their body language, the words they choose, the tone they speak in, their listening skills and even their actions.  Becoming more aware of your own communication patterns and behaviors is a good place to focus when you feel that defensive mechanism kick in.  Do a quick assessment of how you are standing and what type of eye contact you are giving.  Is it indicating an open mind and someone who is ready to listen to understand?  Consciously think about the words you choose.  Avoid starting the sentence with “you” and chose the begin your statements with “I” instead.

10. Reset yourself daily

Carve out dedicated time each day to practice self-care.  Developing a daily self-care routine goes a long way towards improving overall well-being and cultivating calm temperaments.  Incorporating moments of mindfulness into your day with techniques like journaling, deep breathing, or meditation can help you process uncomfortable emotions in a healthy way and make you less likely to take it out on someone else.

Steps towards personal growth

Overcoming defensive behavior takes awareness and a long term commitment toward personal growth but it can be done!  It may not be a simple process but the next time you feel your defenses begin to fire up, pause and give one of the above techniques a try.  It is natural to make mistakes and have setbacks along the way, but each time you replace a defensive response with a more positive practice you are taking a step towards a better version of yourself.