On Being Defensive



"People don't get defensive unless they have something to defend."

One of my mentors taught me this and it is so very true.  What does it mean to "get defensive"?

The dictionaory defines defensive as "a state or posture of defense".  It is a reaction to someone else that comes from anxiety, fear, guilt or insecurity.  Defensiveness is an emotional response rather than a logical one.  Someone has hit a nerve.  Someone has pushed a button.  And off you go.  You are reacting rather than acting.  Look at the last time you snapped at someone, withdrew into a deadly silence, or played the blame game.  You were probably being defensive.  Defensiveness is an overreaction to the actions of another.  It's taking things personally which are not.

Why do people get defensive?

People can get defensive for a variety of reasons and I cannot possibly cover all of them here.  But I will cover some of the broader reasons and give some specific examples.  Some of the more common reasons are;  denial, guilt, insecurity, fear or trauma.  Usually, defensiveness comes from feeling unsafe or threatened.  If someone feels attacked, unfairly criticized or judged they may snap.

If you are guilty of something (i.e. cheating on your diet) and someone accuses you of it, you may snap on them while at the same time trying to deny it.  This is what my mentor referred to when she said, "they have something to defend".  It can also occur when someone is in denial.  This is closely linked to guilt.  If a Maria has convinced herself that no one can tell when she is high and someone mentions she looks high, she may snap at them. 

Insecurity can result in defensiveness.  If I am really pathetic at math problems and really sensitive about it, someone pointing out that my math really stinks might get an earful.  People who grew up in very hypercritical families may become defensive if you point out a mistake they made.  People who are overweight and feel really awful about it may snap if you mention their weight.  I'm reminded of the late Michael Jackson and his brothers taunting him with the name, "Big Nose".  As an adult, I imagine Jackson would have been very sensitive about his nose and likely would have snapped at anyone who mentioned it. He definitely became defensive when people suggested he had plastic surgery on it.

People who have been traumatized or who happen to be very fearful can also snap on you if you put them in what they perceive as a threatening or dangerous position.  If someone has been hurt by another person, leaning over them, backing them into a corner, coming up behind them or causing a loud noise around them may cause them to lash out.  If it is a man who was traumatized he may be hypersensitive to any comments about his masculinity or sexuality.  If it is a woman who was raped or molested she may be overly sensitive to any comments which may be interpreted as seductive or having sexual overtones.

It's important to realize that the defensiveness lies within the person themselves, not in what is being said to them.  Obviously this doesn't apply to someone who is being verbally abused, criticized unfairly, manipulated, etc.  Defensiveness is when you make a simple observation of fact and are met with an emotional lashing out.

Example 1:

I was working with a domestic violence survivor.  She was talking about the things which set her ex-husband off.  He had lied to her about his name when they originally met.  She asked him about it later and he jumped down her throat.  She later found out he had lied about his name because he had warrants out for his arrest.  He jumped down her throat (an overreaction to a simple question about his behavior) because he was guilty (of trying to delude her).

Example 2:

I once had a boss who would become very defensive at any criticism or perceived challenge to his authority.  He felt it implied he was incompetent.  Why did he get so defensive?  Because he was incompetent.  And anyone questioning him tapped into this insecurity and made him snap.

What are some signs of defensiveness?  Many of these behavior may indicate different emotions in different situations.  People being what they are, defensiveness can be expressed in as many different ways as there people to feel it.  But here are some general suggestions.

    Making excuses
    Blaming (circumstances, bad luck, other people)
    Explaining ad nauseum
    Withdrawing into The Silent Treatment
    Loss of humor
    All-or-nothing thinking
    Being oversensitive

What can you do if someone in your life is defensive?

Back off and give them room.  People are usually defensive because they feel vulnerable, so making them feel safe is paramount.  Don't attack, label, judge or keep after them when they are defensive.

Examine your own behavior.  Were you intentionally being snide or hurtful?  Were you doing unintentionally being snide or hurtful?  Sometimes we accidentally hit a button we don't know about.  Other times we hit a person below the belt because we are angry with them about something and secretly want to get back at them.  Be very clear of what is going on with you before you decide the defensive person is totally in the wrong.

If you are clear you are not at fault, examine the relationship.  Is this person important to you,  someone with whom you have only a passing acquaintance or a clerk in a store?   If it is someone you care about it is worth the time and trouble of helping them to feel safe so they can talk about it.  Keep in mind that you are not responsible for their feelings.  But you can be supportive and negotiate with them to determine how to handle the situation in the future.  If the person is a clerk you will never see again, let it go and move on.  It is their problem.  Leave it with them.  Don't let it mess up your wonderful day.

Some important things to remember about defensiveness:

1. People often react to what they think you said instead of what you actually said.  

2. Some people cannot tolerate making mistakes and will get defensive if accused.

3. People who are defensive are often hypercritical of other people in an attempt to direct criticism away from themselves.  

4. Defensive people will spend an enormous amount of energy explaining why a mistake was not their fault.  Do you really want to spend precious minutes of your life this way just to try to win an argument (which you won't)?

5. If a defensive person feels continued criticism they may react like someone who is cornered and lash out in a hurtful way with insults, name calling or hitting below the belt.

6. Defensive people may become completely irrational in their attempts to deflect perceived blame or criticism.   You may find yourself locked into a argument of, "Did not, did not!"

Arguing with people who are already defensive is an exercise in futility.  It only increases their feelings of being attacked and heightens their defensiveness.  Be aware that you have hit a hurt somewhere, no matter how badly they behave, and try to back off and give them room to breathe and time to calm down.  At a later date, when they are calm, talk to them about what they thought they heard you say and see if you can clarify what you were actually saying.  When they are calm it may be possible to negotiate a way to handle future situations.


Two male friends negotiated a way of handling subjects which were sensitive or hurtful.  If one hit a topic that was emotionally charged, painful or uncomfortable, the other would say, "Geneva" and that topic would be locked in a Swiss bank account, not to be touched.

This is a great way to start.  It makes the sensitive person feel safer and more likely to talk about it later.  It's absolutely crucial that whatever is agreed upon be healthy and that both parties honor it.


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