“You’re being defensive!” If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these words, you know that the last thing that you feel like doing upon hearing them is to drop your guard and open your heart. Ironically, that’s probably exactly what the person delivering these words is trying to get you to do.
If you weren’t being defensive before you heard this accusation (and it is usually spoken accusatorially), you almost surely will be after hearing it. Defensiveness is a natural response to the perception of a physical or emotional threat. We can’t help but feel the impulse to protect ourselves under such circumstances. Over time, with practice, we can learn to replace unskillful forms of self-protection with those that are more effective. This is, as you may have noticed easier said than done. While many self-help books warn of the perils of getting defensive or provoking defensiveness in others, they often fail to acknowledge how incredibly difficult it can be to eliminate the tendency towards defensiveness.
The impulse to defend ourselves when we feel provoked, attacked or criticized by someone, particularly someone with whom we have an intimate relationship, is strong. It may seem out of proportion to the perceived offense, or even irrational. That is because the words or behavior to which we are reacting may be activating previous unhealed emotional wounds from which we haven’t fully recovered. When our “hot buttons” are triggered, we can feel possessed by emotions that are usually kept beneath our conscious awareness, through a range of protective mechanisms. Unfortunately, there are consequences to keeping these experiences outside of our awareness. They include many forms of dis-ease and distress that impact our health and the health of our relationships. Until we can come to terms with our past, unresolved experiences, they remain “incompletions” that we feel compelled to avoid. Thus they continue to block our creative energy, inhibit our capacity to experience intimacy, and cause us to live with an ongoing, low-level of anxiety resulting from a fear of exposing undesirable feelings. Contrary to the advice given in many self-help books, it’s usually not possible to simply “let go” of the past. Until we identify the roots of our reactive patterns, we continue to be enslaved by them. The best way to recognize that which we need to see, but have been committed to avoiding, is by being in a close relationship.
Committed relationships by their very nature will activate our deepest longings, greatest fears, and most intense emotions, primarily because it is within these chosen partnerships that our greatest hopes lie. Our desires may be unknown or unspoken not only to our partner, but even to ourselves. Our expectations may be irrational or impossible for a mortal human being to meet. We may feel entitled to having them fulfilled and become enraged when our partner “betrays” us by failing to live up to what we had believed we had been promised. No one in our life holds the power that we project on to a life partner. Consequently when we feel disappointed by them, the pain can be overwhelming. One of the ways in which we may attempt to avoid or minimize this pain is by trying to control their behavior in various ways. Defensiveness is one such example of control.
Defensiveness can take a variety of forms including; intimidation, withdrawal, blaming, interrupting, counterattacking, guilt-tripping, justifying, explaining, invalidation, rationalizing, pleading, and cajoling, to name a few. Ironically, engaging in controlling practices only adds fuel to the fire when differences are being expressed, intensifying the conditions that often initiate conflict in the first place.
The solution to this impasse is not so much about changing our behavior as it is about changing the perspective from which we view a given situation. As long as we see our interaction as a breakdown between ourselves and our partner we will feel the need to “correct” the other person so that our anxiety will diminish or disappear. This will inevitably provoke the desire in the other person to react to our controlling efforts and before you know it, and we’re off and running. As many of us know from experience, this cycle can continue and deepen, often with very unpleasant results. We can interrupt this pattern by shifting our perspective from that of a victim to that of a responsible agent who has the power to defuse a potentially volatile situation, and responding with compassion and respect rather than coercion or accommodation.
The habit of defensiveness is not one that easily dissolves, even when we possess a commitment to neutralizing our old emotional buttons. Knowing what “you need to do” is not always enough to do it. Our conflicting commitments, such as those to control things, to seek approval, to protect ourselves, to be right, or any one of a myriad of others, often override our willingness to be vulnerable, honest, and transparent. Yet despite these concerns and conflicting desires, it IS possible for anyone, or any couple, to interrupt the defensive patterns that tend to show up, particularly in our relationships. Yes, it does take effort, time, and courage to expose our vulnerable emotional underbelly in the face of fear. But regardless of the outcome, in the process we can become more loving and lovable, and in so doing greatly enhance the likelihood of creating the relationship and life of our dreams.
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Last reviewed: 4 Jul 2013