Defensiveness is acting out or taking actions to avoid a situation or dodge the emotions; it is a reaction to when we feel threatened. Everyone gets defensive, it is human nature, but when the intensity and frequency reach a red zone, relationships – personal and professional- can be negatively affected.
It is a hindrance in the communication and diminishes or eliminates the meaning of the conversation, leaving both ends feeling ignored and unheard. Defensiveness is usually practiced to avoid the consequences and responsibility of action because they are too scared about the consequence. Defensiveness stops your growth as a person, in your career, and in relationships.
Often when we see someone get defensive, we think to ourselves, “How do we get our thoughts across this person?”, and we fail to do that because they try to change or misunderstand the topic of conversation and misguide it completely.
We fail to understand what is causing this emotion or need for defensiveness in them? Are they scared of the consequences? Is the topic a trigger to them? Why do they feel like they are under attack? We need to ask these questions before we react with an equally defensive statement. It is easier to recognize this behaviour in others than in ourselves because when we get defensive; we are usually already feeling a mix of emotions with high intensity.
Defensiveness as a coping mechanism is an unconscious reaction by our brain to protect us from a situation, thought, or emotion. It is not easy to recognize our defensive behaviour, but it is necessary.
Here are some typical defensive mechanisms we use to protect ourselves:
● Denial: Refusing to acknowledge the mistake or responsibility to avoid the situation, emotion, or thought.
● Projection: Pinning our emotions as someone else. For example, I am not annoyed you are annoyed.
● Acting out: Overreacting to a simple situation, like not eating or breaking something, instead of expressing anger.
● Rationalization: Changing statements to justify the behaviour or situation, or emotions.
● Displacement: Taking out the frustration of one situation at some place else because of suppression before.
● Intellectualizing: Only giving significance to logical aspects and ignoring the emotional aspects.
● Sarcasm: Sarcastically taunting to avoid a straight conversation about one’s emotions and feelings.
● Teaching: Avoiding one’s situation and problems by advising other people around.
Now that we know how to recognize the unhealthy defensive coping mechanism – what we really need is a solution to cope with it, so here are some ways you can keep your defensive coping mechanism in check:
- Practice self-compassion: We only get triggered or threatened by the statements made by others when it is a soft spot and has unresolved emotions attached to it; practicing self-compassion and recognizing these soft unresolved areas can help you grow and also make you more open to constructive criticism.
- Start taking responsibility: Instead of blaming others’ views and analyze what you could have done differently, as you are not responsible for other’s performance or problems, and it is the same way around. Know what you can control and work on and focus on improving that.
- Give yourself a moment- According to Harvard Business Review it is best to take three breaths before reacting.
a. With the first breath, acknowledge the first reaction but don’t do it; the first reaction is always the rawest action that ends up being defensive.
b. With the second breath, acknowledge your action but do not do it. The second action is usually offensive or attacking towards the other person.
c. With the third breath, you are ready to take action without getting defensive or offensive, and now your only motto is to find a solution to the problem.
You need to understand someone, or you are not bad for being defensive. Even though defensiveness is an adverse reaction – it comes from painful memories and experiences. All we can do is just be kind to ourselves and others and try our best to improve ourselves for a better professional and personal relationship.
Childhood emotions and coping mechanisms cannot be changed in one day, so we need to take baby steps towards a healthy coping mechanism and help and support others on the way.