It happens to us all. We receive feedback and it stings. Or someone is angry at us and we want them to stop expressing it. Maybe, we feel guilty about something we’ve done, but we don’t want to be reminded of it. What do we do? Too often, we get defensive.

What is defensiveness?

Defensiveness means rushing to protect ourselves when faced with uncomfortable emotions. Defensive people are not receptive to feedback, can’t stand to show weakness, and seem to care most about protecting their self-image.

One way we get defensive is by making excuses or blaming outside forces for our failure. We say, “It’s not my fault that I ___,” when there really is something we could have done differently for a better outcome.

Deflecting blame is another defense move. We remind the other person of something they’ve done wrong to make them look hypocritical for criticizing us. Or, we trash-talk our “hater”, either to their face or to others, to make them look bad and devalue their credibility.

Still another defensiveness move is dramatizing or exaggerating their complaint. By making their criticism sound unreasonable, we justify ignoring it. Whether conscious or subconscious, our brain is attempting to take the pressure of us and our unpleasant emotions.

Seeking comfort rather than working to improve the area where we’ve been criticized is one more form of defensiveness. We may go to others who validate our position, turn our attention to pleasurable activities, or drink or self-medicate to cope with our unwanted emotions. All these are escapes which can result in us avoiding addressing significant problems.

Why so defensive?

Looking more deeply into our motivation, we get defensive because we don’t feel safe. We’re perceiving the words we’re hearing as a threat to our character, reputation, or sense of competence. Then, we try to protect those parts of our identity.

For example, if you are a perfectionist, making a mistake can feel like having a weakness exposed, which will feel very uncomfortable. Maybe as a child, mistakes and flaws were punished, ridiculed, or shamed. Now, you subconsciously fear that same outcome if your imperfections are exposed. Defending yourself with an excuse can seem safer than feeling these powerful emotions.

The problem with getting defensive

So, what’s the downside to getting defensive? It turns out, there are many. It damages our relationships, escalates conflict, makes us look bad, and stunts our growth as a person.

Defensiveness creates a communication barrier between us and others. When we react with blame, make excuses, or dismiss others’ complaints, we send the signal that we’re not open to their influence. This pushes them away and strains relationships with not only romantic partners, but also friends, family, and coworkers.

Getting defensive rarely calms a situation down. Instead, it adds fuel to the fire and often escalates conflicts into full-blown arguments. If the other person was upset about the issue they initially brought up, now they’ll also feel hurt and resentful because they don’t feel heard.

While we might feel justified in defending ourselves, it can come across as arrogant, insecure, or unwilling to take responsibility. The long-term effect is people will avoid sharing suggestions, and perhaps, avoid us. We’ll miss out on valuable feedback which could help us learn and grow, limiting both our personal and professional potential.

How to stop getting defensive

What’s the alternative? It’s listening to the other person and really talking about the problem. We hear them out, are open to constructive criticism, admit our mistakes, and focus on finding solutions. Here are seven strategies to help us get there by managing our defensive impulses:

1. Don’t take it personally.

Feedback can feel particularly threatening when we take it personally and interpret it to mean that we’re not a good, smart, or capable person. Instead, reframe it as helpful coaching that helps us change or improve to become even better in a particular area. Expanding the meaning of their words into a universal attack on our value as a human being is our own distorted thinking.

2. Adopt a growth mindset.

Choose to see difficult feedback as a learning opportunity. Get curious about it, even (and perhaps, especially) if you don’t agree with it. Adopt a growth mindset and seek criticism as valuable feedback. See your mistakes and failures as not only inevitable, but how you learn and grow.

3. Assume good intentions.

Most people give us feedback because they think the information will help us, or help our relationship with them. Unfortunately, many deliver criticism poorly. Their emotions get in the way, so the message is tainted with their own hurt, frustration, or anger.

Give them the benefit of the doubt that they have your best interest at heart. Try to look through their delivery to appreciate their real intent. Seeing them as a caring collaborator versus an adversary helps us listen, even when their words are less than diplomatic.

4. Know your buttons and anticipate them.

If you know you tend to be defensive, identify what buttons typically trigger you. This allows you to prepare a better, less defensive response during a difficult conversation. For example, you might plan to take a few deep breaths to stay calm.

Think of non-defensive words you can say and use them when you’re feeling attacked. Something like, “Thank you for your feedback. Let me think about what you said” will help the speaker feel heard and allow you time to settle your emotions before responding.

5. Apply good communication techniques.

Listen to the person’s issues before you rush to defend yourself. This is a great opportunity to use active listening. Sometimes, just listening to the person will help them feel seen and validated. Other times, asking for clarifications will help us discover we misunderstood the speaker and their complaint.

6. Exercise self-compassion.

Show yourself the same kindness, care, and concern you would show a friend or loved one. We’re all imperfect human beings who make mistakes. Self-compassion helps us shift our thinking from defending ourselves to being open to others’ views.

7. Set boundaries.

If the person is being harsh or disrespectful, don’t be afraid to set boundaries. Say something like, “I want to hear what you have to say, but I have a hard time listening when you raise your voice. I’ll be willing to listen if you can be a calmer” is a good way to communicate your expectations without subjecting yourself to hostility.

Faith note

Defensiveness has its root in insecurity. We fear that we don’t measure up in some way, so when we hear negative feedback or criticism, we attempt to stop it.

One of the best ways to avoid getting defensive is to embrace what God thinks and says about you. You are valuable, worthy, and lovable because you are all those things in God’s eyes. He calls you his beloved child and his love for you is unconditional. Nothing anyone says changes this truth.

Another benefit of having a relationship with God is knowing that he is your defender. If the criticism you hear is false, unwarranted, or harsh, you can rest in the knowledge that God knows the truth. He will deal with the person attacking you in his time, so you don’t need to.

On the other hand, if the feedback is true, we can be assured that he loves us, even when we are not perfect. If we’ve messed up, we can be forgiven simply by asking God for his forgiveness. There is nothing we can do to cause God to stop loving us.