How You Can Stop Being Defensive and Invite More Joy Into Your Life
Is your defensiveness driving people away and weakening relationships?
When we act defensively, we are in self-preservation mode. If we feel under attack, we defend ourselves by batting away any hostility raining down on us.
But more often than not, people aren’t trying to attack us; it is simply us misinterpreting the intention of their words and allowing our emotions to involve themselves in the conversation.
Those susceptible to being defensive use this behaviour as a coping mechanism. We defend ourselves with defensive behaviour to avoid facing uncomfortable inner feelings.
When we act defensively, we bounce the perceived attack back to the perpetrator in an attempt to redirect it.
But the thing is - when we constantly respond from a place of defensiveness, we will never grow, change or adapt. It’s not much fun for us, and it is exhausting for other people.
Defensive people jeopardise their relationships and remain closed to personal development.
I spent many years living in a heavy cloak of armor. I didn’t let anyone in, nor did I allow anyone to help me. I was stubborn, rigid, and dogmatic. And let me tell you, I was also discontent, frustrated, and stifled. It’s no coincidence that I found greater joy as I learned to let my defensiveness evaporate.
What does defensive behaviour look like?
The very word gives away the meaning. When we defend something, we protect it from an attack. People who are defensive jump into protection mode.
Often, when we feel attacked, we instinctively instigate a counterattack. I don’t think I need to say that counterattacks are not the best way to make friends or deepen relationships.
When we feel triggered or criticised, it feels uncomfortable to sit with the associated feelings such as:
Instead of sitting with these feelings, we pass the parcel of perceived criticism and deflect.
No one is perfect. We live, and we learn, unless we act defensively, in which case we live and don’t learn and keep doing the same thing while expecting different results.
Recently my partner remarked about my inability to switch off in the evenings. He noticed I was checking work e-mails during sacred time with him. Initially, I jumped on the defensive. I made excuses; I tried to highlight some of his errors (classic deflection). But truthfully, he was right, and I felt guilty and ashamed.
Once I admitted my guilt and shame, I could take his comments on board and listen to him without launching a counterattack. Perhaps most importantly, this was the kick up the ass I needed to instigate change.
3 ways to beat defensive behaviour
We can only control ourselves. We may blame others for making us feel defensive, but ultimately we are responsible for our emotions. It’s also worth highlighting that if we are mindful and considerate in how we show up in conversations, we can help others avoid defensive reactions.
Here are 3 ways to help you overcome defensive behaviour.
1. Take time to respond
There’s an enormous difference between responding and reacting.
When we respond, we take the time to consider what we want to say. When we react, we allow our triggered emotions to speak on our behalf.
Time is the trick to replying with a balanced response instead of a knee-jerk reaction.
You don’t need to reply to triggering texts or e-mails immediately. Think things through and respond from a place of calm. Or better still, respond with a phone call or in person.
If you feel put on the spot in a conversation, you are allowed to say, “I’m not sure how I feel about this; please give me time to think about it.”
Use silence. If I feel my senses being triggered, I remind myself to breathe rhythmically to calm myself down and keep my monkey from blurting out a reaction. Ten seconds of silence may feel awkward, but it is perfectly acceptable. , Best of all, this pause in the conversation allows us to respond instead of react.
2. Be open to new ideas and ways
It was Aristotle who said:
“The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.”
This quote encourages us to take a lead from experts. Is there anyone more humble than an expert? An expert becomes an expert by being open to learning and flexible of mind. They are less likely to anchor onto a bias or an idea than me or you.
We all have our fields of interest. The best way to increase and enhance our knowledge is through being open to incoming information, challenges, and debate.
Think of the medical world. If scientists remained closed off to novel ideas and developments, we wouldn’t be benefiting from the incredible medical advancements we see today.
Next time someone suggests a different way of doing something, be open to change. Maybe, just maybe, this new way will help you grow. Certainly, don’t be that person who says, “but this is how it’s always been done.”
3. Listen between the lines and ask questions
How many of us have felt accused of being on our mobile phones too much? And how many of us have felt irritated at someone else who is preoccupied with their mobile phone?
Often our frustration comes out as an attack.
“You’re always on your phone.”
It sounds accusatory and can instigate defensiveness. Have you said this before? I know I have!
Often when we say or hear these words, the real meaning is actually:
“I feel a bit disconnected from you just now. I would love to spend time with you to feel closer. Could we turn our phones off and focus on each other.”
When we learn to listen intuitively and read between the lines, we can better understand the intention behind the triggering words.
So instead of responding with any of the standard defensive counterattacks, take a moment to pause and then ask questions.
The last time I heard the justified accusation that I was always on my phone, I responded with compassion instead of from a place of defensiveness (check me out, how mature!).
I apologised, recognised I was neglecting my partner, and asked for suggestions on scheduling our time better to ensure we felt valued. We devised solutions together, and both felt listened to and seen.
Spread your wings and soar
Responding with curiosity instead of defensiveness is a sure way to fly high. When we learn to practice this, we tap into a more peaceful way of life. We no longer wrestle to be right or struggle with our flaws. This newfound openness helps us embrace our mistakes as a learning opportunity.
Yes, when the tone or words sound hostile or aggressive, responding calmly instead of reacting can be challenging. But it is still possible. Remember, take your time, breathe, and ask questions.
It’s never too late to eradicate our defensiveness.
Have you any tips or tricks for living with less defensive behaviour in your life? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments.
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Well done, Ali. This is thoughtful and helpful writing. When I learned about Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) being a feature of being ADHD, I understood so much. When I did something that bothered another person, they'd point this out. I would forget the subject and think, "I am being attacked. This is personal." Not necessarily.