One of the ironies of trying to work on being defensive is that, well, when we are feeling defensive we get defensive when it’s pointed out. 😂
So if you feel defensive reading this, that’s normal. But I want to talk about it anyway because defensiveness actually blocks our growth.
And I say this as someone who used to get very defensive. About everything.
But I recently received some feedback on a couple of podcast episodes, which happens often. But this experience was different because after I’d read, processed, and responded to the feedback, I realized something.
I didn’t feel defensive.
In the past, I would have felt flooded with shame. I would have argued with the feedback in my head while simultaneously trying to fix whatever I had done “wrong.”
But this time, I just felt genuinely interested in the feedback. I appreciated it, and took steps to implement it. All without panic or shame. It felt like a miracle.
The definition of defensiveness is feeling that we have to, well, defend ourselves. And the only time we feel the need to defend ourselves is if we’re being attacked – when we feel our goodness, our rightness, our worth, or the validity of our perspective or feelings are at risk.
We call defensiveness a feeling but really, it’s a name for a set of different feelings that can come up when we feel attacked. It might be fear, anger, shame, or a combination of all three.
On a more physiological level, those feelings occur when we learn new information, which triggers the release of chemicals in our brain that impact adrenaline levels and other hormonal systems.
When your brain is activated in this way it’s called limbic friction.
And for a lot of us, that activation feels unpleasant. After all, our human brains do not like to be wrong!
We don’t like to be wrong because it makes our brains fear that we cannot accurately assess safety or danger.
So no wonder we respond as if we are under attack.
Defensiveness may be difficult to identify. But here are some signs you can look for:
- Wanting to immediately disagree or argue,
- Feeling resentful about someone’s comment or statement,
- The need to convince someone urgently to agree with you,
- Trying to make others ‘take it back,’ apologize, or be back on your side,
- Shutting down or disengaging, and
- Ignoring what’s being said to us and fixating on how it’s being said to us.
Feeling called out? Don’t worry, defensiveness IS a quality you can shift if you’d like.
It starts with exploring an alternative reaction.
The opposite of defensiveness is receptiveness. Openness. Curiosity. Being truly interested in someone else’s feedback or thoughts without assigning malintent.
It does NOT mean you have to agree with someone else’s point of view. It does not mean you have to aggressively defend your own opinion, either.
It simply means allowing yourself to see other points of view clearly enough that you can make an informed decision about what you believe – and not making the potential of changing your mind mean anything bad or wrong about you.
Letting go of defensiveness is a process. If you find yourself feeling defensive in the moment, you can simply acknowledge that the feedback is bringing up a lot of emotions and, if you are with others, let them know you need a moment to process.
When you take a minute, get curious and ask yourself:
- Why am I feeling this way?
- What am I thinking?
- What’s my urge – to act or react?
- What does my brain want me to do?
- What about this situation feels threatening?
Ultimately, defensiveness has a lot to teach you about your relationship with yourself.
Defensiveness has very little to do with the person who you think may be “rejecting” you, or their actual feedback.
Instead, defensiveness is about you and your mind.
Exploring the thoughts behind your defensiveness will help you access information about what you’re making your self-worth contingent on. Do you feel defensive because you tell yourself you’re worthless or wrong if you don’t get it “right?” Do you feel defensive because you’re afraid that unless you perform perfectly, you will be unlovable?
When your self-worth isn’t conditional on anyone else’s approval, there’s no drama when you receive feedback – positive or negative. When you know how to love yourself even when you get it “wrong,” then you will be willing to receive all kinds of feedback from all kinds of people – some of which you’ll agree with, some of which you’ll disagree with, and none of which will have any bearing on your worth or your right to exist and be loved as a human.
That’s why long-term defensiveness is only resolved through self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness. And all that begins with curiosity.