Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Criticism, judgment, accusations, and insults are awful, especially if they come directly at you, especially if they are false. When this happens, your confidence and self-worth get crashed right in front of your eyes; you begin to feel exposed, insecure, and even inadequate. In moments like this, you are willing to do almost anything to feel better and get your sense of security back. That’s why it feels nearly natural or even necessary to defend yourself from those who dared to criticize you. So, you armor up in your defense attire and hit back at that inconsiderate and preposterous lunatic who is trying to make a fool out of you. And you are not holding back because this person should have known better before attacking and shaming you.
“That’s right, no one can mess with me! I know how to defend myself!”- you think to yourself as you slam the one who is trying to undermine you by telling you what you are doing wrong or forcing their opinion onto you.
And you may feel good about your successful conquest, tasting that sweet sense of pride and high self-esteem on the tip of your tongue for just a split second before it vanishes down your throat, leaving a long-lasting bitterness instead.
Why? Because, dear reader, that was your defense response in action, and defensiveness only gives you an illusion of confidence and self-worth, a deception that only lasts a short period of time, like a drug. And just like any drug, it will always lead to a painful hangover or withdrawal.
Defensiveness is a coping tool that we utilize to reverse or deny perceived criticism or attack from others. It may seem like others are trying to push our buttons and destabilize us, when in reality, we feel vulnerable, insecure, or sensitive about the subject that is being addressed. Defensiveness takes place when we feel like our identity is being threatened.
Reasons we become defensive:
In most cases, defensiveness stems from chronic or even occasional self-victimization. If you feel like this world is against you, something or someone is trying to prevent you from succeeding, life is unfair towards you, there is no justice, and you are just a helpless victim of circumstances, the chances are that defensiveness is your go-to strategy to communicate with others.
Defensiveness also is common if you have experienced abuse and trauma in your childhood. Sadly, it was the only coping strategy that you learned and continued to use throughout your adulthood. Acquiring new tools to help you communicate effectively is a must if you recognize that this category applies to you. However, childhood traumas get deep-rooted in our consciousness, and, often, you may require professional help such as therapy or hypnosis.
Defensiveness can also be a byproduct of your other mental conditions, such as anxiety. Do a little self-observation and journaling to see how these two coexist, triggered, and contribute to the development of one another.
Another common reason that leads to defensiveness is the feeling of guilt and shame, the cancerous emotions that, if left unaddressed, can cause serious harm to your wellbeing and others. In this case, defensiveness is often accompanied by aggression and even rage. In my online course “Entitled to Success,” I talk about these emotions in more detail.
To some degree, we all feel defensive here and then, and we shouldn’t get upset about it. The key here is to notice when it happens, learn new preventative strategies, and remember to apply them in actual life. The one thing that helped me overcome defensiveness was a very simple trick – curiosity. You may think that this is insane and can’t be that simple. Well, it worked for me and now works for my clients. In fact, everything genius is simple, so why not try it? Instead of attacking the other person, denying, rationalizing, getting upset, jumping into justification, or self-victimization, you approach a situation with an expression of genuine interest in what the other person is trying to convey to you. Just give it some time because, at first, it’s going to feel like swallowing a hedgehog, like an embarrassing defeat.
What curiosity will do:
1. Encourage a growth mindset.
Personal Development is impossible without a growth mindset, which means you have freedom of your thoughts and beliefs. For example, if you get a C on a test, you know that next time you can get an A if you put a little bit more work into preparation. On the contrary, a person with a fixed mindset is more constrained by their thoughts and beliefs. If they get a C, they accept it as their static or “fixed” level of intelligence and continue to believe that this is the grade they will always receive. When you express your curiosity instead of the regular defensiveness, you stop being fixated on your own hurts and insecurities and open the door to understanding what (and why) the other person is saying to you. This approach will lead to changes in your perception and, subsequently, will challenge the old beliefs that don’t serve you. And this is the core of Personal Development.
2. Provide a fresh perspective.
Have you ever had a situation where something unpleasant happens in your life, and you become nearly obsessed with your failure? Then someone comes along and shines some light on your issue, and now it actually doesn’t seem so bad? Or where you work on a project and get stuck on something challenging that you can’t resolve until someone just points out the most straightforward solution that was there all the time? This revelation happens when we learn a new perspective about a troublesome subject. When we get fixated on something, and in this situation on someone who is perceivably trying to undermine us, we automatically reject the idea that this person may actually deliver something meaningful and useful. Become curious like a kid who is visiting a farm for the first time. Ask questions and learn why this person came to believe what he/she is saying. Detach yourself from your insecurities and just listen to other opinions. Do you have to adopt it? Absolutely not! But you will learn to understand that everyone is entitled to form their own opinion, just like you, and if someone thinks differently, it doesn’t mean they are trying to insult you or threaten your self-worth.
3. You learn to control your emotions.
What do you think of a person who gets easily triggered and lashes out at others? We are not going to list all the words that are popping up in your head right now, but I guarantee that if we were, there would be no “intelligent” among them. We never think of an emotional person as an intelligent one. When meeting someone’s criticism or accusations with curiosity, you give yourself time to process the information and de-escalate your emotions, with that preventing the counterattack – your defense - to take place. Again, it doesn’t mean that the other person is right, but at least in this situation, you control the situation by learning about the issue instead of letting your emotions take over.
4. You become more likable.
When you are genuinely curious about what the other person is conveying to you, you instantly become more likable. Think of a time when someone expressed their interest in your work? Didn’t it feel good? Didn’t you even come to like that person? You will have the same outcome when you become curious about what others are saying to you. When someone tells you that you should be doing something differently, kindly ask why they think it may be better. Ask follow-up questions, such as How did you come to know that? How long have you been applying this method? What do you like the most about this way of doing? etc. It may feel really awkward initially, but soon you will notice how the energy between the two of you is shifting from hostile to more friendly.
5. It leads to conversations instead of arguments.
Expressing your genuine curiosity will always lead to a well-structured conversation, where one talks and the other listens and then gives constructive feedback. In contrast, defensiveness always turns to arguments and deconstructive criticism and never finding a solution. You begin playing the “I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong” game instead of collaborating on a peaceful outcome that both parties will be contented with.
6. It improves the relationship with others.
Well, I think this one is self-explanatory. Ask yourself: Would I rather be a friend with someone insecure, where you constantly have to monitor what and how you are saying or behaving to make sure you don’t pull any sensitive strings? OR Would you rather be a friend with someone whose sense of self-worth does not depend on you? Only if you get satisfaction from being in toxic relationships, you will go with the 1st option (but I doubt you’d be reading this article). Otherwise, you will select the latter.
In simple words, defensiveness is not attractive, and others grow weary of such behavior.
(To learn more about self-worth, please visit our “Entitled to Success” course).