December 12, 2023

How Defensiveness is Ruining your Relationships—& What to do Instead.

“More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying them.” ~ Harold J. Smith


“But I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Why do you have to react like this to everything?!”

“I did it because you said….”

“I didn’t do anything wrong. You’re the one getting it wrong!”

“It’s all because of you!”

And that’s how it shows up in conversations and conflicts. We all have this innate need to protect ourselves. It’s essential for our survival and our mind and body are programmed for it.

In primitive times, we had to protect ourselves from all sorts of external dangers like wild animals or an attack from someone. So we would always be on guard, ready to defend ourselves when attacked.

Now, the only wild animals or attacks we need to defend ourselves from are the ones from the people around us.

At times, we get so caught up in this need to protect ourselves that we lose sight of who we are really defending ourselves against and why.

Sadly, when we operate from the premise of protecting ourselves at any cost in our relationships, it kills relationships.

Some amount of defensiveness is normal and needed also since you can’t just accept anything and everything that is coming your way. You will need to take a stand, clarify, or disagree with some thing or the other. These approaches enable the conversation, discussion, or debate to move forward in a constructive way.

However, a more destructive kind of defensiveness often shows up in ways that make it almost impossible for any conversation to move forward. It creates walls between people and thwarts intellectual, emotional, and physical connection.

It often leaves the person on the receiving end feeling unheard, unseen, invalidated, and unvalued. While the defensive person may get their satisfaction of being right or sticking to their stand, they end up losing out on their relationships and connections in the long run.

Defensiveness often shows up in relationships as:

1. Not listening: when someone gets into a defensive mode, the first thing they do is stop listening and registering what the other person is saying. They will constantly interrupt, not let the person speak, misinterpret, or blatantly refuse to listen.

2. Overexplaining: defensive individuals are often preoccupied with their own reasons and justifications. Their focus is on themselves and not on what the other person is expressing or feeling.

3. Victimising: they often end up behaving as if they’re the ones who are being wronged, who are always misunderstood, or who are made to seem like the bad person, which makes it extremely difficult for the other person to say anything. There is no space left for them at all and makes them feel guilty for making the defensive person feel bad about themselves.

4. Blaming the other person: defensive individuals are quick to pass the buck onto the other person. It’s never their fault. The other person is always wrong and the root cause of all their actions.

5. Denying: you can’t be responsible for what you didn’t say or do, right? A highly defensive individual can simply deny having said or done something. This strategy is good in the court of law, but in relationships, it’s a recipe for disaster.

6. Counter-criticising: the minute you raise a complain, they will criticise you for the same or even a completely different thing.

7. Deflecting and avoiding: at times, they will simply avoid getting into a discussion, defer or delay it, or try and change the topic altogether because they don’t want to be held accountable for something or anything.

8. Using “but”: “but” is their favourite word. On one hand, they will agree or acknowledge what you’re saying but will also go ahead and pass the buck to someone else, and this is not a one-off thing. This is a pattern.

9. Bringing up past situations: they often bring up past situations where they were wronged by you or someone else and will often lose track of the current conversation.

10. Humiliating the other person: highly defensive individuals can say mean and hurtful things to the other person in order to take the attention off them and the issue.

Let’s admit that not only have we been on the receiving end of such behaviours but are guilty of indulging in them too. Sometimes the situation is such that we do need to get into the attack-defense mode. But if that mode is on 24-7, then it’s a huge problem. In fact, it corrodes relationships.

However, the way to move out of this mode is to:

1. Understand your triggers: we all have our buttons, which when pushed will switch on this defensive mode. We stop listening, start countering, and dismissing, and when things get out of hand, we can really lose control over what we’re saying. Therefore, it’s important to figure out what makes us react this way about other people and situations.

2. Take responsibility for your own triggers: instead of focussing on what the other person is saying or doing, focus on how you respond and whether that response is working for you or not.

3. Listen more: listen to what the other person is trying to say before jumping to conclusions.

4. Clarify: if someone has said or done something that is unsettling for you, ask for reasons or clarifications before you assume the worst.

5. Validate the other: validate and understand the other person’s situation and thought process. Chances are, when people feel heard and understood, they will soften up.

6. Validate yourself: if you feel you’re not able to stay centered in a conversation and your anger and frustration are getting the better of you, then it’s important to stop the conversation and get back to it later.

7. Take responsibility: if you’ve said or done something that hasn’t gone well with the other person, understand and take responsibility rather than defending.

8. Set boundaries: everyone involved in a conversation needs to have their own boundaries in place. Everyone has their own triggers and threshold. Knowing when to step back or set a boundary respectfully is important for proper communication.

9. Learn from your mistakes: if we don’t learn from what went wrong the last time, we will keep making the same mistake every time.

10. Maintain respect: come what may, do not lose respect for yourself or the other person because disrespect will trigger anyone.

It’s easy to fly off the handle in the name of anger and frustration. It does take a lot of work on yourself to stay grounded amidst all kinds of storms. But that’s how you evolve and become better and that’s what allows you to create and maintain healthy relationships with yourself and others.

“Take responsibility—it’s where your powers live.” ~ Will Craig


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