Overcoming Defensiveness in Relationships

Louis Laves-Webb

January 15, 2016

The psychological reward we receive from the affirmation that we have made a judgment or decision that is “right” can be profound and habit-forming. Conversely, it can be deeply upsetting to be proven wrong or to make a decision that has resulted in a particularly negative consequence.

The reward and punishment for these behaviors are some of the main factors that drive us toward defensiveness.

What is Defensiveness?

Defensiveness is a pronounced reaction to criticism, real or perceived.

Real Criticism

Real criticism is an effort by another party to raise awareness of or correct behavior that he or she determines to be detrimental. The criticized party may recognize a personal or behavioral flaw and begin to experience unfavorable emotions.

To combat internal pain, the criticized may be biologically driven to repair the emotional damage. The quickest fix is to shift to a defensive frame of mind in which adverse feelings can be pushed aside in favor of temporary affirmation.

Perceived Criticism

Perceived criticism is a statement with undertones of judgment mistakenly identified as criticism. While perceived criticism may not be intentional on the part of the other party, it still affects possible insecurities in the criticized party.

How Can Defensiveness Affect My Life?

A bout with defensiveness can affect your relationships by:

1. Cuing hostility in an environment in which hostility is not productive

Whether criticism is real or perceived, the goal of a critique is not to invite a counter-critique. Counteracting negative emotions by provoking them in others will only snowball negativity.

2. Deteriorating decision-making abilities

Feeling defensive can signal the brain to reroute logic pathways that will affect decision making. For the duration of a bout with defensiveness, decisions may be made that have permanent consequences.

3. Affecting credibility

The need for affirmation in a defensive person may cause him or her to embellish or misperceive events that may or may not be true or related. This, in turn, can affect the impression of a person’s character.

Causing hostile reactions, making poorly planned decisions, and losing credibility are all harmful to the maintenance of a healthy relationship.

What are the signs of defensiveness?

Judge Jim Tamm lays out some of the most outwardly recognizable signs of defensiveness in his exploration of relationships, Defensiveness – The Poison Pill to Relationships.

Look for at least 3 of the following signs when trying to identify defensive behavior:

  • Drop in intelligent decision making
  • Seeking pity
  • Spike in energy
  • Complete silence
  • Information overload
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Trivializing with humor
  • Selective hearing
  • Wanting the last word
  • Belittling others
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Hot sweaty skin

Judge Tamm and his researchers have identified over 50 signs of a shift into defensiveness. A combination of these symptoms is a good sign that it’s time to look closer at the possibility of defensive behavior.

How Do I Prevent Defensive Behavior?

Judge Tamm recommends that you let yourself feel the negative feelings and learn to cope when faced with defensiveness. His step by step process is:

1. Acknowledge defensive behavior

Recognizing and accepting that you may be feeling defensive may help reactivate your logical processes.

2. Take a step back

Give your body time to adjust to the sudden shift in circumstances by taking a walk or closing your eyes.

3. Silence negative thoughts

Once you’ve had time to recover, actively identify your negative thoughts and contradict them if possible.

4. Detach from ineffective behavior

Know your reactions when you start to feel negative and counteract those reactions as soon as you see them.

5. Start over

Begin your conversation from square one after you’ve had time to cool off and taken steps toward self-control.

Getting a grasp on defensive behavior is in your hands. Start by getting to know the biological signs of defensiveness, then learn your own behaviors and counteract them with positive thinking. The time to begin repairing relationships affected by defensiveness is now.

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