It happens to all of us: Someone — your partner, a family member, a co-worker — brings up something you said or did in the hopes of shedding light on your behavior. Instead of listening to what they have to say or unpacking their criticism, you feel attacked and go on the defensive. This isn’t uncommon (when you feel unfairly criticized, defensiveness is a natural reaction) but the behavior is important to identify, as making it your go-to response whenever someone brings up an issue is incredibly damaging to relationships. Among other things, it sends a direct message to people that their opinions don’t matter and makes it hard to engage in healthy communication.
“There are a few reasons why a person can be defensive in an argument,” explains therapist Dr. Lee Phillips. “First, our bodies are made to protect us, so if someone is talking to a person in a manner that could be perceived as negative, rude, or aggressive, it is easy for them to become defensive. This is a common cause of defensive behavior. Some people are uncomfortable with confrontation, so they become anxious.”
Additionally, defensiveness is an innate behavior, stemming from a biological need to “get along” to survive.
“When we encounter a situation in which we feel our acceptance and approval — be it a person or a group of people — is threatened, our bodies respond by spinning up the engines of our sympathetic nervous system,” says Dr. Elizabeth DuBois Ph.D., CDC. “So, we can respond appropriately to a mortal threat by going into a state of either fight, flight, or freeze — or some combination thereof — over the course of the conflict.”
Defensive behavior can also stem from trauma. For example, if someone came from an abusive household or abusive relationship, having a disagreement or conflict with a partner might trigger those memories and lead to that person trying to protect themselves.
“Childhood wounds from parents or caretakers, wounds from past relationships, and trauma tend to be the most common triggers for defensive behavior,” Phillips explains.
Defensiveness can be a hard habit to defeat. It’s important, then, to know the signs of defensiveness so you can better understand the impulse and avoid the arguments, anger, and isolation it breeds. Here, then, are seven signs of defensiveness and a few tips for avoiding them.
Labeling happens when a person tries to state their position and you simply reduce their behavior to labels, saying something along the lines of “You’re just being mean” or “Stop being unreasonable.” It’s also common for defensive people to assign labels to themselves as a way of deflecting. These labels, which distract from the issue at hand, can sound like “Well, I guess I’m just a lousy partner and everything is my fault.”
How to Avoid It: “How can you label when you don’t have clear evidence?” says Phillips. “Try breathing and remove it from your thoughts. Close your eyes and think of the labels as words on a chalkboard and erase them.”
2. Doubling Down When You’re Wrong
So, you had an argument and realized your stance was incorrect. Regardless, you continue to argue your point, thus completely defeating the purpose of the discussion and fueling further disagreement. “I see this a lot in my divorce coaching practice,” says DuBois. “You ‘double down’ even if your perspective is patently false.”
How to Avoid It: No one likes to be wrong, and no one likes to be proven wrong. But, if your partner presents clear evidence as to why your position is incorrect, it will go a long way if you just own it and move on.
3. Passive Aggression
Instead of communicating needs or stating a position using clear, concise, and non-combative language, a defensive person will rely on passive-aggressive statements that throw the argument back on their partner. Instead of explaining a point of view, all you’re doing is giving your partner all new reasons to be angry.
How to Avoid It: Take a beat and reframe your sentiment. Instead of saying something like, ‘It sure would be nice if the alimony payments your lawyer came up with would cover the mortgage for the house your children sleep in.’ Try, ‘My lawyers and I are concerned the proposed alimony is going to jeopardize the kids' stability, as it won't cover the mortgage,’” says DuBois.
4. Mind Reading
Another sign of defensiveness is to assume you know what the other person is thinking and voicing that in an effort to push the argument off of them. This might sound like, “So you just think I’m a loser who can’t do anything right, is that it?” Now, instead of having their own needs addressed, the other person is forced to stroke their partner’s ego.
How to Avoid It: “It is important to sit back and really think about what you are feeling before you react,” says Phillips. “This can be difficult to do. So, if you do, apologize and move on.”
Similar to mind-reading, this is when a defensive person talks badly about themselves and uses negative language, saying things like, “You’re right. Everything is my fault.” This deflection tactic makes the entire argument about them as opposed to what their partner needs.
How to Avoid It: “Instead of jumping into personalizing, think about the situation clearly instead of internalizing it,” says Lee. “Self-blame or personalizing causes more stress and negativity.”
6. Future Tripping
This is a defensive behavior where a person becomes anxious about something that hasn’t happened yet. In a disagreement, that may manifest itself as, “I just know you’re going to leave me, and that’s what this is about.” Again, this turns the argument around and makes it about you and your needs instead of what your partner is looking for.
How to Avoid It: “We have no proof of what is going to happen in the future,” says Phillips. “So, it is important to think about the here and now and your own personal strengths.”
7. Post-Conversation Guilt
Most people who get defensive inherently know that they’re wrong and, once the dust has settled, will often feel bad about how they handled the situation. DuBois frequently sees this in patients who have addiction challenges. “People who know 'deep down' that the way they are behaving is hurting themselves and their loved ones but are unable to respond in a productive way when confronted with the ripple effects of their decisions and actions,” he says. “They become combative when confronted with a viewpoint that they themselves hold about their own behavior.”
How to Avoid It: Try and be aware of your body language and how you’re feeling in the moment. “To decrease or manage defensive behavior, the person needs to be aware of what is happening in their body,” says Phillips. “However, if paying attention to the body feels too overwhelming or more anxiety-producing, they can try and name the emotion they are feeling before reacting or responding with defensiveness.”