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5 Tips to Not be So Defensive (and Handle Feedback Better!)


No one likes to feel personally attacked, but we misinterpret comments when we are overly defensive. Sometimes we need to stand up for ourselves and defend our actions. However, every area of our life suffers when we regularly adopt defensive tactics. Defensive people are likely to become socially isolated. 

Feeling defensive is linked to negative emotions like anger, frustration, and shame. No one enjoys these feelings, and unless we learn how to diminish our defensiveness, we will be in a steady state of negative emotion. 

This article will outline the impact of being overly defensive in our life. I will also suggest 5 tips to stop being defensive and lead a happier life.

What does it mean to be defensive?

When we think of being defensive, we immediately think of trying to protect and justify ourselves. This behavior often comes from a place of insecurity.

We may feel attacked, which triggers a defensive counterattack. Feeling defensive is triggered by our perception of receiving criticism. It can lead to feelings of: 

  • Shame. 
  • Guilt. 
  • Embarrassment. 
  • Anger. 
  • Sadness. 

Think of a sporting example. The role of the defense is to stop the other team from scoring. We can also consider the military model. Defensive military tactics are devised to protect something. 

So ultimately, we use defensiveness as a form of self-protection. But if we are always on the defensive, our guard is permanently up, and we can’t possibly embrace personal growth.

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The impact of being defensive 

When we act defensively, it presents itself as many different things: 

  • Not listening to the other person. 
  • Appointing some form of blame onto the other person. 
  • Bringing up something from the past as an attack. 

It is not easy to hear criticism, no matter the situation.

But for the sake of healthy relationships both in our personal lives and our work, we must be able to have open and difficult conversations. And this includes taking feedback on board. 

If we immediately get on the defensive, we will eventually sabotage our relationships and isolate ourselves. 

This study found that defensiveness correlates with peer rejection in children. This social rejection due to defensiveness makes sense. Trying to communicate with someone who is constantly defensive can be exhausting. It can cause us to stop trying. 

Some of my previous colleagues used to challenge me on my vegan lifestyle. In the early days, I went on the counterattack. I would retort with comments that criticized their life choices. I appointed blame to them to try and evade feeling hurt and ostracised myself. 

In time I learned to reply with comments such as “I’m not perfect, but I’m trying to live as kind a life as possible.” or “we are all different and choose different lifestyles; let’s celebrate that instead of criticizing it.”

Replying neutrally felt empowering and uplifting. It also meant that my relationship with my colleagues did not suffer. 

5 ways to stop being defensive 

We increase our power when we learn how to stop reacting defensively to others. We also help to improve our relationships and open ourselves up to personal growth. We invite a more peaceful vibe into our lives and allow negativity to wash over us. 

So how do you get started? Here are 5 ways you can stop being defensive today. 

1. Respond instead of reacting 

There is a vast difference between responding and reacting. If you usually react to others, it’s time to learn how to respond. 

Defensive behaviors keep us stuck in reacting patterns. 

In contrast to reacting, responding is considered and deliberate. It encourages a 4 step process as part of a response: 

  • Pause. 
  • Process. 
  • Plan. 
  • Proceed. 

Reacting, on the other hand, is meeting one action with another. It is a panic response—an unthought-out reply. 

To help respond instead of reacting, we need to learn to slow down.

To do this, hear what is being said and take time to process it. If the situation lends itself to it, you may want to take yourself for a breath of fresh air for thinking time. Alternatively, you can gain a few moments by drinking water to gather your thoughts. 

2. Build your self-esteem  

It stands to reason that the greater our self-esteem, the more at ease we are with ourselves. And when we are more at ease with ourselves, we don’t take things personally and can let triggering comments wash over us. 

There are many ways to boost our self-esteem, this includes: 

When we feel comfortable with ourselves, we can recognize criticism as an opportunity for growth.

This growth may mean walking away from the perpetrator of critical comments. Alternatively, it may be in finding merit in the criticism shared and using it for our development. 

3. Be open to new ideas 

Someone close to me is a bundle of defensiveness. She doesn’t even realize this. She may ask for an opinion, but if you don’t say what she wants to hear, she immediately gets defensive and starts her sentence with “but….” 

She remains closed off to any changes or different ideas. It’s no coincidence that she is also pretty miserable in her life. She has a victim mentality and believes life has dealt her a rough hand. 

If only she were open to seeing things in a new light. 

By engaging with different ideas and trying alternative ways of doing something, we give ourselves the optimum opportunity to see different perspectives.

This openness allows us to invite positive change into our lives

4. Take time  

Everything is so much worse when we are exhausted and run down. 

The more zen-like we feel, the more likely we are to avoid defensive feelings and behaviors. 

The hustle culture of this era is crippling our mental health. The pressure to be everything to everyone has us run ragged. No wonder we react on the spur of the moment instead of taking the time to respond. 

A lot of us are surviving life, not living it. 

It’s time to switch things up. Learn to say no. Take on fewer commitments. If this means your children have one less activity per week, so be it. Schedule time for yourself!

At one point in my life, I worked long hours in a stressful job. I also had my own small business, training for ultra marathons, and having 2 high-maintenance dogs. My days started at 5 am and didn’t finish until midnight. I was living on my nerves.

No wonder I was a bundle of defensiveness. 

I didn’t have the time to engage in new ideas or deep conversations.  

I now have the time to smell the roses, and what a delight. There is a marked difference in my defensive levels, and I put this down to reducing my general life stress levels. 

5. Tame your anger  

The urge to feel defensive often comes from an overarching feeling of anger. How dare that person say X, Y, or Z! 

But when we exchange our anger for curiosity, we learn to see things differently. 

When people criticized me for my vegan lifestyle, sometimes It was indicative of the guilt they felt for eating animal products. So, instead of getting defensive or coming out with the comments I usually do, I can turn the questions back on them. “Are you interested in learning about veganism?” 

When my partner gets into a funk and says something cutting or passive-aggressive, I laugh, cuddle him and ask him if he is ok. 

When we tap into our anger, we build a fire. Yet, we soothe our defensive gremlins by enlisting our curiosity and asking open questions.

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Wrapping up

Being defensive can close us off to opportunities and personal growth. While we have focused on not being defensive, it is essential to remember not to act in a manner that may incite others to feel defensive. Communication is an art. 

Do you often encounter overly defensive people in your life? Do you have any tried and tested methods to help stop you from behaving defensively? Let me know in the comments below!

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Ali Hall

Writer

Kindness is my superpower. Dogs and nature are my oxygen. Psychology with Sports science graduate. Scottish born and bred. I’ve worked and traveled all over the world. Find me running long distances on the hills and trails.

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