On Being Defensive

On Being Defensive

People often have short fuses. Maybe it's because we are over-worked and under-rested, over-stimulated and under pressure. Maybe it's because we take things personally that aren't personal. Maybe it's something else entirely. For what ever reason, we tend to get defensive, a lot.

As human beings we have developed quite elaborate survival instincts. Sometimes these instincts are helpful, but more often than not, they tend to cause problems, especially in our relationships. I've noticed that the difference of when they are useful or not is that our survival instincts are NOT helpful in those times when our life is not ACTUALLY at risk.

Defensiveness is one of these instincts. When some part of us feels like we are being attacked, our natural response is to defend ourselves. Makes sense, right? How else are we going to survive?

However, more often than not, our sense or “feeling” of being attacked is actually a misperception; we are not really in any mortal danger. Think about it... how often are you literally being attacked? Most often it's just a perception of an attack, something that seems like your life is being threatened, but there is no real threat.

Defensiveness is one of these instincts. When some part of us feels like we are being attacked, our natural response is to defend ourselves. Makes sense, right? How else are we going to survive?

Your body and mind will respond to a verbal attack, such as, “Why do you always have to be such a jerk?” (or a perceived verbal attack, such as, “You are so wrong about that”) in the same way you would respond to an actual physical attack such as someone raising a fist in your face. Defensiveness kicks in. In your body your adrenaline gets going, your cheeks might get flushed, you might feel your temperature rising, your voice will become strained, and louder. Your mind gets extremely focused; you are ready for a battle. All of this happens rather suddenly, and worth noting, without any effort at all on your part; hence the term “automatic response.

Gogus olculeri

Here's how it happens: something happens, or doesn't happen, and you feel attacked so you defend yourself. Then guess what? Your defensive stance then is perceived by your partner as an attack, so they defend themselves. And now, the two of you are in the vicious circle, going around and around, getting nowhere.

But just because our survival instinct has us ready to defend all the time, it doesn't mean we have to act on it.

Certain phrases trigger this automatic response more readily than others. 'You always...' and, 'you never...' are two hot buttons that get us from zero to defensive in less than a nano-second. For example, “You are always late.” Our knee-jerk reaction is to be ready to prove all the times it is not true, to defend ourself from this clearly untrue attack on our character.

Now, you and I both know that, “You are always late,” is not a life-threatening statement, even though sometimes when we hear it, it does feel like it is. But our overly sensitive human animal feels threatened nevertheless and still feels the need to defend. Is it our ego being threatened? Is it our pride that can't let it go? Could be. But just because our survival instinct has us ready to defend all the time, it doesn't mean we have to act on it.

As Victor Frankl so wisely noted, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In other words, we have a choice. We have the ability to choose to how we will respond. We can respond with the old standby (defensiveness) or we can choose something different, something that may give us a better outcome.

When someone says something that you perceive as an attack, you will live if you don't defend yourself, I promise.

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Most Helpful Guy

  • Well worded article :)

    For me defensiveness i. e. digging your heels in to defend yourself w/o any variation or logic or reason is as much a sign of insecurity as much as the attacks especially if incessant :)

    You are right about 'When someone says something that you perceive as an attack, you will live if you don't defend yourself, I promise' :) and it goes the other way round too :)

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Most Helpful Girl

  • @Sparrow24 I'd say it's always better to leave a situation and calm down, get some perspective. Make sure to let the other person know you're leaving to cool off, and when you'll be back to finish the conversation.

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What Guys Said 3

  • no ego in sight, except perhaps the months she will spend getting others to be sympathize with her over her tattered little sense of self-esteem.
    and by the way, if you seek commentary on par with your own, perhaps you best get rid of this single-window word limit.

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  • a lot there in your article.. i can only speak to one issue... when a woman ever addresses a behavior of mine in terms of 'you're always _____", the only thing separating us from an eternal parting of the ways is the time it takes for her cab to arrive and for me to give her money to pay for it.
    criticizing another person's overall being is never acceptable, and i cases like that i've not only had the right to send her packing but the obligation to myself to do it. no ego in sight, ...

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  • Thank you for writing this :)

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What Girls Said 4

  • Along with not being defensive, its also important to not attack others to trigger defensiveness in them. We should save the attacks for really important issues and to protect someone in trouble, physical or otherwise. Nice article.

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  • I tried what you said here not defending myself when my brother said stuff to me in a tone, and it was so wired feeling at first but it really worked! He backed down and his tone went away totally! like OMG!

    Very great advice :-)

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  • Thanks @Caren-Field :-)

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  • I often skip the defensive part and go straight to the "flee" part, withdrawing completely when I'm feeling attacked.
    In cases like that, which is better? To withdraw and analyze, come back later... or say it right then, never leaving them wondering what's going on?

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