Stop Reacting Out of Fear: How Defensiveness Can Be Destructive
“That’s not true!” or “You’re being too sensitive. I didn’t mean it that way.” You say when a loved one confronts you about something you said or did.
This is defensiveness in action.
Defensiveness is really just about fear. The fear of being “found out” is the phrase…revealing how you are somehow not perfect anymore, that you’ve made a mistake, hurt their feelings or really blew it. It’s the shame – the feeling of not being good enough- mixed in with guilt that drives the pushback. The heat in our cheeks and the twist in our gut as the flash of terror enters your mind.
Guilt can be either “earned” or “unearned”, meaning that often we can take on guilt that isn’t ours, perhaps because we were raised with guilt and manipulation, and we struggle with poor boundaries in our relationships. In other words, we were sold a bill of goods by being taught to be responsible for other peoples’ feelings, choices, or thoughts. We aren’t, and it isn’t even possible. So, check for earned guilt first before you decide respond out of it. Did you do something that warrants the reaction you’re receiving? Was there intent or just forgetfulness, immaturity, or distractedness, etc. on your part?
You push back against the truth usually for one of two reasons. First, you may just be receiving an unwarranted attack, a shaming rant or a manipulation that is so not about you. That’s why it’s important first to check for any earned guilt as described earlier. If you find none, then focus on breathing and detaching, then setting a loving limit, such as: “I can see you’re really upset, but I need you to stop focusing on me and tell me what’s going on.” The second reason you push back the truth is because there ARE things there about you that you’re not proud of but afraid to admit, and so you push it back, denying it, maybe even immaturely pointing things out about THEM to regain a sense of control. Instead, just own it. Say, “Yeah ouch, but I know I did that and I’m sorry. I feel really bad about it.” Being found out is actually a good thing at times, because our struggles can come to light and be owned and healed.
Also important is owning the reality that when you get defensive, it invalidates the other’s thoughts, feelings, and needs and is pretty crazy making after awhile. It shuts down the dialogue and makes it unsafe. No matter what we think about what’s going on for the other, that’s their process and their truth, and NOT our business to manipulate them out of it because we can’t handle disappointing them or being imperfect. Even if they aren’t expressing it in the healthiest way, it is so damaging to try to talk them out of what feels true for them. You’re pretty much saying you care more about your ego than what’s hurting them at the moment.
So if you struggle with defensiveness, the first step is work on healing yourself first with a safe coach or therapist who can help you look at your struggles and also grieve unmet needs and traumas that have hurt your self-concept. Alongside this work is the focus on changing the ways you communicate with others. Check out this week’s podcast on emotional honesty for some guidance. This is all changeable stuff, and the rewards that come from being healthier in our connections are limitless.