Overcoming Defensiveness: A Journey to Personal Growth and Improved Relationships

8 April 2024
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I battled with defensiveness for many years.

Throughout my life, whenever someone scrutinized my beliefs, decisions, or actions, I defaulted to reacting defensively.

My journey through life was not an open road, but a narrow battlefield of inescapable loops.

This defensive behaviour served as a protective layer, a buffer against admitting my own limiting beliefs and mistakes.

It was my way of protecting the image I had of myself.

When this symptoms treatment approach finally caught up with me, defensiveness was no longer an option.

A shield protect, but it also isolates.

It blocks out not just precived criticism, but opportunities for personal growth.

Lowering my shield to replace it with openness was the only way to learn and improve the quality of my life.

In this article, I invite you to join me for a dive into the psychological underlying reasons behind defensiveness.

We explore the interplay between different factors that reinforce defensive behavior in relationships.

I will also share some mental models that helped me understand my defensiveness and put down my shield permanently.

What Is Defensiveness?

According to renowned couples, therapist, and writer, John Gottman defensiveness is one of four behaviors that predict the end of any committed relationship.

Gottman refers to defensiveness as one of the ‘Four Horsemen’, along with Criticism, Stonewalling, and Contempt, which I will write about in future articles.

Defensiveness is a complex response that arises in reaction to a primary emotion, like shame, hurt, guilt, anger, and sadness.

It’s a coping mechanism, triggered by a perceived threat to our self-esteem, competence, or ego.

It is a shield most of us use from time to time to avoid feeling inadequate or incorrect.

Defensiveness is our inability to be with our own and others’ uncomfortable emotions.

Why Defensiveness Matters

Imagine being in a relationship where your partner dismisses your needs and concerns.

Attacks lead to hurt feelings, resentment, and a breakdown in trust.

Small, unresolved problems have a tendency to spiral into major issues when met with defensiveness.

At first, it feels easier to point the finger at the other person instead of ourselves.

In the long run, it is a game that no one wins, preventing trust, resulting in lasting emotional wounds.

Defensiveness matters because it is a harmful and unhealthy emotional coping strategy that lead to feelings of shame, frustration, anger, sadness, or guilt.

The Difference Between Being Defensive and Assertive

Defensiveness is a coping mechanism that often involves attacking others.

It can take form as direct attack, a hostile stands, or passive aggressive behavior.

Assertiveness is the clear expression of needs and opinions without attacking others.

Understanding the difference between defensiveness and assertiveness will improve your relationships.

The Threat-Defense Cycle: What Causes Defensive Behavior

It starts with a situation that I perceive as a threat to my self-image, competence, or sense of control.

From an evolutionary perspective, my defensiveness has developed to motivate me to maintain social standing and avoid exclusion to ensure my survival.

Without realizing it, I was reluctant to admit my shortcomings and transgressions so as not to risk my position within the group.

Let that sink in for a moment, before you keep reading.

If you study people’s behavior through that lens. At work, on social media, and the news, we resemble fearful monkeys.

Terrified of exclusion, we post only our best highlights.

We buy things we don’t need to signal high social standing and to escape the dreadful feelings and emotions of exclusion.

That is why we cannot resist the allure of the latest high-end smartphone. As we purchase it, a sense of relief and accomplishment wash over us.

The shiny new device isn’t about convenience or necessity.

We are not buying a phone, but social belonging by signaling status.

The reason behind this irrational choice is to protect ourselves from the persistent anxiety of not measuring up or fitting in.

It’s our escape from the negative emotions that arise when we feel excluded.

How do we otherwise rationalize purchasing a small black box that costs half of our monthly salary?

The answer is Social Comparison. We see others with the new phone and feel left out, or perceive others as having a more desirable lifestyle.

Yes, social comparison isn’t the only factor at play. Marketing and advertising also play a significant role in creating a desire for the latest gadgets.

But companies know it is in our DNA to avoid exclusion to ensure our survival.

So, they employ behavioral designers and psychologist to exploit our social anxieties and status anxieties to push products.

The game is the same as it has been for the last 10000 years. The only difference is that we know added new shine toys to the game. This has created a breeding ground for defensive behavior.

Emotional Response

To my shaky sense of self-worth, any criticism or perceived threat felt like a personal attack, triggering defensiveness. This was my way of protecting my fragile self-image.

When I found myself in a situation that threatened my self-image, my heart raced, my palms sweated, and my mind filled up with crippling thoughts of fear and doubt.

I felt a raw sting of anxiety, the hot flush of shame, and the simmering rage of anger about to boil over.

Experiences of trauma and abuse made me hypervigilant and defensive.

I perceive any criticism as a threat, which triggered defensive responses to protect myself from emotional harm.

Most days, it felt like a wave of emotions crashing over me, leaving me gasping for air.

But then I had an epiphany.

My trauma, others’ reactions or their treatment of me did not trigger my emotions. The central focus of my narrative and how I perceive myself did.

I couldn’t change what had happened or how people behaved. I could only change myself.

After that day, I saw myself and others differently.

No one was out to get me, and there was no need for me to defend myself.

The majority of us were waging an emotional war behind our social masks.

Exploring Fear, Insecurity, and Emotional Struggle

In order to handle uncomfortable emotions, I resorted to defensive behaviors, such as denial. This freed me from acknowledging or accepting responsibility for my own feelings and emotions.

I saw how I single-handed turned every day into a struggle.

When ever I detected a touch of laziness or a tendency to get angry. Instead of acknowledging these traits, I’d project them unto those around me.

I held others responsible for the same things I was disregarding in myself.

This was my game of projection, my method of avoiding self-improvement and personal growth.

Self-improvement and personal growth are emotional torture in the beginning.

So, I kept justifying my mistakes with arguments, even when I knew they were incorrect.

My defensiveness emerged from a fear of being incorrect or inadequate.

It’s not that someone questioned me and doubt and suddenly insecurity crept in.

My insecurity, like an unwelcome guest, had been living with me for years.

The questions people asked me were just mirrors, reflecting what was already there.

I let my doubts fuel defensiveness, leading to a cycle of insecurity.

Caught in a vicious cycle of impulsive reactions, fueled by negative emotions, I kept making miserable decisions.

In this chronic state of fight and flight, a cascade of stress hormones weakened my immune system and contributed to health problems. Until I burned out.

The Impact of Defensiveness on Relationships

My defensive habits chipped away at my relationships.

Being constantly defensive created an invisible wall around me. It made me appear guarded and unapproachable, hindering genuine connection with others.

My reluctance to expose my inner thoughts and feelings, a result of fearing criticism, built walls that hindered connections and intimacy.

When someone offered feedback or tried to connect, I would perceive it as a threat and become defensive. This created feelings of resentment and made it difficult for others to feel comfortable interacting with me.

In my attempt to protect myself, I unintentionally pushed people away, creating the very isolation I feared.

Each time I failed to connect, I felt more isolated and alone and my negative thoughts gained strength.

If I wanted to find inner peace, I knew I had to tackle my defensiveness head-on.

Defensiveness: A Personal Perspective

Imagine me standing in front of an audience, about to deliver a speech. I look down, and I’m consumed by one thought: “I’m not enough.”

This thought triggers a flood of doubt, fear, and insecurity.

It’s a thought, a feeling that I’ve crafted, it is not based on truth or reality. It’s my reflection of what’s already inside of me.

My negative thoughts about myself then create more doubt and low self-esteem.

The reason behind my anxiety prior to and during a presentation, in contrast to another speaker’s enthusiasm, is worth examining.

When my programming is I am not enough, my body will respond by setting off a chain reaction of uncomfortable emotions.

Confronted with uncomfortable feelings and emotions with no apparent conscious stimulus, I label them as anxiety rather than excitement, or neutral information.

This black-and-white thinking only projects one version of me, as either perfect or a failure, which makes any feedback feel like rejection.

To avoid feeling rejection, I turned to mind reading, which, of course, was not a healthy coping mechanism.

I was using others as a loudspeaker for my ego.

Having only this one map made it difficult to explore alternative roads.

Now consider a different scenario altogether.

Picture me once again on a stage, facing a sea of people.

I’ve never given a public speech before, but this time, instead of seeing this as a failing, I view it as a new experience. I’m not broken, just inexperienced.

Recognizing that I am enough and merely need practice is my first step towards growth, learning, and improvement.

The Turning Point

Every time I embrace a personal challenge, I’ll return to the same place.

At first, it is a sensation. Over time, it has grown into a purposeful exercise in visualizing.

I am standing at the edge of a cliff, on a sunny day, looking out into the vast ocean.

Out of nowhere, a forceful gust of wind propels me forward. Realizing it’s too late to remain safe, I jump.

That’s a turning point. That is personal growth. Not bliss, as many expect.

It’s that heart-stopping moment when life pushes me out of my comfort zone and in a different and unknown direction.

Lately, I have been the one doing most of the pushing.

I resigned from my job as a teacher less than a month ago, after spending six years loving every minute.

Standing behind the line in the sand is life-changing, but not for the reason you’d expect.

My turning point came when I accepted the fact that my triggers will never go away – I only get better at dealing with them.

Early warning signs

Knowing my triggers I great, but this knowledge has its limitations and will only take me so far.

As useful as it was to understand my triggers, without being able to see them coming, they kept knocking me down.

Identifying early warning signs was the next step in my emotional evolution.

I started practicing identifying early warning signs by picking up on the subtle changes in my body, emotions, and thoughts before I became defensive.

It was a revelation.

Not only was I seeing the matrix, but. I was the matrix observing myself inside the matrix.

Challenging Negative Beliefs

Identifying my triggers and warning signs was a big step. But a critical piece was still missing – challenging these triggers.

Spiritual gurus will tell you “you need to challenge your negative thoughts,” but they dont tell you how brutal the process is.

Initially, these thoughts didn’t seem negative to me, but a natural part of who I was. So, questioning them felt like I was betraying myself.

This marked the start of a silent struggle within me that eventually led to my death. Well, my ego death.

And here’s another thing that people don’t tell you when they preach about the ego; the ego never dies, you just invite it in so many times that you not only tolerate, but enjoy its company.

That is what my days look like. I invite the ego inside for a cup of tea, sometimes several times every day.

Self compassion

Facing my triggers, identifying early signs of warning, and introspecting my negative thoughts, I stumbled upon a missing puzzle piece.

It was time to invite my ego to the conversation.

The mere thought of it was daunting.

Yet, it was necessary to replace the harsh self-judgment with kindness towards myself. But how could I, when I’ve always equated acknowledging mistakes with feeling shame?

I didn’t even know how to exist without this shame.

Once again, I found myself in need of one more emotional skill.

Here I was, sitting in my kitchen, drinking tea with my ego.

A surreal dance – a delicate balancing act between the desire to kill and treat myself like someone I love when I make mistakes.

This is the reason it’s difficult to practice self-compassion in the beginning.

Why would anyone claim responsibility for their fear and insecurities, let alone admit to it?

That was the reason I kept distracting or numbing myself. To avoid the discomfort of self-improvement and personal growth.

Still it’s the only way out of emotional poverty.

So, I gave it a shot and acknowledged my fears and insecurities without harsh self-judgment.

Self-compassion motivated me to take responsibility.

It’s hard to resist the company of someone who looks into your eyes and recognizes your flaws and failures as part of our collective human journey.

Who doesn’t want a mentor who helps you discover learning opportunities in the smallest of details throughout the day?

Who is always there to support your growth every step of the way?

I just never thought that person could be me.

Self-compassion is a place where I can recognize mistakes while also treating myself with love.

On a note, self compassion is never to be mistaken with a lack of ambition or goals.

I work harder than ever and more focused than ever.

Here, my ego compels me to write that it’s because I am a bad ass.

The truth is, it’s because my schedule is now free from the emotional burden my lack of self compassion was occupying earlier.

Limiting beliefs and triggers used to hijack my energy and focus throughout the week.

Today, I am unburdened, free and brimming with energy every day of the week.

Self compassion is rocket fuel for the soul.

Take a Breath (don’t skip this part)

Your body and mind are linked – they influence each other.

Ever had one of those moments when your heart is racing like a runaway train and your thoughts are whirling like a tornado?

That is your mind is on overdrive.

But then, you take a deep, slow breath, and suddenly everything seems a bit calmer, a bit more manageable.

It’s as if your breath has the power to put the brakes on your speeding thoughts.

For a good part of my life I’d instantly jump to self-doubt and anger at the slightest provocation, a habit born out of years of living in constant stress.

Think of your brain having a built-in fire alarm called the amygdala. When there’s a threat, this alarm rings and the body goes into high gear, heart racing and breath quickening.

It’s like stepping on the gas pedal of a car. But there’s also a brake, called the parasympathetic system.

This is the chill-out mode, calming the heart and helping the body relax.

So, when the alarm bells rings I have the power to hit the brakes.

All it takes is deep breaths to slow it all down, and I feel the calm.

And guess what? This works every time, in just about a minute.

It’s hard to stay anxious when you’re breathing calm and easy.

This is not affirmation or placebo, but science and indisputable knowledge about a sophisticated system working in your favor.

Imagine yourself in the midst of a storm. Everything around you is in turmoil, yet where you stand, there is stillness.

You have the key to unlock that stillness within you.

By breathing calmly, you ease and eventually erase most anxiety.

It’s not a magic trick, but a simple habit you can learn in a few months.

With practice, you turn the tide of anxiety, transforming it into a sense of calm and control.

I made it a habit to breathe in calm and controlled situations first, before practicing in stressful situations.

Today, whenever my body’s alarm goes off, I return to my breathing. This calms my fight or flight response.

As a bonus, breathing gives me a moment to pause and gather my thoughts before reacting.

I find phrases like “Thank you for sharing” instead of confrontational responses like “What the hell do you mean by that?” useful.

Final Thoughts

One day defensive tendencies finally cornered me when I was preparing a long-winded retort, before the other person finished speaking

The voice in my head interrupted, “Stop! Listen first, understand, then respond.”

It was a uncomfortable wake-up call.

I could see that I was a person who didn’t listen. I saw the damage I was causing in real time, amplifying pain and sabotaging any chances at nurturing healthy relationships.

My attempts to avoid the discomfort only made things worse.

During a writing exercise the next day, it was as if a wall in my mind collapsed, exposing a new, exciting, and somewhat scary understanding of myself.

I can’t listen mindfully if my mind is preoccupied with my own thoughts.

Such a life lacks new perspectives. From this state, I cannot free myself from assumptions or experience any personal growth.

I’d missed how interesting people could be.

The problem wasn’t them being boring, but me not listening.

That realization was painful, but not self-pity. It was a call to change.

I started listening and soon loved the communication environment I was creating. It had a richness to it.

For the first time, I experienced the richness of life beyond material wealth.

Each conversation became an adventure, a chance to learn and grow.

Then came a day when I found myself in a heated argument. My reaction caught me off guard. I became emotional.

Instead of charging head-on into a conflict, I realized I had the power to change the trajectory.

I did something different.

Hovering outside my body, watching the scenario unfold. I stayed quiet, listening intently and inviting her to share more.

When she finished, the tension had eased, and she calmly asked for my opinion.

Before I started listening, every conflict felt as if I had missed my stop, standing behind closed doors with my heart racing. Looking at my reflection in the glass door, feeling both stupid and angry, inpatient to get off at the next stop.

Now, I no longer find my worth in winning an argument, but in choosing not to respond with fear or anger.

The first couple of times, the little voice in my head told me that was a sign of weakness.

Choosing based on self-respect is not a sign of weakness, but a demonstration of strength.

When I understand my needs and wants in that order. And I identify my non-negotiables and deal breakers and respect them, I become anti-fragile.

I become stronger when exposed to life’s stressors, randomness, errors, and failures, by using these as opportunities for adaptation and growth.

The opposite of “happiness” is not feelings of sadness or despair, but being unable to listen and react constructively.

The quality of my life directly results from my ability to abandon defensiveness, no matter what life throws at me.

Thank you for reading this far. You are among the 1% who finish what they started.

If my approach to self-improvement and personal growth resonates with you, I appreciate you sharing my work with others.