How do you really know if you are being defensive?
March 20, 2020 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Are there resources I can use to help me to analyze my own behavior and reactions?

I do believe that everyone feels defensive at times and may not always react in the most helpful manner to stress or to things people say. However, sometimes I've been accused of being defensive when I did not feel that I was doing anything that I typically associate with defensive behavior such as deflection, redirection, etc. The words may sting but I try to know when I have done wrong and own up to it and apologize in the moment.

But how can I know that if someone is calling me defensive that it is what I'm actually doing and not possibly that person being toxic towards me? What tools can help me make that clearer? Because if I truly am being defensive, I would like to know and be able to work on myself. But sometimes people are toxic and say things to you that aren't true and I don't want to take in that toxicity. How do I know where the truth is? I cannot analyze someone else but I can at least look at myself.

Online tools and resources would be much appreciated. I recognize that therapy is something that I need but is not an option in the immediate time frame. I am not in crisis, just looking for some resources to help work on myself until I am able to have therapy. So advice other than, "see a therapist" is much appreciated.
posted by acidnova to Human Relations (10 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I have this issue as well. I would say that, as my partner and I have been advised, that slowing down the conversation to unpack the idea that you're being defensive without questioning it. A basic strategy I've tried to follow is:

1. Acknowledge the other person's feelings - e.g. "I hear what you're saying." It's important that your reaction to be told you're acting defensive isn't itself defensive, which is me sometimes.
2. Admit you're not good at detecting this kind of thing and ask what it was you did that felt defensive to them. This can be tough to do without seeming like you're disagreeing with the assessment.
3. When you have a little more info, introspect. I find it helpful to think about it this way. Defensiveness sort of by definition means one feels the need to act in defense or protection of something, which implies an attack of some kind by the other person. Just asking yourself, what did the action they describe protect, and how might I have considered their actions an attack? In this step it's okay to stretch things a little because remember, the other person has their own interpretation of events that may differ quite a bit from your own, which opens up the scope of what's possibly happening.
4. Explain if necessary so your interlocutor doesn't think you've just taken their info and thought, well that's bullshit. "I guess I did think you were saying in a way that I'm not taking my job seriously. That may have caused me to respond that way."
5. Apologize. I have a hard time apologizing when I don't feel I've done anything wrong. But I've increasingly found that my actions and words can be interpreted very differently from how I intended them. Sometimes this is the result of carelessness on my part, sometimes (and these are the hard ones) it's definitely not. But you lose nothing by apologizing to someone who genuinely feels you were being defensive.

As for detecting toxicity... I would say that toxicity is a pattern, not a single action. A person may accuse you of acting defensive in bad faith once but never again (maybe they're learning their own lessons). In that case it doesn't help either of you to over-analyze and suspect the other. Better to "lose" that argument, since you don't actually lose anything. But a pattern of this over many interactions. can be harmful and indicate a toxic relationship or abusive behavior.

Anyway, that's my thought avalanche, way longer than I intended. Like I said I struggle with this too so I will be looking at resources others post.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:26 PM on March 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you would find Don Miguel Ruiz's book The Four Agreements interesting. I try to reread it every few years myself.

Also check out Byron Katie, I really like her idea of "staying in your own business" as a way to kind of preempt your own knee jerk defensive reactions and to inquire into yourself to see where they are coming from, if you have the bandwidth to take that next step. The better you get at noticing it, the less it happens.
She has a free book summarizing her approach.
There are a lot of free resources/worksheets on her website also.
posted by zdravo at 1:32 PM on March 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you had access to it I think you might benefit from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a large part of which is devoted to training people to recognize and label emotional responses in context. Assuming that being defensive is an emotional response, recognizing the accompanying emotions would be part of determining whether you're really being defensive.

So - I don't know how much use this will be without a therapist and without the context of a complete course but here (PDF) someone has posted the hand-outs my therapist gives me. "Emotion Regulation Handout 5 / Model for Describing Emotions" on page 8 is a sort of flow chart that conceptually describes the emotional lifecycle, as it were, for purposes of discussion (it's hard to see but it all begins with the box labeled "Prompting Event"), and then the subsequent ten pages characterize different emotions... I'd imagine that fear and anger relate most directly to defensiveness.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 1:39 PM on March 20, 2020

Though it might be worth asking if defensiveness is justified in some situations. Like if you have a good idea, and someone unfairly attacks it, it might be appropriate to speak defensively.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 1:43 PM on March 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

One thing that might be helpful is journaling. If you specifically want to work on awareness of defensiveness, try writing at least a couple entries about times you know you *were* defensive. Explore those situations—what were you thinking and feeling in those times? What were the situations like? Who were the people involved? Etc. Use a couple entries to explore times you know you reacted well in a situation of criticism/disagreement. Then tackle a situation you’re unsure about. Again, just explore what was going on. Afterward, see if you can identify pieces that fit with your more defensive or more open moments. Are there any commonalities? Maybe there are commonalities with both?

Journaling doesn’t have to mean long paragraphs of prose, either. Write a list, draw a picture, do what’s meaningful to you. Let yourself be curious about your own past reactions without worrying about finding One Right Answer.
posted by epj at 1:48 PM on March 20, 2020

You said that on reflection, you don't think that your response fits with what you know as defensive behaviors. Defensive doesn't have to be a specific action, it can be seen in tone of voice or nonverbal cues.So the problem might be that you are feeling defensive the other person reads in your nonverbals or might be that you give off something that others read as more defensive that your actual internal feeling. So, being curious about what they saw as defensive might give you good information. Whatever they say, you can take as input (Thanks for telling me that - I'll have to give some thought to that) even if you don't agree with them.
posted by metahawk at 2:43 PM on March 20, 2020

I used to be more defensive because I made a lot of things about me that weren't about me. I personalized most everything. Now people can say whatever they want because I don't take things personally. It has nothing to do with me. People do not need to agree or approve in order for me to feel okay.

Some people are defensive because they identify with almost every thing they do and think. If I say I generally don't like to buy meat at Walmart another person may take this as a personal attack because they buy meat at Walmart. They might feel like I am disagreeing with the essence of who they are rather than a shopping preference. When people identify with what they do and think and someone disagrees, they are going to react and try to defend that choice as RIGHT.

If you're defensive you may be overly identifying with thoughts. You may have a need to control interactions. You may have a very hard time being vulnerable. This is all normal human stuff of course.

On "toxic" people:

I generally do not believe in toxic people. People are not toxic, they are suffering. We are all suffering on some level at some point in our lives. If you label people as "toxic" rather than seeing their suffering your stance is reactive by default and your interaction is already tainted with hostility. If you see people as human and take nothing personally your conversation is going to be more genuine and sane. Not reacting is an act of strength. People who are overly identified with their minds believe that they are being weak if they don't react and defend. They feel threatened and have to defend their choice or else their entire sense of self is lost -- of course this is not true, but this is the feeling. It can be very distressing to some people.

We all have levels of dysfunction and our egos get in the way sometimes. Be aware of that. If you can recognize another person's difficult behavior as coming from their mind, instead of personalizing it, conversations will go more smoothly and interactions will be light instead of heavy. When you personalize another person's behavior you make "enemies". You might check out The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

If you look at Trump's personality you can see that he is a DEEPLY wounded individual. Some label him as narcissist or evil. You could replace those adjectives with toxic. Trump personalizes everything, therefore he reacts, is defensive, and has enemies. These behaviors are weak. We know that his sense of self is fragile because he is always reacting instead of overlooking. Trump is an extreme example because we don't usually encounter deeply wounded people like this on the regular. Most people are not coming at us with an agenda to be admired or with extreme defensiveness. Most people are trying to connect. People want to be loved and seen. Notice how the strongest and most confident/genuine people don't need you to agree with them. They can take "criticism" and blow it off. They don't need to control.

To not react is to forgive. See the humanity in people. When you see another person, you are seeing yourself. Every time you overlook or forgive something instead of reacting, it makes you stronger and more peaceful.
posted by loveandhappiness at 3:18 PM on March 20, 2020 [6 favorites]

My husband and I find that some time in which we are disengaged on the topic, say overnight, is sufficient for one or both of us to recognize and then own up to our defensiveness. What generally ensues is a discussion about the roots of said defensiveness, which results in some greater awareness on one or both of our parts. Of course, we're both psychologists, so YMMV. If you've ever wondered what a relationship among two psychologists would be like, and you know who you are, this is your answer. But there's a lot to be said for taking the time to think about what happened, figure out what each of our roles were in causing it, and then talking about it over coffee the next morning. Oh, and trusting your partner enough to admit your weaknesses without worrying about it ever being used against you in some way.
posted by DrGail at 4:39 PM on March 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

John Gottman is a psychology professor who has rigorously studied marriages dynamics for decades. Defensiveness is one of the traits that is so damaging to a relationship that it's regarded as one of the "Four Horsemen" that predict the likelihood of divorce. (The other three are criticism, contempt, and stonewalling.) This article from the Gottman Institute goes into defensiveness in some depth, including why it can be hard to recognize in oneself, and what to do about it. Bottom line is basically take responsibility for what you do, and respect what's going on with your partner.
posted by Sublimity at 8:08 PM on March 20, 2020

Response by poster: Thank you all. I haven't had a chance to go through the suggested resources yet but I will check them out in the coming months. I haven't marked a best answer for that reason but I appreciate every comment that has been made. Thank you, again.
posted by acidnova at 10:16 PM on April 3, 2020

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