Defusing Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a common form of emotional self-protection. When we feel corrected or criticized, we deflect or shut down the conversation to avoid feeling hurt, sad or ashamed. An emotional wall goes up, with us barricaded inside, and the offending person is pushed away. This might feel better in the short term, but it breaks the relationship’s necessary feedback loop and hampers self-awareness.

How can you tell when defensiveness is arising? The body usually tightens, subtly pulls back or braces for danger. The body’s stress response has activated, and we feel the impulse to fight or flee. Fight responses include the urge to be sarcastic, bite back with countercriticism (“Yes, but you . . .”) or lash out (“How dare you!”). Flight responses seek to avoid the conflict, including the urge to make excuses, claim victimhood (“Who, me?”) or withdraw for the silent treatment.

Your goal is to notice the spark of defensiveness and pivot away from lighting the fuse. Inside, we have defensive body sensations, thoughts, feelings and urges. These happen quickly and will pass if we don’t feed them with indignant narratives.

Quiet the defensive feelings by exhaling slowing to deactivate your body’s stress reaction. Bring compassion to yourself—it’s painful to be on the hot seat. Settling your body and mind can change the vibe of the interaction from antagonistic to constructive.

As best you can, shift away from a right/wrong mindset toward a learning perspective. As you exhale, explore “What am I missing?” If the feedback is legitimate, it will illuminate a blind spot you need to see. If the feedback is off, you’ll be more effective in clarifying it if you listen earnestly and calmly re-evaluate.

As we become willing to have hard conversations about our actions or views, we will come away with a deeper understanding. Look for moments when you realize, “I never thought of it that way.” This is where your self-awareness grows and your relationships deepen.

Photo credit: Georg Eiermann

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