Yes you are right, I am being defensive

Is being defensive ok?  This article is about emotional awareness on the source, some clarity on what it is and isn’t and some tips for people that use it disarm/disable you.

Let me start off by first acknowledging that we all get defensive at times.  When I think of someone calling me ‘defensive’, it brings to mind a negative, unhelpful of unfounded reaction to something that is happening.  However, there are times when being defensive is perfectly valid.   As with many thoughts and emotions, the ability to stop for a second and ask if we are being defensive, why, and then what to do about it is a skill that can be developed.

Being defensive.  One way to explore the source is from an emotional perspective.  What emotion exists below the reaction/response.  The Plutchik model below is a useful guide to narrowing in, and perhaps for you there will be some that stand out.   And it’s likely not all of these will make sense for you, e.g. it’s hard to imagine becoming defensive about joy for example.   See if you can remember the last time you started getting defensive and recall the emotion that presented with it.  Was it about a person, a situation, an event?

When someone labels us as ‘being defensive, it carries the suggestion that we are irrationally defending ourselves, an opinion, a feeling or an action etc.  And as I mentioned above there are cases where this is true, I know for me I can be triggered and irrational thoughts and responses emerge.   If you find you are being defensive around a view simply because you feel contempt for the other person, then I would say that your defensiveness isn’t doing you any favours and someone calling you out is perhaps something you need to dig deeper on.   There still may be valid reason but it is another source to explore, or it something you may need to work on.

Use the model above, test the words to see if any seem to relate to what you feel when you got defensive. Use what you discover as your emotional source to unpack and find strategies to manage your defensiveness.

But here are a few questions:

  1. Can you be defensive about something rational?
  2. Can people incorrectly see assertiveness as being defensive?
  3. Can an emotion like annoyance or anger be valid (defensive or not). 

I say yes to all of these! 

In fact, any description that carries a set of expectations, social rules or stereotype falls in the same box.  ‘Act your age’ for example;  carries the suggestion we a)are not, and b)we should be.  But are either of those relevant, important or even required.  ‘Don’t get upset’ is another one, and I am sure you can think of a lot more.

Now I think there are generally only two reasons these types of comments get thrown around.  For control or imposing belief systems.   Often these labels are used to suggest we are acting inappropriately somehow and I am sure you can think of examples where you were stopped dead in your tracks when someone suggested you were being defensive; initially shamed, perhaps then doubting yourself and shifting to either compliance or even anger.   In any case the comment was made in an attempt to control, and they succeeded; you are compliant or they got you to start a fight.  The other reason is just people imposing what they think is right or wrong (for them) onto you,  not great either but at least not malicious. 

In either case there is a space for you to bring awareness.  It may take the second or third interaction with people to understand what is happening and prepare yourself.  By staying in touch with our emotions and thoughts during conversation you will be clearer and faster to respond to comments like ‘no need to get defensive’ with ‘actually yes I am getting defensive because you are suggesting I did something that I didn’t and I am getting frustrated and upset by that’.   In a professional environment it may be more like ‘because you are suggesting something took place that didn’t and that you are raising it on this public forum has implications for my reputation’.   You will probably also find that the confidence you have in feeling the way you feel will also prevent you from spiralling into anger or fear etc.  You are able to politely respond without taking it onboard.

Defend yourself – with kindness!

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