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What is Defensiveness?

We’ve all been there. We’re engaged in a conversation with a loved one, only to see a wall go up before their eyes. Suddenly, they’re on the defensive, deflecting blame, dismissing your concerns, or shutting down communication altogether.

But what exactly is defensiveness? And how can we recognize it in ourselves and others to build healthier relationships?

Hi, I’m Alan Hickey, a Marriage & Family Therapist at Silver River Counseling, and in this article, we’ll explore the subject of defensiveness and provide some helpful tips on what to do when you encounter defensiveness in your relationships.


First, What is Defensiveness?


Defensiveness, at its core, is a protective mechanism. It’s our automatic response to perceived threats, criticism, or judgment. When we feel attacked, our brains kick into “fight or flight” mode, and defensiveness becomes our shield.

This is often triggered by experiences of past trauma, miscommunication, and unresolved conflict. It thrives in environments where trust is tenuous and intimacy feels like a risk rather than a reward.

And, while its intention might be self-preservation, the reality is that unchecked defensiveness can be incredibly damaging to relationships.


Next, What Are the Key Characteristics to Watch Out For?


Some key characteristics of defensiveness to watch out for include verbal cues such as blame-shifting where instead of acknowledging their role in a situation, a person focuses on your flaws or other external factors; minimizing, where a friend or family member downplays the significance of your concerns or feelings; Or sarcasm or belittlement where the other person uses humor or cutting remarks to dismiss your perspective or make you feel insignificant.

It can also include nonverbal cues such as crossed arms and closed posture which creates a physical barrier, indicating their unwillingness to engage openly; avoiding eye contact by looking away suggests discomfort, dishonesty, or a lack of emotional engagement; Or even stonewalling where the person withdraws emotionally, refusing to speak or acknowledge your presence.


So, what can you do if you encounter defensiveness in your relationships?


First, stay calm and avoid mirroring their defensiveness. Respond with empathy and understanding, acknowledging their feelings but also expressing your own needs clearly.

Next, use “I” statements to focus on your perspective and feelings, avoiding accusatory language. Instead of saying “You always shut me down,” respond with, “I feel hurt when you dismiss my concerns.”

Third, set boundaries and communicate what kind of behavior is acceptable within your relationship.

And finally, seek professional help if you find yourselves locked in a cycle of defensiveness that you can’t seem to break on your own.


Remember, communication is a two-way street. By understanding defensiveness, its signs, and how to address it, we can build more open, honest, and ultimately, stronger relationships with those we love.

And if you find that you need additional support, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with us today. We can help you rebuild communication and rediscover the strength and resiliency of your relationships.



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