The Difference Between Sensitive and Defensive

Three distinctions clarify what is sensitive versus defensive in a relationship.

Posted Nov 01, 2020

Clients often refer to a person in their life as “sensitive.” Yet, there is a difference between sensitivity and defensiveness. A truly sensitive person is typically a person who is conscientious and aware of the feelings and emotions of others. Caring, he or she tends to be attuned to those with whom he or she is closest and frequently tries to understand and empathize. This type of individual is often sensitive to criticism, hard on himself or herself, and tends to “take things on the chin.”

Alternatively, a person who is sensitive in a temperamental way is usually defensive regarding threats to his or her ego. Hypervigilant about protecting his or her self-esteem, this person often, unconsciously, deflects accountability, and unfairly projects blame onto others to escape internal discomfort. This hypersensitivity often results in self-centeredness in relationships because he or she is preoccupied with his or her own needs and emotions.

Although these dynamics are intangible and difficult to sort out, three relational tendencies may help a person discern a sensitive individual from one who is defensive.

First, an individual who is robustly defensive may appear to care deeply but frequently focuses on pursuits that fuel his or her ego. For example, Sally spends a great deal of time and money ensuring her child becomes a great ice skater. This seems selfless until the child falls short of Sally’s expectations. Angry, Sally lashes out at the child and rejects the child, emotionally. The child is left alone with her disappointment and the additional shame Sally inflicts. The ice skating is more about Sally feeding her own ego and then it is about the child. Because the child’s shortcoming threatens Sally’s ego, she retaliates against the child, chastising her for failing and embarrassing Sally.

Now, pretend Sally is sensitive and less defensive. She may spend an equal amount of energy assisting her child to succeed at ice skating, yet she also attends to the child’s emotional needs. Offering understanding, reassurance, and encouragement, Sally is truly sensitive to the child’s disappointment and puts her first.

Second, a defensive individual also tends to lack self-awareness. Due to an overarching defensive structure, this person deflects the uncomfortable emotions that tax a fragile self-esteem. It is the difficult feelings, however, that allow a person to look at himself, hold himself or herself accountable in a relationship, and feel for others.

A massive defensive structure sometimes acts as a forcefield, protecting a weak core. Because of this shield, a person may have less access to his or her deep feelings. Instead, the person remains on the surface, emotionally, unable to access sophisticated relational capabilities such as empathy, accountability, and self-awareness.

For example, say Tim jokingly refers to his partner, Anne, as “an idiot” at a family dinner. After the meal, Anne mentions the comment and says it hurt her feelings. Indignant that Anne is challenging him, Tim deflects accountability and excuses his comment as a joke. Next, he accuses Anne of continually needing to start drama. He asks, “Why can’t you just be happy?” Systematically, Tim deflects responsibility and projects blame onto Anne. He lacks the ability to look at himself, take ownership, and experience empathy for Anne.

On the other hand, assume Tim is a sensitive person. He immediately reflects on his behavior and realizes he embarrassed and hurt Anne. He genuinely apologizes and continues to reflect. After some time, Tim realizes he has been feeling extraordinarily inadequate at work. Passed over for several promotions, Tim feels like an “idiot.” Tim recognizes that the discussion during the family dinner resembled the discussions at work. His insecurities were triggered and to feel secure, he belittled Anne.

Tim experiences intense remorse and without excusing or justifying his comment, he opens up to Anne about his professional insecurities. Anne understands more about Tim and offers empathy and reassurance. Tim vows to refrain from devaluing Anne again and sticks to his word. He continues to discuss his work issues with Anne and feels increasingly supported and secure.

A truly sensitive person is usually quite self-aware and in touch with his or her emotions. The insight that this person derives from self-reflection and self-examination allows him or her to gain empathy for others and himself.

Third, an abnormally defensive individual often oscillates from hero to victim and back again. Dancing between the two stances allows this person both ego gratification and an excuse to evade ownership of his or her mistakes in a relationship.

For example, Lisa assists LeeAnne to launch her business. Lisa helps with several aspects of the business. LeeAnne appreciates Lisa’s help and treats her to an expensive dinner. During the meal, LeeAnne gives Lisa a sizable gift card as a “thank you.” Yet, Lisa continues to contact LeeAnne’s employees to provide advice about the business. On several occasions, the employees ignored LeeAnne’s instructions and followed Lisa’s orders. Upset at being undermined, LeeAnne expresses gratitude for Lisa’s assistance but politely asks her to refrain from contacting her employees. In response, Lisa cries and says she cannot believe she is being treated so cruelly after helping LeeAnne with the business. She storms off and contacts LeeAnne’s employees that evening, posing as the victim and distorting the interaction to frame LeeAnne as a brutal aggressor.

However, if Lisa is a sensitive person she may be hurt, but upon self-reflection, understand that her behaviors are inappropriate. She apologizes to LeeAnne and promises to avoid undermining her in the future. The two continue as good friends and soon LeeAnne is assisting Lisa with aspects of her business.

A person who sways between being the hero and the victim may be rigidly defensive. Being the hero plumps up an individual’s public image and allows him or her to use good deeds as leverage to control. Positioning oneself as the victim allows a person to shift blame to someone else and evade accountability.

Although defense mechanisms are universal and necessary a person who has three consistent tendencies; he or she maintains an overarching focus on activities that fuel one’s status, lacks self-awareness, and has a constant need to be either the hero or victim, may be extremely defensive. A sincerely sensitive person may make mistakes occasionally and have a few selfish moments but he or she is generally able to own missteps, possess empathy for loved ones, and sustain self-awareness to mend rifts in a relationship.

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