How to Stop Getting Defensive
Learn graceful ways to cope with feeling defensive.
Posted May 8, 2018 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
What do a medieval fortress, a balled-up porcupine, and a linebacker have in common? They’re all pros at getting defensive. And when we humans are faced with criticism, we also ready the drawbridge, project a ball of spines, or prepare for the tackle. Getting defensive helps us protect our character and our sense of competence.
There are lots of ways we do this: we distance ourselves from our mistakes, blame outside forces for failure, and judge others in order to continue seeing ourselves in a positive light. Or we drink or otherwise self-medicate to cope with threats to our self-image and self-esteem.
The only problem? Getting defensive with friends, your boss, your partner, and yourself often backfires. It pushes people away, makes us look immature, and sends a message that we’re unable to regulate our emotions. In the moment, getting defensive can feel like the only way to cope with threat. But in the long term, it undermines us and our relationships. When we lash out, we dig ourselves deeper.
So today, let’s look at five ways to regulate your mood and stop getting defensive.
1. Remind yourself of your deepest values.
Remembering our firmest beliefs and passions can make us feel less defensive. Best of all, you can do this even without directly confronting the criticism at hand.
So, for example, if you’re feeling defensive after a not-so-stellar work review, forget about frantically rehashing all your past workplace triumphs. Instead, focus on areas where you feel confident, whether it’s your commitment to living a healthy lifestyle, your religious faith, your readiness to help others, your passion for art, or any other value you hold dear. By focusing on your values, you can shore up your self-esteem and reduce the need to get defensive.
2. See criticism as a sign of others’ belief in your abilities.
Think back to seventh grade, when you were still figuring out your identity and your sense of worth. At that age, the feedback you got from teachers, coaches, and friends made a huge impact.
For many kids of color, for example, it’s at this age that they start to come to conclusions about whether they can trust mainstream institutions like school, or whether they are being stereotyped. Both praise and critical feedback can be confusing for kids of color—how can they be sure criticism is justified or just driven by bias? Or, on the flip side, how do they know if they’re being pandered to by adults who want to prove they’re not racist? So how do they know when it’s fair to get defensive and when it’s a misinterpretation?
A study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology delved into this issue. The researchers tracked white and African-American seventh graders who received critical feedback from their white teachers on a draft of an essay.
For half of the kids, both white and black, teachers prefaced their feedback with the following affirmation: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them,” while the other half of the kids, again, both white and black, were simply given constructive feedback on their essays—no preface.
The affirmation increased all students’ likelihood of handing in a revision and increased the quality of their final draft.
But the effects were particularly strong among African-American students whose mistrust of school had already begun. Indeed, in an environment that can feel like invalidation-by-a-thousand-cuts, these kids were already feeling defensive.
Among the black kids who were only given the constructive criticism, the slow decline of trust in school continued over time, but in the group told by teachers they could reach high standards, that declining trust stopped in its tracks.
So how does this apply to you? Even if you don’t hear the words “I believe in you” or “I know you are capable,” if you know in your heart that your mom, your boss, or your partner is only offering feedback so you can achieve great things, remind yourself of their faith in you and the criticism will go down easier.
3. Cultivate a growth mindset.
We usually think of defensiveness as getting verbally defensive. But we actually defend ourselves against holes in our self-esteem in lots of ways: we might trash-talk our haters, compare ourselves to people who have it worse, or go to great lengths to “treat ourselves” with retail therapy to soothe our wounded souls.
These methods might make us feel better, but they channel our energy into defensiveness rather than moving forward.
So how can we channel our energy into self-improvement rather than self-defense? According to a study by Dr. Carol Dweck, grande dame of the mindset movement, cultivating a growth mindset can help us make the leap.
In the study, university students were primed by reading one of two specific passages written in the style of a news article: one said that intelligence was inherited and fixed from a young age, while the other said that intelligence could be increased substantially over the life span. Then all the participants were given just four minutes to read a long and confusing passage from Freud’s classic The Interpretation of Dreams, which, with its late 1800s language and esoteric ideas, was about as easy to get through as a line at the DMV on your lunch hour.
After they read, they answered some questions that supposedly gauged their comprehension. But no matter their actual score, participants were told they scored in the 37th percentile. Not good by any measure, but not so bad that they were truly the bottom of the barrel.
The researchers found that those who had been primed to think intelligence was fixed made themselves feel better by comparing their performance to those who did worse than them—a defensive reaction: “Well, at least I did better than those morons.”
But the participants who had been primed to think intelligence was malleable coped by being curious about the strategies of those who performed better. Rather than getting defensive, they adopted a growth mindset and tried to learn how to improve their own performance.
Of course, it’s not realistic to expect to always respond to every type of criticism in this way. If you receive criticism that is cruel or insulting, no one expects you to grow from it—go ahead and use your time and energy repairing those wounds.
But if the feedback is meant to help you or is neutral and objective—like scoring in the 37th percentile—rather than channeling your energy into soothing yourself, you’ll fare better if you channel your energy into improving yourself. Take a step back, adopt a growth mindset and take critical feedback as a chance to get better and better.
4. In the moment, buy time.
Okay, you say, that's all fine and good—I can affirm my deepest values, interpret feedback as the fact that others believe in me, and trust that I can grow. But what about in the moment? How can I manage that split second when it’s just so tempting to follow my instincts and defend myself?
The answer: make it through that moment by waiting to react. Just let the adrenaline surge crest and gather your thoughts. You can do this is one of two ways.
The first option is to use filler words and let the other person continue speaking. You could say, “Go on...” or “Oh? Say more about that.” And then, use their airtime to take a few slow breaths and consider how you’d like to respond.
Alternatively, don’t be afraid to stay momentarily silent. A slightly awkward pause buys you time and, as a bonus, throws them off their game. Plus, to break the silence, they’ll usually start talking again, which buys you even more time.
And once you’ve composed yourself, it’s time for the last step.
5. Use classic: “I” statements.
This is a classic for a reason. “I” statements are key to reducing defensiveness. Why? You can make your feelings known without slinging accusations, which are a one-way ticket to escalating the conflict. Plus, no one can argue with your opinion or your feelings.
“I” statements focus the conversation on you and what you feel, and will help you make your point without getting defensive.
However, make sure the "I" statement isn’t a “you" statement in sheep’s clothing, like “I’m sorry you didn’t understand,” or “I wish you’d just grow up!”
Better: “I am not comfortable with this.” “I have a hard time listening when you raise your voice.” “I get frustrated when you remind me over and over. It makes me feel like you don’t trust me.” Sometimes a simple, “I hear what you’re saying,” is enough to defuse the tension and have a real conversation.
To wrap it all up, leave great defense to the likes of that balled-up porcupine. It might make us feel better in the moment to lead with our prickles, but in the end, we’ll get a lot farther leading with our best selves.
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