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The Surprising—and Transformative—Truth About Defensiveness

When it comes to defensiveness, surrender is liberation, not defeat.

Key points

  • We defend ourselves not because we feel wrongfully accused. We're afraid our accuser might be right, confirming our judgments of ourselves.
  • Defensiveness predictably fails to get us what we're really after, which is connection.
  • Being open to criticism and willing to be vulnerable can help quash our defensiveness and strengthen our relationships.
Source: rawpixel/Freepik

A friend of mine once had a parakeet named Monk, who was clearly batty and spent many hours a day pecking fiercely at his reflection in a tiny mirror she’d installed in his cage as if protecting his turf from an invader.

I think of Monk when I think of my own defensiveness—the way I leap to arms when I feel threatened, even by mere criticism or an accusatory tone of voice. I think I’m protecting my precious self-regard when I’m actually undermining it, pecking at my own reflection in a mirror.

Defensiveness comes naturally to us, though.

It helped get us through the evolutionary maze. Huddled around campfires and in the dark recesses of caves, preyed upon by animals much stronger and more skillful than we were, our forebears needed to defend themselves against their own vulnerabilities. And just as the fight-or-flight response and the immune system work to ward off physical invaders, psychological defenses such as denial, blame, distraction, repression, rationalization, projection, and avoidance fend off emotional invaders, threats to our sense of self, or thoughts and feelings we don’t want to admit.

We call them defense “mechanisms” because they feel almost automated, but they work against us when it’s no longer a saber-toothed tiger we’re defending against, only a toothsome barb from our partner because we’ve once again forgotten to put the toilet seat down.

Not that all defenses are unhealthy. We use humor to diffuse uncomfortable situations, compartmentalize a stressful job so it doesn’t leak into our home life, and suppress anxiety long enough to get through a performance or public speech. And, of course, it comes in handy as a driver.

But two of the classic embodiments of defensiveness in human affairs—armored warriors and walled cities—remind us that fear and insecurity tend to drive us into hard shells, which may be useful in war but not in love (even when it feels like a battleground). In a world where power rules, it’s terrifying to be weak, but denying our vulnerability doesn’t eradicate it, any more than turning on a light eliminates our fear of the dark. It only eliminates the dark.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we believe we have something worth defending, but the rush to defend it at the slightest trespass predictably contributes to things going south in our relationships. We snap at the merest whiff of criticism, pick apart each other’s arguments, scan for the smallest chink in their logic or facts, and engage in debate-club tactics to “win” the fight. (“So you won,” a therapist once said to me. “Where’s your trophy?”)

Afraid of losing love and respect—and thus desperate to correct our partner’s perception of us—we deny the charges, turn them back on our accuser, dredge up some old beef rather than focusing on the current issue, make excuses for our behavior, use interruption as a tactical weapon, and diagnose our partner’s faults and flaws with clinical haughtiness. “You know what your problem is...?”

We end up just pushing buttons on each other’s emotional jukeboxes, and meanwhile the temperature rises by the second, as we argue facts rather than share feelings, and push our relationships toward the brink.

The psychologist John Gottman, famous for his work on divorce prediction, says that he can predict with 96 percent accuracy the outcome of a conflict within the first three minutes and the fate of a marriage within five. And much of what he listens for is what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, behaviors which, if unrestrained and unrepaired, can have a disastrous impact on a relationship: defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling.

We’re, of course, counseled to resist the temptation to defend ourselves when we feel attacked.

Take a deep breath, count to five, and remind yourself this is someone you love. But we’re deeply drilled in defending our fragility and imperfection, our long-ago injured egos, and dropping our armor feels like a bridge too far.

In therapy years ago, I defended my defensiveness whenever my ex-wife “twisted my words” during arguments. “If this was a court of law,” I insisted, “and someone made false statements about me, I’d be allowed to defend myself.”

“A relationship isn’t a court of law," the therapist said.

“And you didn’t grow up in my family.”

Granted, just because you’re defensive doesn’t mean you’re not being attacked. It’s just that it so predictably fails to get you what you’re really after, which is connection. And it’s a great way to get someone absolutely fixated on whatever issue they brought up, amping up the tension between you. Plus, it’s bad for your health. If your defenses are up, your immune system is up, and if it’s up a lot, it can put your health at risk. The clinical fact is that holding up defenses is hard physical labor, and it’s draining.

My sense is that defensiveness doesn’t come from disagreeing with our partner’s assessment but from the shame of agreeing. We’re afraid our accuser might be right, that we’ve indeed made a mistake, said something thoughtless, or acted selfishly, tarnishing the reputation we aspire to. We’re scared of having our judgments of ourselves confirmed, especially if the charge is delivered in a charged manner—angrily, impatiently, unsympathetically.

The psychology of confession being what it is, we’d probably love to admit our brokenness and transgressions, take responsibility for our guilt, and be absolved, but not under those circumstances. It’s hard enough to do without an atmosphere of accusation.

The ideal, as philosopher Alain de Botton says, is to create a situation where “well-considered criticism is handled as both correct and yet needing to be wrapped up in extraordinary layers of reassurance. People don’t change when they’re told what’s wrong with them; they change when they feel sufficiently supported to undertake the change they (almost always) already know is due.”

But a profound and counterintuitive truth about conflict resolution comes into play as we try to puzzle out our defensiveness: Surrender is liberation, not defeat, and vulnerability is strength, not weakness.

Granted, if your castle were being besieged by an enemy army and you had a breach in the walls, that kind of vulnerability would, in fact, be a weakness. But in matters of love, what we’re after is the kind of vulnerability that’s life-affirming rather than life-threatening. And though it may seem implausible to the rational mind or one in the grip of defensiveness, the willingness to admit fear and vulnerability can lead to healing and something like a state of grace. “What happens when people open their hearts?” asks writer Haruki Murakami. “They get better.”

For example, in the weeks following the 9/11 bombings, when the fiction of American invulnerability was so shockingly revealed, many of us found ourselves acting a little differently—holding doors open for strangers, spending more time with our kids, paying the tollbooth fare for the driver behind us, honking less, listening more. Passions and loves were released. Parts of us that were frozen thawed a bit. Emotions rose to the surface for a gulp of air. Our involvement in life intensified. In other words, life’s fragility—our fragility—woke us up.

And I don’t have a shred of doubt anymore that taking the risk to lower the drawbridge gives others permission to lower theirs, enabling us to draw intimacy out from behind its defenses and cross the moat between us. Despite my long-standing assumption that I’ll get skewered for revealing any chinks in my armor (and indeed, people sometimes do take advantage of it, and I get hurt), my usual experience, far and away, has been that doing so builds strength into my relationships and is a liberation of love.

Not that it isn’t unnerving. Surrender is murder and not just figuratively because it’s viewed by the ego as a kind of death. Everything in you will fight the urge to surrender and just listen.

But when someone registers a complaint or criticism, it’s important to understand that they’re not so much trying to attack you as communicate something about themselves. Focus on that!

And of your own defensiveness, ask what it is you’re defending so vehemently, since that underlying need is likely the furnace of your fury.

Conflict is part of every relationship, even healthy ones.

It’s how you manage it that determines success or failure. And it’s not whether you ride your Four Horsemen into battle—we all do from time to time—but whether you’re able to do a successful repair, both during and afterward.

Meaning that even in the throes of argument and turmoil, try to make small acts of repair: admit to being triggered and defensive, take some responsibility for dropping the ball, ask a clarifying question, concede a point your partner is making, apologize for a snarky remark, offer a soothing touch, reflect back what your partner said, ask for some time-out to cool down. Repair attempts don’t have to be impeccably sincere—and they may sound mechanical at first—but they have to be made. And they won’t go to waste.

As with so many of our resistances to life, what we frantically defend against turns out to be far lesser than what becomes available to us once we stop manning the barricades. In fact, the degree of our defensiveness is probably proportionate to the amount of love waiting to be unleashed once we get out of our own way.

As a therapist once asked me, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be close?”