Deborah Ward

Sense and Sensitivity

The Dark Side of Sensitivity

How defensiveness creates conflict in relationships.

Posted Nov 06, 2013

One of the responses to our own negative feelings is defensiveness. While a defense is not inherently bad, it can create barriers between ourselves and other people. We all need some defenses and they have evolved naturally as a way of protecting ourselves. It’s healthy to be cautious when entering a new environment, for example, or to ask questions when meeting new people. But taken too far, defensiveness can blind us to the genuine caring of others and escalate conflict in the very relationships that are meant to be healing.

Why do we get so defensive? Usually it’s because we feel criticised or attacked, whether the other person intended to or not. We feel we need to defend ourselves against this attack and so we try to explain our actions, justify our behaviour and deflect responsibility away from ourselves by pointing the finger at someone else. Most of the time, we’re not even aware that we’re acting this way, but it becomes easy to see how our own defensiveness can easily create defensiveness, anger and resentment in the other person.

Feeling criticised or attacked is actually only the trigger for the defensive reaction. The real root is deep feelings of inadequacy. If you have been judged, blamed, criticised or controlled, you will inevitably feel that there is something wrong with you. You will feel that you are not good enough. And that hurts. We all want to be accepted and loved for who we are. So when someone says something that sounds like it might be a criticism or complaint about you, it’s just too painful to hear again. What’s left is a dangerously fragile person who sees every word, every encounter, as a personal attack and comes out fighting to try to avoid getting hurt again. Instead of talking and listening, you pull up the drawbridge and roll out the big guns.

According to relationship expert John Gottman, defensiveness backfires because it is really a way of blaming your partner. When you’re defensive, you’re saying to your partner ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’ The partner, whether they meant to criticise you or not, rarely backs down, but instead tries harder to get you to see their point of view. And ultimately, the defender ends up hurting others and pushing people away, the very result they feared most.

Breaking this pattern involves breaking down walls. You need to recognise that while you may protect yourself from getting hurt by being defensive, you will never get what you need. The best antidote to the hurt and pain of past experiences is loving, caring present experiences and to get those, you’ve got to let people in. Here are some keys to opening the door:

• Listen. Instead of assuming your partner is trying to tell you how incompetent they are, listen to what they are actually saying. They may simply want to share their opinion with you.

• Agree. Base your discussions on a mutually agreed upon goal with agreed upon rules.

• Honesty. Don’t try to hide behind lies. It will only complicate matters. Being honest takes courage but it breaks down barriers.

• Understanding. Even if you don’t agree with your partner’s point of view, you can try to understand and respect it.

• Equality. Recognise that each person’s needs are valid and have a right to be heard.