Are You Too Defensive for Your Own Good? 6 Signs You Are

Sometimes, being a fierce self-advocate can trip you up.

Posted Sep 12, 2019

Makhmutova Dina/Unsplash
Source: Makhmutova Dina/Unsplash

You may think that being quick to defend yourself is a good thing, but the reality is that isn’t always true. People who grow up loved and supported aren’t typically defensive unless they’re threatened. They defend themselves in life when necessary, but they aren’t defensive, because the world they see is one in which they have a secure place and feel confident they can make their way.

This doesn’t mean that this securely attached person won’t suffer or fail, because they will; it’s just that when it happens, they tend not to flounder. But when a child’s emotional needs aren’t met in childhood, the chances are good that they’ll develop an insecure style of attachment.

Adults have attachment styles, too, and three styles of insecure attachment have been described: dismissive-avoidant, fearful-avoidant, and anxious-preoccupied. All three of these styles involve a great deal of defensiveness, some of it more subtle than obvious.

The dismissive-avoidant has a high opinion of herself and a low opinion of others. She prefers her defenses high because she really doesn’t want to be in relationships that have any depth; she’s a “lite” girl when it comes to connection. (Yes, people high in narcissistic traits have this style of attachment; they are well-armored and highly defensive.)

The fearful-avoidant, in contrast, has a low opinion of herself and a high opinion of others; in some ways, she’s the girl who peers longingly at the pastries in the shop's window but is too afraid of actually wanting one. Her defenses have to do with her fear of being hurt and abandoned.

It’s the third kind of insecure attachment style, the anxious-preoccupied, where defensiveness is on steroids, and apt to create all manner of drama, much of it destructive to relationships. The person with this style of attachment wants and needs to be in a relationship, but has no sense of boundaries; she is ruled by her anxieties and being constantly on alert for signs that she is about to be betrayed or dumped. But those anxieties don’t turn her into a quiet puddle; instead, they galvanize her defenses and anger.

Former friends, lovers, and spouses are likely to describe being in a relationship with her as constantly volatile, and more like a rollercoaster than not. As exhausted as she is by her own wariness and defensiveness, she’s equally exhausting to be around. In fact, researchers have pointed out that her constant worrying about the state of the relationship turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy; many partners simply weary of the drama. (For more, see my book, Daughter Detox.)

6 Signs That Defensiveness Is Getting the Better of You

Of course, at some level, we all need to protect ourselves, as well as considering ourselves worthy of protection. Defending yourself—as well as your interests and those close to you—is part of the range of human interactions, and we are hardwired to respond in times of physical danger. Forebears aside, it’s true that being able to defend yourself psychologically and emotionally—especially if you’re being unfairly treated, verbally abused, or picked on—is obviously a very good thing.

But there is a huge difference between defending yourself reasonably and overreacting to almost every situation and cue. If you’re wondering about your behavior, or have begun to glean that your upbringing has shaped you in some less than positive ways, think about how often you find yourself in the following predicaments.

1. You’re always on the lookout for signs of exclusion. One woman wrote saying that:

     “I pay attention to the order of invitations, even at the office or with my friends. Am I invited in the first wave, the second, or the last? My best friend convinced me to go to therapy after I freaked out because I wasn’t invited first to her bridal shower. She withered me by saying, 'I thought you’d know you were invited.' Frankly, that hadn’t even occurred to me.”

That sounds weird, but it isn’t really if you are unconsciously always on "The Hunt for Rejection."

Imagine yourself in the following scenarios, and think about how you’d react.  

  • You’re somewhere where you don’t feel comfortable, and you hear laughter. Do you think it’s about you? 
  • Your friend is going somewhere with a mutual friend, and you haven’t been invited. Do you immediately feel rejected and defensive? Or do you just deal with it, or if it bothers you, ask your friend why you didn’t get an invite?
  • You’ve called and left someone two messages, and he hasn’t responded. Do you assume the worst and start worrying what you’ve done to anger or offend him?

Alas, the feeling of not belonging in childhood can become a can of stain you unconsciously use in adulthood. 

2. Your first instinct is to distrust someone’s motivations. Do you always assume that someone is trying to take advantage of you? Do you analyze overtures or even kind gestures, because your first thought is that the person is only being nice to get the upper hand? People raised in households where there was always a quid pro quo, or it was always clear that love needed to be earned, often see ulterior motives where there are none.

When someone apologizes to you, are you able to accept it and move on, or do you stay coiled in a defensive crouch? Sometimes, the effects of childhood insinuate themselves into the small details of life.

3. You read ambiguity into situations and then obsess about them. Many insecure and anxious people are often triggered by cues and gestures they’re not even consciously aware of experiencing. Let’s say that you’re always nervous in large gatherings, but your work requires that you attend a few, and on this occasion, you see a colleague with someone you don’t know, and you head on over.

Just before you’re about to say hello, your colleague turns and heads off in the other direction with the person he is talking to. Do you feel snubbed, or do you assume that your colleague was sufficiently engaged in the conversation that he didn’t even register you were about to come over?  Be honest about how you’d respond.

In a similar way, does your imagination fill in the blanks when someone doesn’t respond as enthusiastically or wholeheartedly as you expected? Or answers you in a vague way about the plans you’ve suggested for a get-together? Again, this can be another sign that your anxious-preoccupied stance is getting in the way.

4. You don’t entirely trust your own feelings and thoughts, but you act on them anyway. This isn’t unusual, but it’s also the worst possible place to be: unsure of yourself as well as your responses, but forging ahead nonetheless. People whose needs weren’t met in childhood tend to have deficits in emotional intelligence—being flooded by negativity, being unable to self-calm, having difficulty labeling what they’re feeling—and that adds to their emotional volatility.

When you find yourself triggered, you may want to use the technique I describe in Daughter Detox which a therapist taught me years ago, and which I call Stop. Look. Listen. When you feel yourself start to react, you give yourself a mental time-out and simply Stop.

Then you step back from the interaction or situation and Look at it as dispassionately as you can; ask yourself whether you are reacting to what is going on in the moment, or whether you are unconsciously responding to an old trigger. Then you Listen by making sure that you are hearing the person clearly and not reading into anything. Pull back and make sure you are thoroughly grounded in the present before you speak or act; being conscious and deliberate in this way will short-circuit your volatility.

5. You never feel entirely safe, but always feel defensive. Is it possible for a friend or lover or even a spouse to reassure you, or do you always feel as though you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop? In my book, I tell the story of Mike and Susan, whose relationship was finally undone by her inability to ever feel reassured that he loved her, which he did.

But what he couldn’t live with was the constant drumbeat of her insecurity, and how she acted when she panicked that he didn’t love her. He wearied of her calling him literally dozens of times when he’d warned her that he’d be tied up in business meetings, or how she freaked out if he didn’t immediately answer her texts. Not altogether surprisingly, he wanted more peace and quiet in his life, and left.

Has this happened to you? Has your constant worrying and need for reassurance ever driven friends and lovers away?

6. Deep down, your defensiveness is fed by a stream of negative thoughts. You may feel that defending yourself is empowering—especially when righteous anger gives you a buzz—but the sad truth is that your behavior is being fueled by reactivity. Your own feelings of worthlessness and shame and fear of exclusion are the engines for your behavior and not a strong sense of self-worth. That’s an important thing to remember.

Healing from childhood wounds is hard, but possible. If your defensiveness is getting in your way, now is the moment to address it. Working with a gifted therapist is the best route.

The ideas in this post are drawn from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock