Are you too defensive?

Criticism, at home or in the workplace can hard to take. It can be embarrassing. It can prompt feelings of being devalued or inadequate in some way. When we’re on the receiving end of criticism from a loved one, colleague, boss or friend it can feel like a personal attack. It’s perfectly natural, therefore, to react to this attack defensively. Reacting, however, is different from responding.

To respond is to consider one’s actions or words before proceeding. Reacting is automatic and unconscious. As human beings, we react automatically to events where we feel threatened (it’s an instinctive survival thing) and criticism can certainly feel very threatening, especially to our ego! After all, it is uncomfortable to be told that we are ‘less than’ in some way, or that we have failed, forgotten or simply misunderstood a request.

Whilst standing up for ourselves when we have been wrongly accused is, of course, necessary, habitually reacting defensively to criticism in our relationships can create a criticism-defence cycle that can be difficult to get out of.

Let’s first consider the following example:-

“You’ve forgotten to put the bins out again!”
Well, you forget things too!
“I do not! Besides, this is about you forgetting again. Why can’t you just remember?”
I forgot because I was distracted by the postman. You could have put them out, why
does it always have to be me?

How many defensive reactions can you count in this example? When we look at this exchange, we can see just how easily defensive reactions can escalate an unimportant event into something disproportionate and uncomfortable for both parties. So, what’s the solution?

Posted on Psychology Today, David Woodsfellow’s blog post ‘Why Do People Get So Defensive? ’ 1, suggests that the simplest way to address defensiveness – in this instance within a romantic relationship – is to look for where you could be accountable and take responsibility. Using our previous example, taking responsibility for forgetting to put the bins out could change the conversation to look a bit more like this:-

“You’ve forgotten to put the bins out again!”
“Oh dear, have I? I’ll set a reminder on my phone so I don’t forget again”

In this instance, three things have happened. By using a non-defensive, responsibility-taking response;

  1. the ‘power’ of the criticism is reduced,
  2. the feelings associated with being criticised are replaced by feelings of being calm and empowered and
  3. the problem of forgetting to put the bins out has been solved!

Of course, it’s not just a case of altering our reaction to criticism to a more reasonable and honest response; we can also look at criticism itself and see how it can be altered to sound less ‘threatening’ and therefore avoid prompting a defensive reaction. Turning criticism into a request, as David Woodsfellow suggests, could change our example dialogue to something like this:-

“The bins weren’t put out today…would it be possible for you to find a way to
remember every week from now on?”
“Oh dear, not again. Of course, a good idea. I’ll set a weekly alarm on my phone so I
don’t forget”

In this final example, a present-tense fact (without accusation) is followed by a positive, future based request. This non-critical use of language prompts a non-defensive and cooperative response. Instead of feelings of irritation at a necessary task not being done by one person and the lingering discomfort of being criticised by the other, a solution to the problem has been found, needs have been met and both parties are empowered by the positive nature of their exchange.

1 David Woodsfellow PhD. ‘Why Do People Get So Defensive’ 15th May 2018

About the author
Counsellor Penni Osborn
Penni Osborn
Penni Osborn is a counsellor working at Anglia Counselling Ltd where she meets with adults, offering kind and compassionate help with anxiety, depression, CEN and difficult or overwhelming emotions, both online and in person. Penni also offers non-judgemental support and guidance for those seeking to explore their experiences in order to achieve enhanced personal growth, positive change and greater happiness.