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Why Some People Can Get So Defensive

... and why you shouldn't say, "You're getting defensive."

Key points

  • Adult relationships should include the ability to mutually address frustrations, but defensive personalities see threats where there are none.
  • Getting defensive takes many forms, including attacks, denial, fabrication, avoidance and gaslighting.
  • People sometimes feel that ending a relationship, whether personal or professional, with someone defensive is necessary for their mental health.

The range of relationships people have — family, platonic, romantic and professional — can be mostly positive or negative depending on the personality characteristics of the parties involved. The focus of this post is to consider one characteristic, defensiveness, and the impact it has on others in close relationships.

Examples of defensive reactions

Most individuals have had an experience with a person who has the tendency to get defensive. Getting defensive can take many different forms, including verbal attacks, denial (denying what has been said), fabrication (outright lying), avoidance (not allowing any discussion on the matter), gaslighting (e.g., calling the other person “crazy” or suggesting something is wrong with the other person) and others.

At their root, all defensive behaviors have this in common: sending a message to the other person that what the person is saying is wrong or a problem. What’s more, the message is that the person is “out of line” (authoritarian punishment language) for addressing them or attempting to hold them accountable for something in the first place. The takeaway message is that such confrontation — as fair or appropriate as it may be — is unacceptable and will not be allowed.

A brief personality profile of the individual who gets easily defensive

Defensive individuals often have control and power issues, and perceive anyone confronting them or holding them accountable as a threat. They are uncomfortable with feelings in general and managing their own. Defensive individuals don’t like to “work through” emotional issues in the collaborative way adults are expected to. They can be highly impulsive and quick in their emotional reactions, without pausing to think things through in a balanced way. Finally, they tend to avoid too much emotional closeness with others.

What happens in the brain when a person reacts quickly, intensely and defensively

When a person gets extremely defensive, the limbic system in their brain — the one involved with the processing of emotions — has been activated. Mental health clinicians refer to this reaction as primitive but another way to think of it is somewhat animalistic. Human beings have brains and a cerebral cortex, specifically, that are astonishingly sophisticated. Humans have the capacity for all sorts of mental activities that sets them apart from other mammals, but it is important to remember that, at root, human beings are still living, breathing organisms that have automatic survival systems built in for self-protection.

Put another way, no one would ever refer to an alligator as “mean” for tearing apart a fisherman. Why not? Because we understand that an alligator’s brain is structurally different from a human’s. Though a human being’s version of protecting himself will look different — say, in the form of getting defensive — the defensive reaction is just as primitive, quick and — yes, brain-based — as an alligator’s. It's important for humans in relationships to understand that what happens in our brains while we argue or fight is largely determining what we are saying or doing.

The short version of why the defensive person gets defensive

Someone gets defensive as a means of avoiding accountability and getting the other person to back off.

The in-depth version of why the defensive person gets defensive

Adults who are emotionally well-developed overall understand that successful relationships of any kind require mutual respect, which includes listening to the other person’s perspective and sometimes having to change behavior to meet the emotional needs of the frustrated party. When someone gets quickly and unjustifiably defensive, that individual sends a clear and intense message: "Back off; you’re wrong."

In the moment, the frustrated party often feels stunned and confused, as if they’ve been cast as an opponent or enemy all of a sudden, dismissing altogether the history the two have as allies. In this situation, people often feel like saying, “Wait, it’s me! Remember? You’re reacting like you don’t know me or, worse, like you hate me.” In moments when the defender gets quickly and unjustifiably defensive, psychological defense mechanisms that are years in the making have been activated as a means of protecting their ego.

Simple ways to manage the situation when someone gets defensive with you

First, what not to: Don’t say “You’re getting defensive.” In fact, don’t utter the word in any context because mere mention of the word will only make the situation more explosive. The defensive person knows that their defensiveness is a personality deficit because they’ve heard this complaint from many others who came before you.

Follow these simple steps: Pause for a few seconds or more as soon as you spot the defensive reaction; look away at something, anything, in the immediate environment to distract yourself and reduce the potential for your own potential limbic reaction; consider gently walking away from the conversation and calmly saying, “Give me a minute to put my thoughts together,” discuss the situation with a couple of trusted friends later to confirm whether the reaction was truly a problematic sign, and finally ask yourself whether this defensiveness reflects a long-term pattern or a rare occurrence.

The take-home message

Many people experience problems in a professional or personal relationship, but some relationships are undeniably more unhealthy than others. If a person becomes defensive once in a while, that may be something you can accept; if a person doesn’t ever truly allow you to address frustrations you have with them, you may not be able to accept that.

Some interpersonal problems are severe and frustrating enough that, over the long-term, the person who feels invalidated and frustrated decides that leaving that relationship — either finding a new job or ending a particular personal relationship — is what is required to protect their own mental health. Those struggling should keep in mind that working through such an issue with a licensed therapist is one of the most effective ways to make sure that any decisions being made are healthy ones.

Facebook image: Estrada Anton/Shutterstock

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