Defending Oneself or Being Defensive

I was recently asked by one of my patients, “what is the difference between defending oneself and being defensive in the context of a relationship.”  A corollary question was whether there was any justification for defensiveness.

Generally speaking, defending oneself is a response to real threat to one’s person as in a physical attack, an attack to one’s character (ad hominem attack), or an attack against one’s ideas or beliefs.  Defensiveness is a psychological response to perceived or imagined threat or attack to one’s sense of self.

Defending oneself refers to a situation where one is being attacked either verbally or physically. If you are literally being attacked in some way, it would be reasonable to protect or defend yourself. If some one is attacking your ideas, you can defend your ideas. If you are being accused of doing something that is not true or a decision is being attacked, you can defend them. In each of these situations you would meet the attack on the same level as the attack was made. For example, if someone physically attacks you, you could defend yourself in a physical way. If some one attacks your ideas using their own ideas and evidence to disagree with you, you can defend your ideas with supporting evidence. If your are being accused of something that you did not do, you can bring evidence to show that you were not to blame. These are all examples of where an appropriate defense would be justified. In all of these instances an observer, or even the attacker, would in all probability acknowledge that an attack is taking place. In verbal situations the ideas or beliefs are being attacked. In a physical situation it is your body that is being attacked. In neither of these situations do you feel that your sense of self is being threatened. Just the opposite is true when you feel defensive.

Defensiveness refers to a situation where you are feeling personally attacked. It is your sense of self that is being attacked. When you are feeling attacked by another person, the alleged attacker may deny the attack; and an observer may or may not see the attack. In other words, often we may feel attacked when there is no attack intended.  The sense of being attacked may originate within oneself.  When we defend ourselves against a felt or perceived attack rather than a “real” attack we become defensive. We are protecting our sense of self.

Sometimes even a simple question can be experienced as an attack. And sometimes a simple question is in fact a veiled attack. Becoming defensive under these circumstances, however, rarely is warranted and seldom results in a better connection with the other person.  When we become defensive we are more concerned with self-protection than effecting a connection with the other person.  At the moment of perceived attack, the attacker becomes our enemy. Imagine what it might be like if you were able to hold onto the idea that this person, who is now upset with you, is truly your friend and is merely upset about something. How might you respond then? Perhaps you might say, “I see that you are upset with me and it feels like you are attacking me.”

Often when we feel under attack by another person, the words or tone may trigger some internal experience.  For example, if we feel guilty we are more likely to feel attacked by a simple inquiry such as “where were you last night?” If we feel guilty about our whereabouts we might become defensive; if we actually did whatever we are being accused of, we might become defensive. If we were repeatedly questioned by our parents while growing up, feeling as though we are being policed by them, we might experience any question about our behavior as an attack.  Sometimes the perceived attacker, not wanting to acknowledge that they are indeed attacking, will deny that they are attacking you.  In this case, assuming that you have assured yourself that you are not being defensive,  it might be necessary for you to simply acknowledge your feelings and accept that the person with whom you are engaged is not available for a connection.

Defensiveness in an intimate relationship leads to distancing between the parties and is never necessary.  The stronger your sense of self or self-esteem, the less likely you are to become defensive.

Rather than becoming defensive when you experience an attack, the following are some suggestions that might be helpful:

  • Acknowledge that you are feeling defensive.
  • Ask the alleged alleged attacker whether he or she intends to be attacking or accusatory.
  • Inquire as to whether the attacker is upset with you.
  • Ask yourself whether this situation reminds you of other situations where you felt similarly.
  • Is the question a hot button?
  • Are you responding to the content of the statement/question or the tone?
  • Are you feeling unfairly accused or blamed?  If so, acknowledge your feelings.
  • Attempt to engage the alleged attacker in a dialogue rather than a fight.

[Please add your thoughts and experiences on this topic in the comment section of this blog.  This blog is intended as a forum for folks to raise issues, share experiences, and promote dialogue on important issues of contemporay life.   Please sign up as a Facebook Fan at www.docdreyfus.com/fanpage. For additional information about me and my practice, please visit my website at www.DocDreyfus.com. ]

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31 Responses to “Defending Oneself or Being Defensive”

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  6. Read it, and I’ll implement it for sure.

  7. Awesome article, but just curious, what is your main field of expertise? Do you write part time, or are you a professional in your field? I wouldn’t mind reading an About Us section or something to describe what you do so I can better understand your point of view.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your kind comment. I am a clinical psychologist, sex therapist, and life coach. I have been in clinical practice for several decades in Santa Monica, California.

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  15. Eve says:

    Hrmm that was weird, my comment got eaten. Anyway I wanted to say that it’s nice to know that someone else also mentioned this as I had trouble finding the same info elsewhere. This was the first place that told me the answer. Thanks.

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  17. baidu678 says:

    Thank you for letting me know your thoughts and comments, they are much appreciated by me!

  18. Thanks, i can relate … My girl (love)always has a comeback statement for my every thought, it makes me crazy…. but i now can see, how i pollute my words w/hidden accusations (sometimes)… Thanks again for these words of wisdom, i will implement them ….NOW
    ”PEACE ONE LOVE”

  19. Dear Dr. Dreyfus,

    You are a wonderful writer. I told my partner one day that he was being defensive in response to me telling him about a feeling I had. He became angry, I told him he may not clearly understand what “being defensive” really means. I googled, and found your article! Thank goodness. You are a gift, and I wish you all the best.

    Much love and light,
    Heather and Chad

  20. Andy says:

    Nice article, hope you can elobrate more with few examples

  21. Salai says:

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  22. Sarah says:

    Just wondering what the cause of a very low threshold of defensive is. If I say that the weather is not pleasant, my husband becomes defensive. If I comment that a brand that is usually reliable is not so great in a particular dish, my husband becomes defensive. If I comment that the broccoli this week isn’t great, my husband becomes defensive. Is there a chronic problem where almost every comment that doesn’t praise is a direct criticism when none is intended. My husband’s defensiveness seems to be reflexive. Ultimately it really pisses me when he is defensive when no criticism is intended. God forbid that I should criticize anything he does. It’s exhausting and very tiresome.

    • admin says:

      The extent of your description of your husband’s defensiveness suggests a person of very low self-esteem. He appears to respond as though he were at fault for everything that occurs, feeling blamed, threatened, and afraid. It leaves me wondering what his life has been like, especially during early days; was his life filled with criticism, what he held responsible for things beyond his control, was he abandoned emotionally or physically? There is no way to know what underlies this extreme defensiveness without examining him. Yes, being with someone who is so reactive to innocuous comments can be quite frustrating. I suppose you could minimize your negative comments about the weather, the brand, the broccoli, etc., and limit your comments to only those that are positive. This might serve to mitigate the defensiveness and help build a more positive climate. It may also be that your husband experiences you as being more of a glass half empty person than a glass half full person. This might be something to talk about.

  23. Will says:

    Thank you for this article. It has helped me explain the differences to my girlfriend when she’s feeling in the wrong about defending herself when dealing with her friends. She has viewed defense as a negative connotation in general, and I have tried to help her understand that there isn’t anything wrong with sticking up for yourself when you are being treated unfairly.

  24. Kelli says:

    I have an issue with my boyfriend being defensive. He cheated on me with his ex after 8 months of being together. He told me that it was no big deal and he did it just for sex and the full body massages she would give him. Plus he said he didnt see us and in a serious relationship yet. I did get upset and question him a lot. Almost left him because I felt he didnt care about my hurt because he would comfort me or tell me words that would assure me that he was sorry and that it wouldnt happen again.

    What concerns me more than the cheating is how he reacts to situations he has caused that makes me upset and cry. He has shown controlling, avoiding, defensive mannerisms during the year we’ve been together. Rather than comfort me when im upset or crying, he gets mad, controls me by shutting me out, ignoring me and even tries to kick me out of his house because he says he feels “attacked” and then has to defend himself. He wants me to stop getting upset or over reacting and to just let them roll off my shoulder and get over it just like he does.

    How is the correct way for me to react to his defensiveness and is it even worth staying with him? I’ve mentioned counseling to resolve the issue but he just reacts by saying that it’s me with the issue and that I am the one who needs counseling. He did say he’d go with me though.

  25. Margita says:

    Dr Dreyfus
    Thanks so much for your article. I now have a housemate who perceives me as defensive when I am speaking my truth about something. I use words like “I feel or I need”. This really catches me off guard and most times I ignore his comment or reply he is entitled to his opinion but I don’t perceive myself that way. I lost it the other day because what started as a relaxed time of intimacy and feeling vulnerable shifted when he changed the subject out of the blue and asked me about a situation earlier in the day when I was speaking my truth at a support group. He asked “you are in denial. Why are you so defensive?” I felt attacked and manipulated and using a situation out of context to control the emotional balance in our relationship. He seems to be on the offensive alot to derail me. Any suggestions or feedback would be helpful.

  26. famous cigar smoking quotes says:

    Thankyou for all your efforts that you have put in this. very interesting info . “Every man is the builder of a temple called his body.” by Henry David Thoreau.

  27. Gift says:

    Hi

    I enjoyed reading your article about defensiveness. I was recently accused of being defensive. My girlfriend says that I’m very defensive. For instance, she asked me not to use some article of appliance the way she doesn’t approve of, and gave me an option in the process. My reaction to that was that I felt attacked personally, and went on to attack her back. The tone of her voice suggested to me that she was upset with me. However, she tried her best to not disrespect me in the process, and added “please” at the end. The perceived attack reminded me of how she said something with a similar tone a few days earlier, which I then brought up. I went on to mention other things where I perceived attack, but according to her there was none. I also stated that when she’s at my place I try not to make her feel uncomfortable.

    She sat me down and reminded me that she was simply asking me to use the appliance in a certain, not attacking me. I acknowledged my mistake. This is not the first time this has happened.

    However, there are moments where I feel my being defensive is justified. She has a tendency to accuse me of lying when I tell her something about whatever. The problem with this is that I know that I’m being honest with her, and thus feel the need to defend my position. In the end, I simply say to her “Whatever!”

    Another issue is that she tends to be too forward sometimes, and wants stuff done her way. I find this “threatening” and feel the need to “defend myself.”

    I have acknowledged to her that I have a problem indeed. The question is, how do I solve it?

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