Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

The Path to Connection (part 1 of 3) Defensiveness: What it is and how to address it within yourself and others

Owning your defensiveness is an essential step in resolving conflict, communicating effectively and enhancing connection with others. This series of posts cover the function of defensiveness, how it shows up in our most important relationships, and ways to start to take accountability more fully.

I was inspired by the work of Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. who developed the model of Nonviolent Communication as a way to address rifts in relationships, from parent-child arguments to angry couples, to geo-political armed conflicts. His straightforward, simple language helps cut through the sometimes confusing and painful experiences of disconnection, misunderstandings, and conflict.

What makes a conflict a conflict is that the apparent needs of one person or group collide with the apprent needs of another person or group. I use the word “apparent” because at the early stage of conflict arising, there is typically a lack of clarify as to actual needs of each person or group. Conflict encompasses a threat – a threat that one’s needs are not going to be met. Naturally, when met with threat, we need to defend ourselves, and this can result in defensiveness.

Simply put, defensiveness is a signal that some essential emotional need we have is not being met in a given interaction or more generally. As humans, we naturally seek safe connections with others and within the world. Our brains and perceptual systems are fine tuned to detect aspects of interactions that feel caring and understanding, and those that feel uncertain, disconnected or threatening in some way. 

Defensiveness is what pops up inside of us when at a deep level we sense an unmet need and therefore experience a lack of emotional safety. 

Defensiveness is not a feeling, per se, (though feelings are signals too) but rather a state of mind, and more specifically a guarded, protected state of mind that is detecting potential or realized harm and hurt that results from an unmet need. 

How does defensiveness show up? Just as a wounded animal does not want to showcase the weakness or vulnerability and therefore make itself a target of predators and further harm, we too disguise our pain and fear. If we have a history of relational trauma or unmet needs from childhood, our natural impulse to camouflage our true vulnerable feelings may be even stronger. I say “natural impulse” because this is an unconscious automatic process, and it is designed to enhance our survival, both emotional and physical. 

Here are some of the ways we disguise our fear and pain, leading it to show up as defensiveness. This list reflects defensive behaviors that are primarily focused on the other person:

  • Get accusatory and blame the other person (as Brené Brown explores in this video)
  • Refuse to further engage
  • Make ultimatums or threats 
  • Litigate and relitigate the facts of the interaction
  • Get analytical and intellectualized 
  • Deny having any feelings about the interaction
  • Skip to problem solving without addressing your defensiveness or the other person’s feelings
  • Attack the other person around a particular vulnerability of theirs
  • Distract from the issue at hand by bringing up past conflicts or transgressions
  • Use psychological concepts or ideas to interpret or explain the other person to them 
  • Use always/never language to describe the other person’s behaviors
  • Infer harsh or negative intention on the other person’s part
  • Making proclamations that you can never get it right/you are always wrong
  • Using sarcasm
  • Making facial expressions or gestures that imply anger or irritation 

Most of us use at least some of these defensive maneuvers at least occasionally, which is understandable because we are bound to find ourselves taken off guard by an unmet need at least once in a while.  Which ones do you use some of the time?  Once you reflect, check out my next post, Uncovering the Feelings Behind Defensiveness.

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