Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

The Path to Connection (Part 2 of 3) Uncovering the Feelings Behind Defensiveness

If the first step to diffusing defensiveness is to know it when we see it, the next step is to work to understand what it is protecting us from feeling and confronting. To reinforce, defensiveness itself is not a feeling, it is a state of mind and it manifests as a series of behaviors intended to distort and guard us against painful emotions.  

Defensiveness can come about in response to a range of emotions. Here are some of those emotions:

  • Anger
  • Annoyance
  • Frustration
  • Hopelessness
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Hurt
  • Shame 
  • Guilt
  • Overwhelm
  • Anxiety
  • Worry
  • Concern

Identifying one’s emotions is a highly complex skill that can be learned. But it takes time and a willingness to explore difficult experiences. It is, however, an essential skill involved in living an intentional and emotionally present and connected life. Our emotions are our primary source of information regarding our needs. Positive emotions, such as pride, contentment, joy indicate that certain needs are being met. Negative emotions tell us what needs are being neglected or not met. This handy chart might helped with visualizing emotions that fit into these two categories of met versus unmet needs.  

Sometimes it is easy to identify the emotion underlying our defensiveness, other times, not so. As you get familiar with your habitual ways of getting defensive, the feelings underlying the defensiveness should get clearer. The tricky part of this is that when we are in defensiveness our ability to be self-reflective is not its sharpest. We may need to cool off or wait before we can connect the dots here. Brené Brown, an emotions researcher, has a lot to say about emotions and how they operate within us, especially her book Atlas of the Heart and her television series of the same name.

For some of us, identifying needs is easier than identifying emotions. In my work with people from all walks of life, I have encountered those who feel so intensely that it’s almost as if the emotion is shouting it’s presence at every turn. For others, the emotional experience is very subtle, so much so that if they look away for a moment, the feeling has dissipated.  Even the experience of being asked what they feel can be a challenge, because there’s a recognition that they must have feelings and reactions but they struggle to both notice them and name them. 

Identifying one’s needs is another crucial step in the process of connecting more authentically, and breaking through the defensiveness that keeps us estranged from those we love. The next post, Linking Feelings and Needs outlines that process.