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Imagine a conversation caught in an endless loop of defensiveness and blame-shifting.
Person A: Why are you yelling at me?
Person B: I’m not yelling. You’re just too sensitive.
Person A: I’m not too sensitive. You don’t realize how loud you’re being.
Person B: Well, I’m not raising my voice. You’re being unreasonable. I’m only trying to explain why your vacation ideas won’t work. Why can’t you admit when you’re wrong?
Person A: Vacations aren’t about right or wrong. They are something we should both enjoy. You obviously don’t care how I feel. Now I remember why I don’t like going on vacation with you.
Person B: Fine. You’re impossible to please. You take the vacation you want and I’ll go on mine. That’s the only way we’ll both be happy.
Who hasn’t responded with defensiveness? Being “defensive” is neither good nor bad. But adding the “ness” indicates a general pattern of over-protection that prevents people from feeling emotionally close. You can guard against negativity and lies, but you can also guard against I feel shame and I don’t want to be known right now.
A Healthy Defensive Protects You From Harmful Attacks
When you feel threatened, it’s okay to throw up your defenses. Usually, it happens automatically before you’re even fully aware of the danger.
Danger can be a genuine threat that will cause harm but it can also be a false perception. If you experience a situation that reminds you of a threat you’ve had to endure, you can perceive an innocent situation at the same threat level. It’s even possible to be so worn down by stressful experiences that a person can hold onto a generalized level of fear almost all the time. Another word for this is burned-out or it could even be Post Traumatic Stress.
If you take a piece of plastic and bend it, it will start to heat up and weaken. If you do it too much, it will snap. That same thing can happen with us when we experience too much stress in too short a time.
That’s why it is so important to be patient with others. You don’t know what threats they’ve faced. You probably don’t intend to harm anyone, but your behaviors could raise someone’s threat level.
An Unhealthy Defensive Prevents You From Receiving Love
Being defensive is such a natural response that it can be difficult to realize you’re doing anything wrong. Unless there is a real threat that you know you can’t handle, defensiveness blocks you from getting what you want. The good things you want from life will come to you as you learn the right time to be vulnerable.
It’s hard to ask for what you really want when you’re afraid that you’re not going to get it. Maybe you’ve had a string of times you’ve been forgotten. Maybe you’re convinced by now that your desires don’t matter. Whatever the reason, defensiveness might serve to protect you from further disappointment, but it will also protect you from that love you desire.
Now, what would a healthier version of that conversation look like?
Person A: Why are you yelling at me?
Person B: I’m don’t think I’m yelling. Am I being too loud for you?
Person A: When you speak like that I struggle to want to stay in the conversation with you. I can’t handle it. It’s too stressful for me. I don’t feel like you care how I’m feeling.
Person B: This seems like my normal voice. I’ll try to speak more calmly. I want to plan our vacation. I have to admit though, I can’t stand the idea of laying around all week at the beach. I’m concerned I’ll be miserable and I won’t have any fun. That isn’t going to help our relationship.
Person A: Vacations are something we should both enjoy. You don’t seem to realize how stressed I am. Camping out is always so much work. It’s certainly not relaxing.
Person B: Yeah, we’re both stressed. I suppose we could split up. You could go to the beach while I go camping. But that won’t work very well because the whole point is that we need to spend more time together. What if we found a place that has a beach and good hiking nearby?
Whenever you become aware of defensiveness, look for ways to turn it around using vulnerability.
Matt Pavlik is a licensed professional clinical counselor who wants to see each individual restored to their true identity. He has more than 20 years of experience counseling individuals and couples at his Christian counseling practice, New Reflections Counseling. Matt and Georgette have been married since 1999 and live with their four children in Centerville, Ohio.