Feeling Defensive? Find Out Why and What to Do About It

February 26, 2020 Heidi Green, Psy.D.

Do you find yourself often feeling defensive? Perhaps you have relationships with others who seem to get defensive easily. Responding to another person with defensiveness is never the most effective way to solve a relational conflict, but many of us tend to jump into a defensive stance without thinking much about it.

I've been guilty of feeling defensive in my own life and have learned some tools over the years which helped significantly reduce my defensiveness, and better respond to defensiveness in others. Read on to learn my best tips to stop feeling defensive in its tracks.

Feeling Defensive Starts with a Trigger

We all have different triggers that make us feel defensive based on our life experiences. Something that makes me feel triggered might be no big deal to you, and vice versa. That's why it can be so confusing when others don't understand our feelings of defensiveness. It's also why we can think others are overreacting when they get defensive. We simply don't understand each other's triggers.

One skill I implement is to identify what I'm feeling in my body when I get triggered. I tend to feel a body reaction before I know what emotions I'm feeling. I make a concerted effort to pay attention to my body every time I feel triggered. I learned that my body's first response is often a sensation of my heart dropping. I use that body sensation as a cue to check in with myself and find out what I'm thinking and feeling before I respond. This helps me stay effective in my interactions with others. 

Respond to Feeling Defensive with Curiosity

Being curious about why I am feeling defensive, and the defensive behavior in others, was a game-changer for me. When I stopped immediately responding to my internal instincts and paused to ask myself questions, I became much more productive in my problem-solving capabilities. Here are some questions I ask myself when I feel defensive:

  • Why do I feel so strongly about this?
  • What is the threat I'm perceiving?
  • What is my goal in this interaction?
  • What behavior is most likely to help me reach my goal?

For example, I have a tendency to feel defensive when someone I count on doesn't stand up for me when I think he or she should. I know this trigger is tied to my childhood experiences of not being adequately protected by my parents. In the past, if my husband didn't defend me in a moment where I wanted his protection, I got angry and yelled at him for not standing up for me.

Now, I slow down enough to ask myself what I really want. In this example, I want to feel seen and protected by my husband. Yelling at him is not the best way to make him see me or want to stand up for me. When I pause and take a breath once I feel that sinking feeling in my heart, I can choose a less defensive behavior that is more likely to help him see and understand my perspective.

Responding to Others Who Feel Defensive

Meeting someone's defensiveness with anger, irritation or more defensiveness is not helpful. Remember, defensive behavior is a sign that someone is triggered. I find it helpful to try and view the world entirely through the other person's lens.

When I see the experience from the other person's perspective only, it helps me understand why the other person behaves the way he or she does. If I'm still stumped, I say something like, "I can tell this is important to you and I want to understand. Can you take a breath and slow down a bit to help me see this from your point of view?"

I find when others see I care and am invested in understanding, they are often willing to let some of their defensiveness go.

What works for you to soothe your feelings of defensiveness in your relationships? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

See also:

APA Reference
Green, H. (2020, February 26). Feeling Defensive? Find Out Why and What to Do About It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Heidi Green, Psy.D.

Heidi Green is a clinical psychologist and self-love aficionado. She lives her blissful life in Arizona where she enjoys hiking, kayaking, and snuggling her rescue pups. Find Heidi on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and her blog.

Please note: Dr. Green shares her personal opinions and experiences and nothing written by her should be considered professional or personal services or advice.

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