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Stop being defensive - you're ruining your life


When are you defensive and why is it bad?
Has anybody ever told you not to be so defensive and you're not quite sure what they mean? You are being defensive when you are overly concerned with justifying your behavior or action. It's when you go to great length to explain why you did something with the aim of denying that it's your fault. Defensive behavior is often accompanied with someone showing too much emotion (such as anger).

When you are defensive in the context of a conversation, you are really saying ‘it's not my fault' or 'Yes, I did that, but let me tell you why it's not my fault'. Participation in the action is being admitted, but responsibility for the action is being denied.

Another way we see defensive behavior is the good old finger pointing - you are attacking the other person because you are feeling attacked. It happens when someone says, 'I may have done this (awful thing), but you did this (other awful thing)'. Here responsibility is accepted, briefly, and then essentially negated by that person going on the attack and accusing the other person in the conversation of some crime. By going on the attack, the first person tries to shift the focus of negative attention away from himself and onto the other person.

Defensiveness is also known as denial and externalisation.

Why it's so easy to become defensive and what to do when we sense it in ourselves
Our brain is constantly scanning the environment for possible threats and rewards. When we sense a threat, we want to defend ourselves (fight or flights), and when we sense a reward, we want to treat ourselves. This isn't just true for physical threats and rewards, like a speeding car coming towards you (a threat) or finding money in your jacket pocket (reward). It also holds true for existential threats and rewards.

Anything that increases our sense of self-worth, competence, sense of autonomy, sense of purpose, social standing, our sense of fairness, inclusion and respect all feels like a reward and anything that takes it away, feels like a threat. You can be triggered into feeling a threat just by someone interrupting you or by leaving you out of an email thread. It takes very little for you to feel under threat and thus trigger this defensive response. When you feel under threat, the pre-frontal cortex part of your brain stops working. This is the part of the brain responsible for planning, reasoning and self-control. (This happens because your brain doesn't want you to plan and reason while that speeding car is fast approaching, so it just switches off that part of your brain.) In other words, when you are under pressure a part of your brain is switched off and it's easy for you to become dumber. When we are on the defensive, we are simply not able to be the best version of ourselves.

Recovering from a defensive frame of mind
It really matters to get to know yourself and know what sort of things put you on the defensive. It helps to know how to get yourself back from feeling defensive, so you can access the more sophisticated part of your brain. There is a little trick you can try which will dampen the threat response. Ask yourself a distancing questions, like 'what will I think about this when I look back at this in a year's time' or 'what will my friend say about this'. This enables you to get some distance from yourself and will leave you feeling less threatened.

Another trick I’m using is asking myself 'what am I learning from this'. The brain finds it deeply rewarding to learn new things. So, you are turning a threatening moment into a rewarding moment. That's why when you're having a terrible day, it helps to say this has been an interesting day, what have I learnt from this is super helpful to shift from thinking about threats to rewards.

Know yourself. And gather the tools you need to grow as a person.