A Psychiatrist Explains How You Can Undo Your Defensive Behavior

Psychiatrist By Amy Bloch, M.D.
Psychiatrist
Amy Bloch, M.D., has been practicing child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry for 23 years. She received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and her M.D. from Yale University School of Medicine, and she completed her psychiatric residency training at The Payne Whitney Clinic, New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

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It’s not totally your fault you’re being defensive. Your brain is designed to protect you from harm and is hardwired to react defensively and to distrust. It does this because your brain has a negativity bias and naturally pays more attention to negative, painful, and threatening information. 

In a mad effort to protect, the brain calls out be careful, be guarded, be mistrustful and be on the defense! No wonder you’ve developed defensive behavior. Unfortunately though, this defensive behavior is ultimately making you unhappy.

Defensive behavior comes from your inner soundtrack that says you’re in danger, that the world is big and threatening and you are little and helpless. People often think this soundtrack is a reflection of what’s going on outside of them—that it’s about things you can’t control like uncertain world events, divisive national politics, a challenging work environment or a partner who says something insensitive.

As stressful as these realities are, your defensive behavior comes from two core beliefs. One belief is driven by fear—that your well-being is literally up for grabs by other people or situations, and you could be hurt. The other is driven by guilt—that you have been the one to hurt other people and deserve to be hurt back. 

For example, when you feel you’ve behaved badly toward someone (like being late for a meeting or being overly critical), this causes you to feel guilty. Your guilt then turns into fear of retaliation, which then turns into taking a defensive stance. 

Defensive behavior constricts and contracts your cognition, awareness, emotions, and body. If you view the source of your well-being as outside yourself, it makes sense that you would live defensively and think that the best you can hope for is getting through the day without harm. 

But if you knew that you could cultivate safety and well-being from within—no matter what’s going on outside of you—that would mean you wouldn’t need defensive behavior. The good news is that you can do this by choosing not to listen to your inner soundtrack. Instead, make the choice to trust and let go of any limiting beliefs you made up in the first place. The way to do this is to tap into the power of your heart

Heart, the way I’ve come to understand it, is a collection of often underused abilities and universal longings for purpose, self-value, connection, and happiness. I like to think of heart as your refresh button—it clears the screen and gets rid of any old, stale, negative, repetitive perceptions that leave you feeling defensive, inadequate, and hopeless.

How to undo defensive behavior

Defenses can be subtle, but how defensive behavior makes you feel is obvious. When you’re defensive you feel on guard, worried, fearful, distanced, numbed, and tired. Your body reacts with poor eye contact, downward crossed arms and/or facial tension. Many people think the only way to undo defensive behavior is to relax, but I disagree. 

Instead, I also suggest shifting from only thinking with your brain—which you now know is designed to narrow your focus to threatening data, mistrust, guilt and worry—to thinking with your heart, too. Heart is designed to widen your focus and cultivate positive emotions, gratitude, confidence, curiosity, and joy. 

Your heart also has the power to fundamentally change your body and brain. It literally dissolves defensive behavior by secreting a biochemical called atrial natriuretic peptide, a hormone that counteracts the effect of cortisol, which maintains the stress reaction and a state of defensiveness. 

The next time you start to feel defensive, notice how you’re feeling and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this stance serving me? 
  • Is this stance resulting from guilt? 
  • Am I behaving in accordance with my goals and values? 
  • Is this old belief that I can’t trust people true and is it preventing me from being happy? 
  • Is this stance isolating me and leaving me lonely?
  • Is this defensive behavior making me feel safe or vulnerable?
  • Is my brain having me believe that I need to be defensive? 

Now is your opportunity to see how these old beliefs (your inner soundtrack) and defensive stances are not serving you. Between noticing and your next response is a space, and that space is your heart moment to feel safe enough to change your beliefs and choose to trust. 

The opposite of defensiveness is trust. To trust means that you rely on the goodness of others. You believe that they’ll do the right thing, so you feel safe, unthreatened, open, and relaxed. A trusting stance helps you come across as calm, confident, and friendly. Based on the premise that you can trust others, you improve your relationships.

And the opposite of holding back is staying open. As soon as you notice yourself pulling away and reacting to something said or done to you, say to yourself, “I don’t yet know what _____ meant.” This doesn’t mean you approve—it just means you don’t know—and this allows for the possibility of a misunderstanding and reengagement. 

For instance, your partner arrives late to an important medical appointment and you instantly label him as unreliable and untrustworthy. Instead of defensively attacking him with a snippy comment or the silent treatment, catch your hurt and fear, and reset by telling yourself, I don’t yet know what his lateness meant. In this scenario, it turned out that the Uber driver got lost. Reminding yourself that you don't know will relax your defenses so you can fully benefit from your partner’s presence and support.

Making the switch from being defensive to being trusting will take some practice, but you can do this. When you notice defensive behavior, tune into it and don’t try to immediately get rid of any fear you may feel. When you make the switch from brain-based thinking to heart-based thinking, barriers drop away. Heart has a different set of beliefs than brain that are based in love, and lets you see what brain can’t. Locate your love inside and offer it out.

Just for today, try to develop a trusting attitude: Relax your body and tune into what’s going right in this moment. What’s right in your relationships, your life and the lives of those you feel close to? You might even try saying, “Let me be defenseless right now so I may feel peace, joy, and ease.” 

As your defenses come down, you’ll be able to let in the goodness in the moment. Savor the feeling and try this again and again.

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