You Cannot Defend Yourself Without Being Defensive — So Here’s What To Do Instead
If you’ve been called defensive and want to know how to more calmly defend yourself, here’s the truth: You cannot defend yourself without being defensive. Instead, you need to work on removing the framework of “defense” completely.
There is no difference between defensiveness and defending yourself.
Learning to step away from the need to defend yourself in any given interaction is one of the most powerful relational skills you can develop. There are very few scenarios in which we truly need to defend our point of view. Rather, we are mostly driven to do so by the desire to be right. In these moments, we are held within the grips of the ego, which acts as a barrier to authentic communication and connection.
Getting caught up in explaining why one person's perspective is right and the other person is wrong is one of the most unhealthy communication dynamics that people can enter into in relationships. In his research on marriage and divorce, relationship psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., found defensiveness to be one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a list of four communication behaviors that signal the end of a relationship. Whether you use it in your romantic partnerships, with friends, family, or at work, it is incredibly detrimental to relationships.
When people are defensive, they are dismissive of the other person's point of view and their own responsibility in the matter, and they are unable to recognize that multiple realities exist. They struggle to see that listening and validating do not mean agreeing and that giving space to the other person does not mean you will never get space to share when the time is right.
How to respond to criticism without being defensive.
Defensive people hear a differing opinion, a thought, or another person's concern and respond by:
- Dismissing: "You must be kidding me! This is not a big deal!”
- Using "Yes, but…”: “Okay, I hear you, but what really happened was...
- Explaining: “Well, I got caught up in traffic and then...”
- Derailing the conversation: “We can't talk about this right now because I want to talk about...”
- Returning blame to the other person: “You never do it either!”
- Playing victim: “You are so unfair to me!”
The use of defensiveness maintains a criticize/defend pattern in which the other person feels unheard and will likely amp up their point or turn to louder and more hurtful forms of criticism. This then creates the very scenario that the defensive person was trying to exit—more criticism—and leads to a loop of more defensiveness.
Gottman shares that breaking out of this loop requires taking responsibility or expressing validation. Neither of these things mean you have to agree; it just means you can see from their perspective why they would think or feel the way they do or you can agree you do have even the slightest responsibility within the problem.
Validation might sound like:
- "This makes a lot of sense. If I thought that, I would feel just like you."
- "I get why you are angry."
- "I can hear why you would think that."
- "You make sense to me."
Taking responsibility sounds like...
- "You are right. I didn't clean the dishes."
- "I can take responsibility for the way I spoke to you last night. It was wrong."
- "I did forget to submit the assignment. It should have been on time."
When you respond to differing opinions or criticisms in this way, you are connecting with the other person and defusing the tension. This creates trust. And with trust, we open up more space for discussion. The other person lets their guard down and will be more willing to hear you out, too.
Defensiveness vs. setting boundaries.
While it's healthy to learn how to sit with the discomfort of being misunderstood, there are moments when the other person is misunderstanding you so deeply or the misunderstanding is dangerous or harmful to you. In those moments, you must set boundaries.
Boundaries do not enter into the defensiveness patterning. They are not about proving that you are right and they are wrong. Rather, they let the person know that you have reached your limit with what they are saying to you or how they are saying it to you.
Examples of boundaries are:
- "I have listened and taken responsibility for my part in this. However, I will not continue to be criticized by you."
- "I hear your perspective, and I understand that is how you see things. I would be angry too if I thought those things to be true. I need to set the record straight on some things here. Are you ready to hear my perspective?"
- "I am not able to talk to you while you are yelling at me. When you can speak to me with respect, I will come back and listen."
- "If you continue to criticize me, then I will need to leave this conversation."
- "I have not had time to share my experience here. We need to find a time to talk about that."
- "While I am happy to discuss my role here, I will not be blamed for all of it. I expect a fair conversation here."
Being defensive is about keeping people out (and guarding yourself about the information they are giving you), while setting boundaries is about taking the information in and protecting yourself—and potentially protecting the relationship from further harm.
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Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, certified Gottman therapist, and author of I Want This To Work. She is the director and therapist at A Better Life Therapy and cofounder of Ours. She received her bachelor's in adult organizational development and education from Temple University and her master's in couples and and family therapy from Thomas Jefferson University. She primarily works with couples experiencing high levels of conflict and individuals struggling with relational issues.