Are you being defensive in your relationships?

If we consistently respond from a place of being defensive, others around us may stop giving us feedback

Sonali Gupta
First Published27 May 2024
Our defensiveness shows up as resistance to receiving feedback.
Our defensiveness shows up as resistance to receiving feedback.(iStockphoto)

All of us are guilty of reacting in defensive ways at some point in our relationships with our partner, friends and children. Very often we don’t recognise our own behaviour, but others around us can sense and feel it. We don’t really understand how and why defensiveness shows up. The good thing is we can learn to recognise it, catch ourselves when we are slipping into a space of defensiveness and substitute it with ways of communicating that allow for better dialogue.

When we perceive a remark as being critical of us or showing our shortcomings, we respond with defensiveness. This may show up in the form of sulking, shutting others out, anger or feeling victimised that nobody understands us. When we are being defensive, we deny the role we played in a conflict and sometimes offer the silent treatment.

Also read: How to unpack anger

The worry is that if we consistently respond from a place of defensiveness, others around us may stop giving us feedback. They may feel that they are walking on eggshells around us and as a result distance themselves, which in turn can impact intimacy.

Our defensiveness shows up as resistance to receiving feedback and in turn impacts our capacity to work around behaviours that may not be helpful, or be ineffective.


A 50-year-old man in a therapy session said that his wife over the years had been trying to give him feedback about his behaviour when it came to parenting and his work. “But I always shut her down, I get angry or start blaming her and feel that she always supports other people and is never really supporting me. Now when I tried to do the same with you, I recognised that I’m being defensive and perceiving every feedback as an attempt at character assassination, rather than pausing and seeing where the other person is coming from.”

When we are in denial about our own defensiveness, it can lead to rupture in relationships where others may stop giving us feedback. In friendships it can lead to slow drifting away, and in a work setup, it can lead to stagnation and interfere with our efficiency and relationships with colleagues. Brené Brown in her book Atlas of the Heart says, “At its core, defensiveness is a way to protect our ego and a fragile self-esteem.”

Given this understanding, every time someone tries to give us feedback, if we perceive it as them talking about our shortcoming or imperfection, we are likely to react with defensiveness. The reality is that as human beings, we are a work in progress. So, when you find yourself moving towards defensiveness, no matter whether it’s a learnt response, coming from a place of lack of control or a parenting style that felt insensitive, choose to pause.


A good strategy is to start recognising moments and situations where we react with defensiveness and then to gauge how our body feels in those moments. My sense is we begin to feel overwhelmed, scared, agitated, restless and anxious moments before our defensiveness kicks in. Take a step back and recognise what’s emerging in you.

As we begin to name the feeling, we can also tame the feeling. It helps to take time out and sometimes tell the other person that you are struggling to receive the information, and ask if you can you come back to this later. I have found that slowing down my breathing, choosing to listen quietly with openness and yet knowing that I will process slowly, with an option to filter the feedback, also eases me up.

At the same time, learning to acknowledge where one may have overreacted, had an error in judgement, and taking responsibility helps us and can keep one’s defensiveness in check. The key to taking responsibility for our actions is acknowledging what we could have done differently, what sits well with our values, and this doesn’t mean taking complete blame for a situation either.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

Also read: Bridging age barriers at the workplace



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