Why We’re So Defensive and How to Stop

We make significant mistakes when we’re protecting ourselves.

Defensiveness, self-aggrandizement, bragging, deflecting, perfectionism; whatever you want to label it, we sometimes suck at maintaining our relationships. When stuck in fight or flight, the innate system that helps us avert or challenge danger, we cultivate responses that might benefit us in the short-term but, once crystalized, insidiously corrode our connections. Consider the malignant narcissist, who desperately needs approval. He attempts to win you over by gloating about his professional and interpersonal conquests, fostering the sensed certainty stemming from admiration. The belief behind the patterned behavior is, ‘If she admires me, she’ll stay.” And at its core hides the absolute terror of abandonment, which itself cloaks a deep sense of shame. Narcissism, then, becomes a way to sustain some perverted form of intimacy, where you may not know me, but neither do I.

And narcissism is just one defense. Defensiveness (the pattern of aggressively supporting your position instead of considering an alternative) is much more common and tolerable in occasional bursts. You aren’t always going to be right, so when your partner or friend defends himself against your feedback, you’ll often have to relent. Defensiveness is a way to save face and protect yourself from further criticism and/or being abandoned. But, defensiveness has to have a limit.

Perfectionists (individuals who fear that, if revealed, their flaws will engender estrangement) tend to defend themselves without forethought. Perfectionism (wanting to become perfect, believing you are perfect, or seeking perfect validation) is a coping mechanism for the core belief in one’s inadequacy. It’s, essentially, an irrational way of completely silencing the inner critic forever. Unlike narcissists (who want to appear superior to ensure security), perfectionists believe that they’re inherently abnormal, so they attempt to hide their global badness. The perfectionist believes that she’ll be abandoned if she can’t convince you that she’s adequate. To her, defensiveness is a tool used to protect her self-image and her relationships. Her mind tells her, “Defend yourself and don’t apologize. Otherwise, your badness will be exposed and you’ll be abandoned.” But, in reality, your friend or partner will come to believe that you don’t care about how you affect them. Even worse, they might believe that you’re gaslighting them and decide to leave anyway. People with severely negative core self-conceptions often, unknowingly, consider those beliefs immune from criticism, as though they’re indisputable. Therefore, the counter evidence needs to be flawless, requiring the ultimate proof to debunk them, which never happens. On the other hand, like a branding iron striking an already wounded area, negative feedback reinforces those beliefs, so perfectionists evade them along with people. With perfectionism, like narcissism, intimacy also is perverted; you may not know me, but at least you’re here.

Some of the patterns of behavior we use to protect ourselves are considered selfish by others, who, in turn, ask themselves, “Does he really care about me?” While attempting to secure their followers, narcissists fail to consider how constant bragging affects others’ conceptions of themselves. Although they may initially be thought of as wonderful, their circle, inevitably, diminishes. Usually, others discover the narcissist’s con; however, they may begin to believe that they don’t have as much to offer. When you’re trapped in the relentless glow of another, at some point, you start to feel small. Unfortunately, while some believe that greatness can magically be rubbed off on them, they eventually accept that it can’t.

And, on the other hand, the perfectionist may convince their interlocutor that he’s always wrong for some time, but, after a while, his partner will realize that his feelings don’t matter, that the perfectionist isn’t interested in making amends; she simply refuses the sorrow.

In the context of an invalidating environment, the urge to flee or defend is intuitive. Yet, when environments change, instinctual tactics become detrimental. So, while your mind may be telling you to do one thing, you’ll likely need to resist. Because I was bullied, I chose to create a false persona, a sort-of internal professional wrestler. This character gloated and found ways to convince others that they should be grateful for him, rather than him needing to become grateful for them. In the context of my childhood, where others tried to ruin my reputation, defensiveness and offensiveness, at least sometimes, worked; I defended myself and made others look bad. But, they don’t anymore.

As hard as it is to leave old patterns behind, it isn’t impossible. Most of the work done in therapy is this type of introspection, or system 2 thinking, where we try to understand our patterns in our old contexts and, then, acknowledge the need to change them in our new ones. It’s easy to forgive an abused child who puffs himself up; it’s much harder to forgive an adult who puts others down.

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