What is Being "Defensive"?

July 23, 2008

This is something I have pondered for some time. I mean, when someone is accused of something, they have a “defense” attorney. They are given the opportunity to “defend” themselves…to explain their part, or lack of it, regarding what happened. This is considered a good thing…to be able to defend oneself. In fact, we would cry “foul” if such an opportunity were not given!

I decided to look it up at:

This is what it said:

Main Entry:
1de·fen·sive Listen to the pronunciation of 1defensive Listen to the pronunciation of 1defensive
\di-ˈfen(t)-siv, ˈdē-ˌ\
14th century

1: serving to defend or protect <defensive fortifications>
2 a: devoted to resisting or preventing aggression or attack <defensive behavior>
b: of or relating to the attempt to keep an opponent from scoring in a game or contest defensive skills>
3 a: valuable in defensive play defensive card in bridge>
b: designed to keep an opponent from being the highest bidder
defensive bid>

Hmmm. Those definitions sound pretty good to me. Naturally, we want to protect ourselves, to resist aggression or attack. So…at what point does being defensive in the good way become “being defensive” (with a negative connotation)? My observation is this.

Defending oneself is a good thing. Everyone does it. When “being defensive” becomes an accusation, it usually means the accuser is very triggered and/or running from facing up to the truth. I will explain.

If a person is behaving “defensively”, it is logical to assume that they are feeling under attack. I believe it is appropriate to ask them if that is the case, particularly if no attack is intended. It may be they are misinterpreting the words or actions being directed at them. This is a legitimate use of the word and can be helpful in communication, especially if there is a misunderstanding taking place.

An example of this would be:
One person (John) will approach another (Mark) about something Mark said or did. John will share what was said/done and how it effected him, how it made him feel, etc. The idea being to invite dialog. At that point, Mark can enter into open dialog. He may explain what he said/did. He may even realize that he was in error and apologize. OR, Mark may go off the deep end and act as if he is being attacked and refuse to listen to what John has said. Mark is then being defensive, even though he is not under attack and, therefore, has no need to be. This is considered a negative form of “being defensive”.

Why would Mark think he is being attacked? Well, one possible reason might be if he was raised in an environment where being “wrong” about something was a dangerous thing. Sometimes, especially when dealing with survivors, being “wrong” meant severe and abusive punishment. It could even mean the threat of death, either to them or to another person.

Suppose Mark has that kind of background. For him, being caught at doing something “wrong” triggers desperation. It can even cause him to refuse to actually respond to what John has said. He may throw up smokescreen attacks against John in an effort to draw the attention off of what he has done. He is being “defensive”, even when there is no longer any real need to do so.

Then John finds himself truly being attacked by Mark as part of Mark’s “defensiveness”. John, like Mark, can respond in different ways. He can ask Mark if he feels attacked and try to talk to him about it; although Mark may not be able to clearly look at that. He can lash back out at Mark, and truly start to attack him…or, he can try to reason with Mark and clarify what he is trying to say.

Even if John stays calm and just tries to explain, Mark (who is very triggered) will not be able to hear John. Interestingly, this is when John will be accused of “being defensive”, even though he is actually not. He is merely trying to explain and resolve things.

When I look at the definitions of the word, being defensive is not a negative thing. In fact, it can be a very positive thing! The times I see it used in a accusatory way, as if it were a negative thing, it is usually when someone is trying to avoid the truth. In that instance, “explanations” becomes “defensiveness”.

It is amazing to me how wild some conversations can become when someone is triggered like that. I have seen conversations where John will say something to Mark and Mark’s response, due to being so triggered, does not even relate to what John said! Mark will totally duck the issue and hit John back with something unrelated. Then, when John tries to get things back on track, he is accused of “being defensive” and “attacking”.

We really need to give each other a lot of grace in these things. We need to recognize our own triggers, as well as doing the best we can to be sensitive to the triggers of others!

One comment

  1. […] I really wish I could resolve the issues, but I just don’t know how. I tried and it only got worse. It has been my experience that if I have to explain more than two (maybe three) times what it is that I really said, think or feel, then there is this tendency to be perceived as being defensive. […]

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