Defensiveness:

(disclaimer – this does not apply to abusive criticism)

When someone criticises us, it can be really hard not to fall into the black and white thinking of ‘they hate me, I’m a terrible person’ rather than being able to recognise that it is the thing that is bring criticised that isn’t liked, rather than the entirety of ourselves as a whole.

Or to put it another way: what’s felt, isn’t what’s said.

Sometimes, when we’ve had a lifetime of not feeling good enough and we are looking to confirm that narrative we see criticism as an attack, and our response to it, is usually justification and possibly attack back as a defense mechanism. 


I will never forget when I was training, and I had failed an important exam, talking to my tutor about it, and blaming loads of external reasons as to why I had screwed it up. She let me ramble on for a bit and then very gently said 

‘Helen, you’re being really defensive’.

It hit me like a ton of bricks! She was absolutely right. I was struggling to see that this one blip didn’t mean I was a total failure, it was just a blip. Which is essentially what she said next. 

When we are being defensive, we are trying to protect ourselves from accepting we are less than perfect. Especially when we’ve grown up in an abusive household, where expectations were as high as the sky, and we were consistently mocked for not reaching them. 

So how do we stop it? 

Well, the first thing to notice is, are you listening to react or to grow?

Ultimately, and sometimes painfully, we have to start being honest with ourselves. We have to look at the situation and be honest about the criticism. Quite often, the more defensive we are, the more truth there may be to the criticism. And we have to try and take ownership of it. We stop justifying and we start listening and hopefully we are able to ask for guidance so we can grow. 

We remind ourselves that we aren’t perfect, and that’s okay, and that we wouldn’t think someone else is unreasonable/unlovable for making the mistake, so why should we be? 

Sometimes that criticism comes from someone we would rather not hear it from, and so sometimes we don’t need to let them know we have learned something about ourselves from them, we can still accept and process the criticism without them knowing about it. 

So next time you start defending yourself, pause and ask ‘is there any truth to this? Do I need to accept responsibility for something?’ And remind yourself that you’re allowed to be perfectly imperfect, and your flaws make you human. 

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