Maintaining the Cycle of Abuse
Practicing What I Preach

On Being Defensive

"People don't get defensive unless they have something to defend."

One of my mentors taught me this and it is so very true.  What does it mean to "get defensive"?

The dictionaory defines defensive as "a state or posture of defense".  It is a reaction to someone else that comes from anxiety, fear, guilt or insecurity.  Defensiveness is an emotional response rather than a logical one.  Someone has hit a nerve.  Someone has pushed a button.  And off you go.  You are reacting rather than acting.  Look at the last time you snapped at someone, withdrew into a deadly silence, or played the blame game.  You were probably being defensive.  Defensiveness is an overreaction to the actions of another.  It's taking things personally which are not. 

Why do people get defensive?

People can get defensive for a variety of reasons and I cannot possibly cover all of them here.  But I will cover some of the broader reasons and give some specific examples.  Some of the more common reasons are;  denial, guilt, insecurity, fear or trauma.  Usually, defensiveness comes from feeling unsafe or threatened.  If someone feels attacked, unfairly criticized or judged they may snap. 

If you are guilty of something (i.e. cheating on your diet) and someone accuses you of it, you may snap on them while at the same time trying to deny it.  This is what my mentor referred to when she said, "they have something to defend".  It can also occur when someone is in denial.  This is closely linked to guilt.  If a Maria has convinced herself that no one can tell when she is high and someone mentions she looks high, she may snap at them.  

Insecurity can result in defensiveness.  If I am really pathetic at math problems and really sensitive about it, someone pointing out that my math really stinks might get an earful.  People who grew up in very hypercritical families may become defensive if you point out a mistake they made.  People who are overweight and feel really awful about it may snap if you mention their weight.  I'm reminded of the late Michael Jackson and his brothers taunting him with the name, "Big Nose".  As an adult, I imagine Jackson would have been very sensitive about his nose and likely would have snapped at anyone who mentioned it. He definitely became defensive when people suggested he had plastic surgery on it.

People who have been traumatized or who happen to be very fearful can also snap on you if you put them in what they perceive as a threatening or dangerous position.  If someone has been hurt by another person, leaning over them, backing them into a corner, coming up behind them or causing a loud noise around them may cause them to lash out.  If it is a man who was traumatized he may be hypersensitive to any comments about his masculinity or sexuality.  If it is a woman who was raped or molested she may be overly sensitive to any comments which may be interpreted as seductive or having sexual overtones. 

It's important to realize that the defensiveness lies within the person themselves, not in what is being said to them.  Obviously this doesn't apply to someone who is being verbally abused, criticized unfairly, manipulated, etc.  Defensiveness is when you make a simple observation of fact and are met with an emotional lashing out. 

Example 1:

I was working with a domestic violence survivor.  She was talking about the things which set her ex-husband off.  He had lied to her about his name when they originally met.  She asked him about it later and he jumped down her throat.  She later found out he had lied about his name because he had warrants out for his arrest.  He jumped down her throat (an overreaction to a simple question about his behavior) because he was guilty (of trying to delude her). 

Example 2:

I once had a boss who would become very defensive at any criticism or perceived challenge to his authority.  He felt it implied he was incompetent.  Why did he get so defensive?  Because he was incompetent.  And anyone questioning him tapped into this insecurity and made him snap. 

What are some signs of defensiveness?  Many of these behavior may indicate different emotions in different situations.  People being what they are, defensiveness can be expressed in as many different ways as there people to feel it.  But here are some general suggestions. 

  • Making excuses
  • Arguing
  • Sarcasm
  • Rigidity
  • Blaming (circumstances, bad luck, other people)
  • Exploding
  • Sulking
  • Shaming
  • Intellectualizing
  • Lecturing 
  • Preaching
  • Catastrophizing
  • Trivializing
  • Explaining ad nauseum 
  • Withdrawing into The Silent Treatment 
  • Loss of humor
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Being oversensitive

What can you do if someone in your life is defensive? 

Back off and give them room.  People are usually defensive because they feel vulnerable, so making them feel safe is paramount.  Don't attack, label, judge or keep after them when they are defensive. 

Examine your own behavior.  Were you intentionally being snide or hurtful?  Were you doing unintentionally being snide or hurtful?  Sometimes we accidentally hit a button we don't know about.  Other times we hit a person below the belt because we are angry with them about something and secretly want to get back at them.  Be very clear of what is going on with you before you decide the defensive person is totally in the wrong.

If you are clear you are not at fault, examine the relationship.  Is this person important to you,  someone with whom you have only a passing acquaintance or a clerk in a store?   If it is someone you care about it is worth the time and trouble of helping them to feel safe so they can talk about it.  Keep in mind that you are not responsible for their feelings.  But you can be supportive and negotiate with them to determine how to handle the situation in the future.  If the person is a clerk you will never see again, let it go and move on.  It is their problem.  Leave it with them.  Don't let it mess up your wonderful day.

Some important things to remember about defensiveness:

1. People often react to what they think you said instead of what you actually said.   

2. Some people cannot tolerate making mistakes and will get defensive if accused. 

3. People who are defensive are often hypercritical of other people in an attempt to direct criticism away from themselves.   

4. Defensive people will spend an enormous amount of energy explaining why a mistake was not their fault.  Do you really want to spend precious minutes of your life this way just to try to win an argument (which you won't)?

5. If a defensive person feels continued criticism they may react like someone who is cornered and lash out in a hurtful way with insults, name calling or hitting below the belt.

6. Defensive people may become completely irrational in their attempts to deflect perceived blame or criticism.   You may find yourself locked into a argument of, "Did not, did not!"

Arguing with people who are already defensive is an exercise in futility.  It only increases their feelings of being attacked and heightens their defensiveness.  Be aware that you have hit a hurt somewhere, no matter how badly they behave, and try to back off and give them room to breathe and time to calm down.  At a later date, when they are calm, talk to them about what they thought they heard you say and see if you can clarify what you were actually saying.  When they are calm it may be possible to negotiate a way to handle future situations. 


Two male friends negotiated a way of handling subjects which were sensitive or hurtful.  If one hit a topic that was emotionally charged, painful or uncomfortable, the other would say, "Geneva" and that topic would be locked in a Swiss bank account, not to be touched.

This is a great way to start.  It makes the sensitive person feel safer and more likely to talk about it later.  It's absolutely crucial that whatever is agreed upon be healthy and that both parties honor it.


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I fell upon your thread by searching why people are defensive, my example is today i was cleaning the bedroom and pulled out the draws, I found 3 envelopes stashed with Money, (My husband ) I knew there was a little there recently as he told me, but theres double now, when he came upt to the room he saw the envelopes on the bed and i said in a nice tone " have you got another job " his reaction was very defensive and he stormed off to the gym, if i had been asked the same question i would have answered in a polite manner and explained why.. My concerns are 10 years ago I saw him take some money out of my purse without asking, so now because of this i feel perhaps he has been doing this for a while and stashed the money away due to his defensive reaction when I asked him, can you help ? thankyou


Hi Deborah,

Since I'm not there and didn't see it, I'm afraid I can't. It definitely sounds like you hit a nerve, but without speaking to both of you and hearing both sides I cannot tell what happened. I hope the two of you are able to discuss this and find out what is going on.


thank you, good post


You're very welcome.


Dear Kellyvision
Great article.
I have been recently labeled as defensive and have been trying to read up on it.

Recently at my workplace review I was told I was defensive in an instance and i was really shocked as this hasn't happened anywhere else i worked.

Other areas of my work has been criticized by someone who didn't work with me but in contrast during the year I got good reviews a job in these areas by my manager but he left the business and I got reviewed by the person who didn't work with me much based on my former managers notes. So I am thinking this was unfair or misleading but since this is work I feel like i have no recourse because any reason to 'explain' would be seen as being defensive and not admitting wrong!? I think the situations were overblown and I was unfairly treated. This brought me to your article...

You said that this may come out as part of feeling unsafe or threatened. I think that this may be my issue. There were many circumstances that lead up to me feeling this way (one reason being the above) even today. And it's the only place I have worked that I feel this way. But I tried to keep positive and hard working but to no avail.

You also noted that the other individual should look at their behaviour - which I think it the scenario is not being done. but it 's work not a personal encounter and I certainly don't know how to address this without looking defensive!
I know this post is a bit disjointed but any thoughts?
...Anita (being defensive?)


Anita:I am going through the same thing right now. I feel that I am being unfairly judged on performance (as there are many things that point to me doing a great job) but if I attempt to say that I think this may be incorrect, then I am accused of being defensive. I have never had this issue at other jobs. Very frustrating and I do fear losing my position because of it.
Any help would be much appreciated.


Thank you, this was a great help. My partner is defensive and am looking for ways to handle it better.

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