FAQ: What Is Defensiveness?

Understanding Emotions

If you’ve been reading my newsletter for a long time, you know I advocate motivating yourself by values, not threats. In the simplest cases, this just requires introspecting your obvious emotions to identify the values landscape, meaning the values around you and the obstacles in your way to gaining and keeping them. (See my article on the golf course analogy.)

But sometimes untangling your motivation is difficult. This is especially true when you are having a defensive reaction. In this article I’d like to explain what a defensive reaction is and what makes it a little bit more complicated to introspect in yourself.

The difficulty in understanding defensive reactions

The problem with defensive reactions is that they are not really about what they appear to be about. Unlike a porcupine, who raises its quills only when it senses a perceptual danger, the defensive person raises them at apparently inappropriate times.

Suppose someone asks a co-worker a benign question such as, “Do you have a minute?” and he snaps, “Can’t you see that I’m busy?” It is understandable to be a little irritated to be interrupted when he’s busy, but that doesn’t explain why his reaction is strong enough to cause him to snap. One possible explanation is that he is so overloaded that he immediately loses his train of thought just by paying attention to the question. The frustration he feels from losing his train of thought could intensify the irritation into anger.

Or suppose a mother gets angry at her 3-year-old son because he drips some ice cream from his ice cream cone onto his clothes. Granted, this means more laundry, which again could be mildly irritating. But does a 3-year-old have enough motor skill and knowledge to prevent drips? Probably not. And after all, she loves the boy, wants him to enjoy his ice cream, and is enjoying seeing his capacities develop. There has to be something else going on to intensify the irritation into anger. For example, maybe the mother is scolding herself internally for having forgotten to bring a bib or make one out of a napkin. That anger at herself could easily intensify her irritation with her son.

Defensive reactions are emotional responses that have been intensified by an unrelated threat-oriented emotional reaction.

The key concept here is “unrelated.” This is why defensive reactions are a bit more difficult to understand. Every emotion draws your attention to its object, i.e., the value (if it’s a value-oriented emotion such as joy or love or grief) or the threat (if it’s a threat-oriented emotion such as fear or anger or relief). Normal (non-defensive) emotions draw your attention directly to the object that seems to need attention; defensive emotions pull your attention away from it.

What to do when you catch yourself being defensive

The good news is that as soon as you catch that your own emotion has a defensive edge to it, it is not too hard to identify the source of defensiveness. All you need to do is to look around and ask yourself something like “What’s putting me on edge here?” or “What am I upset about in the background?”

This takes an honest look at what else is going on for you, but the knowlege you get is precious. You find out the real source of your bad mood, and then you have a chance to do something about it.

The bad news is that it’s risky to speculate on the source of another person’s defensiveness. Unless you have a lot of additional background information regarding exactly what’s going on, you’re likely to guess wrong and you risk justifiably offending the person. In the two examples I gave, I could easily have swapped the sources of defensiveness I proposed. I could have speculated that the mother was overloaded and that the co-worker was blaming himself for not having finished his work earlier. You just don’t know what’s causing another person’s defensiveness without more information.

One reason I advocate and teach the “rationally connected conversations method” (a variant of Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication method) is that it offers a non-patronizing, non-invasive, non-offensive way to defuse another person’s seemingly defensive reaction and reorient the conversation to shared rational values.

Other kinds of defensive reactions

The two examples I gave both involved hostile anger, and that is the most obvious form of defensiveness. I started there because when other people are involved, it can be a little easier to analyze the situation objectively and establish that the emotional reaction is disproportionate to the facts.

But any emotion can be distorted by defensiveness, including value-oriented emotions.

For example, sometimes people get “mileage” out of their victories. The genuine joy they feel from success is intensified by some threat-oriented emotion. There could be a negative aura of hatred (if they are also motivated to destroy or humiliate the competition) or relief (if they are using the success to prove they are okay) or aversion (if they are using the success to avoid disapproval).

Similarly, genuine gratitude could take on a tinge of obsequiousness if it were augmented by a fear of disapproval or some kind of self-doubt. Or confidence could be tinged with desperation, if you think you do have a way forward, but if it doesn’t work you’re in big trouble.

You learn to spot defensiveness in yourself through regular introspection. Emotions that normally feel clean and pure like joy, gratitude, love, pride, and confidence take on an ugly edge when they’re intensified by some defensive reaction. Unpleasant emotions like anger, fear, guilt, and frustration can take on an additional halo of desperation or resentment or the like.

Automatized defensiveness

Usually defensive reactions are situational and out of character. When you look back at your own defensive reaction, you see that it didn’t make sense. You apologize, or change your standard operating procedures to avoid getting caught up in similar situations, or otherwise find ways to re-orient to values when unrelated threats interfere with your reactions to people, places, and events.

But sometimes there is a pattern in defensive reactions. The same kinds of issues trigger the same reactions, despite different contexts, and it’s difficult for a person to regain the value orientation. A man snaps at everyone whenever he is asked for help, no matter what kind of day he’s having, and always justifies it. Or a mother continuously nags her child, no matter how well he behaves, and doesn’t see the effects on him. Or a person constantly overpraises someone, and then gets angry at him when it becomes clear the praise was somewhat distorted.

In cases like these, a person’s emotional reactions are consistently distorted by the belief in a pervasive threat, or what I call an anti-value. Normally, threats are assessed situationally in relation to values that are at stake now. But if a threat has metastasized into an anti-value, it is something you are always on the lookout for. By your past choices and conclusions, you have organized your psychology around avoiding this kind of threat. You have generalized the issue.

For example, if a man is pervasively afraid of being taken advantage of, it could explain his consistent hostility to requests. Or if the mother is pervasively afraid that people will negatively judge her based on her child’s behavior, it could explain her constant nagging.

It’s popular to say in these cases that the person lacks self-esteem. That is an abstract, philosophic take on the situation, which has validity in the right context. But qua psychology, I claim the cause is much better understood as a specific anti-value. Idiosyncratic anti-values explain why every individual’s “lack of self-esteem” looks different, and needs to be repaired differently. Identifying the anti-value or anti-values at work speeds the healing process dramatically.

Defense values

Anti-values can also explain cases where a value seems to have gotten disproportionately strengthened beyond its actual benefit to one’s life. For example, sometimes people create a “defense value” of their own intelligence. I’ve seen it where they show contempt for people who are less intelligent than they are. They try to one-up people to show off their intelligence when they can. When other people don’t understand what they say, they explicitly blame it on the other people’s stupidity.

The particular case I’ve described could be explained by an anti-value created out of fear of being judged as not good enough. Anytime they started to fear not being good enough, they avoided looking at that possibility by turning their attention to the one area where they excel, their intelligence. Over time, this unduly strengthens the value of intelligence, so that all of their emotional reactions become distorted.

To clarify: intelligence is a value, but it is not the be-all and end-all that some intelligent people act as if it is (when they hold it as a defense value). Speaking for myself, recognizing that my high intelligence sometimes gets me into trouble, not out of it, has been very helpful for making me more effective in my life. The three big areas that I’ve found my intelligence can get me into trouble all concern subjectivity:

  • Just because I understand something doesn’t mean that I have explained it clearly (“Don’t blame the student”)
  • Just because I may know a lot doesn’t mean I know everything relevant here (“Don’t be a know-it-all”)
  • Just because I see exactly what mistake someone else is making doesn’t mean I have an invitation to straighten them out (“Don’t give unsolicited advice”)

To return to the topic of defense values, this kind of interaction between values and anti-values can explain other strange defensive behavior. For example, suppose someone were afraid of thinking for himself or afraid his judgment was bad. Following an authority figure who seemed to know what to do would be a great relief from that fear. The authority figure would be valued disproportionately to his actual worth. This would be reflected in overpraising, and it would also explain why a person might turn on the authority figure. He would be angry when it turns out the authority figure can make mistakes. He would be upset because there is no way to get out of the need to think for himself — and that scares him.

The bottom line: defensiveness is complex. Since it can develop in layers, any particular defensive reaction could be the result of either situational factors or historical ones. But every layer of defensiveness can be untangled if you introspect all of the emotions, identify all of the apparent threats, and then look at the situation fresh to see what selfish values are at stake now. Knowledge is power. Understanding the source of your own defensive reaction gives you the power to orient to values and move forward.

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  1. Maria Parkos

    This was really helpful – I am big on trying to untangle unpleasant emotions but it is not always easy to know the root cause. And talking about them is not everyone’s preference. So if you know there is hostility in someone else but they are holding back the source of the emotion what are things you can do to help them open up. It is certainly not hitting the point over the head because this is usually the reason they hold back in the first place that thinking about it is painful.

    • Jean Moroney

      Hi, Maripaz!

      This is where I recommend “Nonviolent Communication” or my variant “Rationally Connected Conversations.” You can find free resources on this on the page for my intensive: https://www.thinkingdirections.com/communication/

      The short version: If you are emotionally grounded yourself, you can start guessing possible “deep rational values” that might be the real issue for them. You need to be grounded, so you can deal with however they react. But often, if you guess correctly, they open up and appreciate it. And often, if you guess incorrectly, they clarify the real issue without getting angrier. See my article on deep rational values: https://www.thinkingdirections.com/faq-what-is-a-deep-rational-value/

      This is a learnable skill.


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