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I was recently asked by one of my patients, “what is the difference between defending oneself and being defensive in the context of a relationship.”  A corollary question was whether there was any justification for defensiveness.

Generally speaking, defending oneself is a response to real threat to one’s person as in a physical attack, an attack to one’s character (ad hominem attack), or an attack against one’s ideas or beliefs.  Defensiveness is a psychological response to perceived or imagined threat or attack to one’s sense of self.

Defending oneself refers to a situation where one is being attacked either verbally or physically. If you are literally being attacked in some way, it would be reasonable to protect or defend yourself. If some one is attacking your ideas, you can defend your ideas. If you are being accused of doing something that is not true or a decision is being attacked, you can defend them. In each of these situations you would meet the attack on the same level as the attack was made. For example, if someone physically attacks you, you could defend yourself in a physical way. If some one attacks your ideas using their own ideas and evidence to disagree with you, you can defend your ideas with supporting evidence. If your are being accused of something that you did not do, you can bring evidence to show that you were not to blame. These are all examples of where an appropriate defense would be justified. In all of these instances an observer, or even the attacker, would in all probability acknowledge that an attack is taking place. In verbal situations the ideas or beliefs are being attacked. In a physical situation it is your body that is being attacked. In neither of these situations do you feel that your sense of self is being threatened. Just the opposite is true when you feel defensive.

Defensiveness refers to a situation where you are feeling personally attacked. It is your sense of self that is being attacked. When you are feeling attacked by another person, the alleged attacker may deny the attack; and an observer may or may not see the attack. In other words, often we may feel attacked when there is no attack intended.  The sense of being attacked may originate within oneself.  When we defend ourselves against a felt or perceived attack rather than a “real” attack we become defensive. We are protecting our sense of self.

Sometimes even a simple question can be experienced as an attack. And sometimes a simple question is in fact a veiled attack. Becoming defensive under these circumstances, however, rarely is warranted and seldom results in a better connection with the other person.  When we become defensive we are more concerned with self-protection than effecting a connection with the other person.  At the moment of perceived attack, the attacker becomes our enemy. Imagine what it might be like if you were able to hold onto the idea that this person, who is now upset with you, is truly your friend and is merely upset about something. How might you respond then? Perhaps you might say, “I see that you are upset with me and it feels like you are attacking me.”

Often when we feel under attack by another person, the words or tone may trigger some internal experience.  For example, if we feel guilty we are more likely to feel attacked by a simple inquiry such as “where were you last night?” If we feel guilty about our whereabouts we might become defensive; if we actually did whatever we are being accused of, we might become defensive. If we were repeatedly questioned by our parents while growing up, feeling as though we are being policed by them, we might experience any question about our behavior as an attack.  Sometimes the perceived attacker, not wanting to acknowledge that they are indeed attacking, will deny that they are attacking you.  In this case, assuming that you have assured yourself that you are not being defensive,  it might be necessary for you to simply acknowledge your feelings and accept that the person with whom you are engaged is not available for a connection.

Defensiveness in an intimate relationship leads to distancing between the parties and is never necessary.  The stronger your sense of self or self-esteem, the less likely you are to become defensive.

Rather than becoming defensive when you experience an attack, the following are some suggestions that might be helpful:

  • Acknowledge that you are feeling defensive.
  • Ask the alleged alleged attacker whether he or she intends to be attacking or accusatory.
  • Inquire as to whether the attacker is upset with you.
  • Ask yourself whether this situation reminds you of other situations where you felt similarly.
  • Is the question a hot button?
  • Are you responding to the content of the statement/question or the tone?
  • Are you feeling unfairly accused or blamed?  If so, acknowledge your feelings.
  • Attempt to engage the alleged attacker in a dialogue rather than a fight.

[Please add your thoughts and experiences on this topic in the comment section of this blog.  This blog is intended as a forum for folks to raise issues, share experiences, and promote dialogue on important issues of contemporay life.   Please sign up as a Facebook Fan at www.docdreyfus.com/fanpage. For additional information about me and my practice, please visit my website at www.DocDreyfus.com. ]