How to Stop Being Defensive

A reader asks:

I really struggle with defensiveness. Anytime my boyfriend says something even mildly critical—even when he’s trying to be extra sensitive and constructive—I immediately get defensive and either shut down or say something mean or sarcastic back. How can I stop being so defensive?

In my experience, the trick to getting over defensiveness is to realize that it’s really three distinct things that we tend to lump together:

1. Feeling Defensive Initially

Your boyfriend makes a small criticism and you have a strong emotional reaction—probably some combination of fear, shame, and anger. This initial emotional reaction comes from an initial automatic thought—usually in the form of negative self-talk. Often it’s so quick and automatic you don’t even realize it happened.

An example might be: “He thinks I’m dumb” or “I screwed it up.”

The important thing to realize here is that this initial feeling of defensiveness is largely automatic and out of your direct control. And as a result, it’s not something you should try to control or change.

Because if you do, it will only lead to… ↓

2. Self-Criticism About Feeling Defensive

If you struggle with defensiveness, you know how big and overwhelming it can feel very quickly.

But the reason we go from feeling a bit of initial defensiveness to an overwhelming amount is usually because—often without realizing it—we are in the habit of criticizing ourselves for feeling defensive.

Unfortunately, self-criticism and judgment about feeling defensive only leads to feeling really bad really quickly (this is called compounding emotion… feeling anxious about feeling angry, feeling angry about feeling hurt, etc.) At this point, you’re feeling so bad that you end up acting impulsively in order to escape feeling this way—and this almost always takes one of two forms: Avoidance and withdrawal or aggression and… ↓

3. Acting Out Your Defensiveness

When we act out our defensiveness, it usually takes the form of aggressive or passive-aggressive communication.

For example: you might immediately criticize your boyfriend back for something similar. Or you might make a sarcastic comment.

In either case, what’s critical to see is that acting out your defensiveness is a defense mechanism and primitive way of dealing with all the painful emotion (the feeling defensive part) that has built up so far…. When you shift the focus on to someone else by criticizing them, you get some immediate relief from your own pain.

Of course, this only works in the briefest and most superficial way. Acting defensively almost always leads to hurting the other person and damaging the relationship—in part because they learn that they can’t be honest with you, which eventually leads to a lack of trust and intimacy.


To sum things up—and hopefully answer your question—the key to avoiding defensiveness is to:

  1. Be aware of feeling defensive. Acknowledge it quickly and lean into it instead of avoiding it.
  2. Validate that defensiveness instead of criticizing it. We all feel defensive. It’s okay. Remind yourself of that in the moment. Emotional validation is a powerful skill.
  3. Resist acting defensive. You can feel defensive without acting it out. Suppression is a perfectly useful skill when done well. And suppressing the urge to act defensively is a fantastic use case. Because the less defensive you act, the less it will harm your self-esteem and your relationships.