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What Is The True Meaning Of Being Defensive?

Question:

my wife and i are trying to find out the true meaning of being defensive. is it when the first thing out of a person’s mouth something to say it’s not my fault or to justify what what one has done or to point fingers at the other person as to say well you did thus?

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Answer:

Generally, when people talk about someone becoming defensive in the context of a conversation, they are meaning that that someone is engaging in emotionally defensive maneuvers designed to ward off their having to experience some unwanted feeling or admit responsibility for some disowned act. People who are acting defensively are essentially trying to protect themselves from feeling a certain uncomfortable way, and from viewing themselves as a failure or otherwise in a negative light.

In this light, all of your examples are potentially reasonable examples of defensive behavior.

Someone who says "It’s not my fault" is attempting to distance him or herself from accepting responsibility for an action.

Someone who attempts to justify what they have done is essentially saying, "Yes, I did that, but let me tell you why It’s not my fault" and that is potentially defensive too. Participation in the action is being admitted, but responsibility for the action is being denied. The net effect is the same denial of responsibility.

Your final example involves someone who says "I may have done this (awful thing), but you did this (other awful thing)", complete with finger pointing. This is a slightly more complex form of defensive which takes a cue from the old saying "the best defense is a good offense". Here, responsibility is accepted, briefly, and then essentially negated by that person going on the attack and accusing the other person in the conversation of some crime. By going on the attack, the first person bids to shift the focus of negative attention from him or herself onto the other person. When the focus of attention is not on you, you don’t have to feel the guilt or shame or other emotion that you’d normally feel when a personal failing is pointed out. Instead, you get to feel angry and self-righteous which, while not exactly relaxing, is a much more positive way to feel.

We should distinguish between two kinds of defensive reaction while we’re on the subject. Though outward forms are going to look very similar, there is a difference between someone who is accused of something he or she has not done, and someone who has done a bad thing but who doesn’t want to acknowledge it. Actually we should distinguish between three kinds of defensive reaction. There are people who haven’t done the thing they’re accused of; people who have done the thing and know it but don’t want to talk about it (or feel it), and people who have done the thing and who have managed to twist things in their mind so that they honestly don’t know it, but instead think the problem was caused by someone or something else. This last form of defensiveness is variously known as denial, externalization and several other names I can’t think of right now.

The topic of defensiveness is a fascinating one which psychologists and psychotherapists have studied for many years. You can read more about various defense "mechanisms" (strategies) that people use in our Online Self-Help Book articles on the subject which start here.

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Comments
  • ml

    My husband is a Vietnam vet and had awful, inhumane experiences while there. He will admit to being cold when it comes to death and giving sympathy to those who need it from a loss. He also warned me before we married that he has been and can be very defensive made me promise to tell him when he is that way should it happen. Over the past 13 yrs I have told him several times (definitely not each and every time) when he was ridiculouly defensive. He nevers takes responsibility for any hurt feelings, being inconsiderate, selfish, etc. His reactions to me when I question something he says is often times totally turning around what I say and directing fault at me. If he says, "I feel sick to my stomach", and I respond with "You have felt sick like that for 4 days", he said, "Right, I am not feeling sick, I am fine, I just made that up.

    Help........he is like that with every conversation lately.

    ml

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