Overcoming Defensiveness

by James Rudy Gray

Defensiveness is a feeling that we need to protect ourselves. The behavior is often used in an attempt to shield ourselves from anxiety, threat, danger, or perceived harm. However, instead of shielding us from harm, it most often leaves us feeling alienated from others and needy.

Sometimes being defensive is a natural response, needed for survival. But when we take on the persona of a defensive person, then we have created a way of thinking and behaving that produces feelings of need. Proverbs 23:7 informs us that "as [a man] thinks within himself so he is."

Defensiveness can arise because of past trauma, pains, failures, or conditioning. It is what some Christian counselors refer to as a pre-conversion way of thinking and living. It is not a spiritual response, nor is it typically a healthy emotional response.

There are about five general reasons for persons becoming defensive:

  1. The need for self-esteem. This may result from a fear of confrontation with reality-to deal with that fear a person may use defensiveness as a false self-esteem tool.
  2. The fear of being vulnerable. Relationships with other people require various degrees of trust and vulnerability. Defensive people do not like to be drawn into uncomfortable situations and revert to defensiveness as a way to avoid that. At the root, this is a lack of self-confidence and the best way to have a good self-confidence is to base it upon our position in Christ.
  3. False ideas about anger. Defensive persons may conclude that anger is bad, so they try to deal with it by expressing it wrongly or suppressing it. The very best way to deal with anger is to confess it. Ephesians 4:26 reminds us to "be angry yet do not sin."
  4. The drive to be in control. A defensive person will often seek to control the environment, people, etc. However, this may actually increase defensive tendencies because the more a person controls, the less control he actually has. The opposite of defensiveness is openness. When you are truly open in healthy ways, you do not need to attempt to control things. Again, the key is trusting in a sovereign God. As someone as aptly advised, "Relax, God is in control."
  5. Inability to admit weaknesses. Defensive people often live in a world of virtual reality. Many are quick to give but cannot receive criticism. They are driven to appear strong, successful, invulnerable. They insulate themselves with this self-image, which gives them the illusion of being protected.

Defensiveness may manifest itself in one or more of the following ways: denial, tuning out, avoiding people and situations, blaming others, attacking when confronted, rationalizing, projecting faults and weakness onto others, sarcasm (often a disguise for anger), fantasizing (which can be a form of denying reality), stubborn opinions or closed-mindedness (no discussion, no compromise), and passive-aggressive techniques which include deliberate silence, procrastination, etc. Inflexibility, bitterness, and stubbornness are often present in defensive people.

Can a defensive person change? Yes. It begins with honest admission, openness, and a commitment to think differently. A defensive person must be willing to admit fears and wrongs and allow for other points of view, even if he or she does not agree with them. At the heart of a defensive person's behavior is the need to protect himself. When that drive for self-protection can be changed to a faith in God that is real, positive and lasting, lifestyle changes can begin to happen. Galatians 5:16 counsels us to "walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh."