How to Overcome Defensiveness

How to Overcome Defensiveness

We all have a tendency to be defensive. If we can overcome defensiveness, we would have better relationships and make better decisions. But overcoming a defensive posture is challenging.

Defensiveness kicks in when we are committed to a point of view regardless of what data is placed in front of us. We find ways of undermining what we don’t agree with and reiterate data that supports our point of view.  Others may experience us as stubborn, irrational, obnoxious, ignorant, or just simply defensive. Marriages are strained by defensiveness. Teams waste precious time trying to penetrate closed minds. The result is often fractured relationships and a failure to accept truth.

Most social media posts are constructed of two polarized positions being argued from defensive postures. It is rare and refreshing to discover a post with an open mind to data that doesn’t fit one’s own narrative. Recently I saw a post about systematic racism that explained the history in the south after the Civil War that enabled plantation owners to obtain “free servants” from prisons as the worked off their punishment for crimes. The law was written in such a way that it allowed blacks to be arrested for minor offensives (sometimes questionable at best) and to be returned to working for free on plantations.  All this was done under the guise of working off their debt to society.  This practice continued right up to the end of World War II. It was estimated that 800,000 blacks were serving for free as a result of this way of enslaving people after emancipation. I was pleased to see people who had objected to the idea of systemic racism in our country to consider this new data in their perspective. But this kind of open mindedness is rare. Why is it that we are so reluctant to have an open mind?

Defensiveness is difficult to overcome.  We think we are right when we are wrong. But the primary obstacle to defensiveness isn’t intellectual. You can be very smart and be stuck on a wrong position. Studies show that our problem is not in our mind.  The root of our defensiveness is in our emotions.  It is located in our self-worth and our sense of shame.

Julia Galef of Pennsylania State College gave a Ted Talk about entitled, “Why you think you are right when you are wrong.”  Her point is that we often develop an emotional connection to a point of view.  The reason we do this is that we often feel ashamed of not being right and feel bad about ourselves.  She suggests that we need to develop a “scout mentality”.  A scout mentality is an attitude that is curious rather than defensive.  What can I learn from others?  What might I be missing?

In order to have a scout mentality, we have to divorce our sense of shame from always having to be correct.  Shame is so powerful that we will defend against anyone thinking we have a wrong position.  Just yesterday, I reposted an article that was disturbing about a prominent public figure only to be challenged about the accuracy of the post.  When I read the challenge, I immediately felt the pang of shame, having been fooled and used.  My immediate impulse was to defend myself, but because I was writing this article, I realized what was going on within me – shame.  No one likes being wrong.  Being corrected or having someone point out your position might be wrong can challenge our self-worth.

Those who have training in relational intelligence (SDI) know that our self-worth is supported by what is most important for us.  For some what is most important are facts.  Facts and science are so important that we even see facts shared emotionally as tainted.  If someone were to challenge “our” facts, we would feel intense shame.  Direct challenge of “our” facts are triggers of defensiveness.

For others our self-worth is more attached to how facts impact other people.  It is not the challenge of other opinions that cause us to be defensive as much as how they impact other people.  When someone speaks in an insensitive way or doesn’t consider how what they are saying may impact someone they care about, they can become defensive.  To allow the situations to continue would produce shame so they are compelled to defend.

Still others find their self-worth in simply winning.  They don’t like losing because it produces shame in themselves.  Winning is everything!  Whether it is winning at Monopoly or winning an argument, we don’t like to be defeated by a challenger, so we get defensive rather than having the attitude of a scout.

Knowing what causes shame inside of you can help you identify the cause of defensiveness.  Being defensive is connected to our source of shame more than intellectually understanding an argument.  Growing your knowledge about what drives shame in your own life is something worth pursuing.

Ultimately, shame is overcome through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus removes our shame when he declares us righteous on the basis of His holy and perfect life.  We don’t need to wear a mask and try to pretend that we have everything figured out or be right about everything.  Being fully acceptable to God, finding our significance in worship of Him, and feeling totally secure in His hands gives us a solid rock on which to dialogue with others without defensiveness.

When we are defensive, we may think we are defending what is right, when in reality we may actually be defending our self-worth and missing the truth.  Let’s try to be more like a scout and be curious about other’s point of view.  We may learn things we don’t know, and we may improve relationships.

Bruce Terpstra

Our President, Dr. Bruce Terpstra, has 36 years of pastoral ministry experience. He is a veteran of 17 years in denominational leadership and developed more than 70 new churches in the New York metro area and has given oversight to almost 400 pastors. He holds a doctorate in Leadership Development and is also the founder of 3KeyCoaching and the author of Three Passions of the Soul.