What do a balled-up porcupine and a linebacker have in common? They’re both pros at getting defensive. And when we are faced with criticism, we are ready to project a ball of spines or prepare for the tackle. Getting defensive helps us protect our character and our sense of competence.
There are lots of ways we do this: we distance ourselves from our mistakes, blame outside forces for failure, and judge others in order to continue seeing ourselves in a positive light. Or we during or otherwise self medicate to cope with threats to our self image and self-esteem.
The trouble is getting defensive with friends, your boss, your partner, and yourself usually backfires. It pushes people away, makes up look immature, and sends a message that we are unable to regulate our emotions. At the moment, getting defensive can feel like the only way to cope with a threat. But in the long-term, it undermines and our relationships. When we lash out at people, we dig ourselves a deep hole.
Let’s look at a few ways that might regulate your mood, and stop getting defensive.
Remind Yourself Of Your Deepest Values
Remembering our core beliefs and passions can make us feel less defensive. You can do this with confronting the criticism at hand.
So, if your feeling defensive after your boss gives you a bad work review, forget about frantically rehashing all your past work place triumphs, focus instead on the areas where you felt confident, whether its a commitment to living healthy, you faith, you readiness to help others, you passion for writing, drawing, building things, and any other value you hold dear. By focusing on your values you can store up your self-esteem, and reduce the need to get defensive.
See Criticism As A Sign Of Others Belief In Your Abilities
Think back to seventh grade, when you were still figuring out your identity and your worth. At that age, the feedback you got from leaders, couches, and friends made a huge impact.
For many kids of color for example, it’s that this age that they started to come to conclusions about whether they can trust mainstream institutions like school, or whether they are being stereotyped. Both praise and critical feedback can be confusing for kids of color how can they be sure criticism is justified or just driven by bias?
When I was in high school we had a colored kid come into our school, there were a lot of student staring at him and a few remarks at first. But, he was very kind. The next year he joined the rodeo club. Watching him I said to myself ”WoW he can ride a bull that’s cool” he was very good. After they found out that he could ride,most people wanted to friend with him. He was the only colored boy in our school. Yes, it was hard at first, I’m sure more for others.
There were a few that had gotten defensive about the whole situation. Having to sit by a ”colored boy” at school. He is still in our town, and the whole town loves him. He is in a wheelchair now, from being thrown off a bull just after high school but, he is still as kind as he always was. Even though no one ever says to him I believe in you or I know you are capable. He always did his best.
So how does this apply to you? Even if don’t hear the words I believe in you or I know you are capable. If you know your mom, your boss, or your partner is offering you feedback so you can achieve great things. Remind yourself of their faith in you and your criticism will go down easier.
We usually think of defensiveness as getting verbally abusive. But we actually defend ourselves against holes in our self-esteem in a lot of ways, we might trash talk our haters, compare ourselves to people who have it worse, or go to great lengths to treat ourselves with retail therapy to soothe our wounded souls. I favorite I love retail therapy,
These methods might make us feel better, but they channel our energy into defensiveness rather than moving forward.
How can we channel our energy into self-improvement rather than self-defense? If you receive criticism that is cruel or insulting no one expects to you grow from it- go ahead and use your time and energy repairing those wounds.
But if the feedback is meant to help you or is neutral and objective- like scoring 37% on a test, or essay rather than channeling your energy into soothing yourself you will be better off if you channel your energy into improving yourself. Take a step back. Adopt a growth mindset and take critical feedback as a chance to get better and better.
Okay you say, that’s all fine and good- I can affirm my deepest values, interpret feedback as the fact that others believe in me, and trust that I can grow. But would about in the moment? How can I manage that split second when it’s just so tempting to follow your instincts and defend myself?
The answer is to make it through that moment waiting to react. Just let the adrenaline surge to gather your thoughts. You can do this few ways.
The first option is use filler words and let the other person continue speaking. You could say Go on or Oh? Say more about that and then use their airtime to take a few slow breathes and consider how you’d like to respond.
The second option is to alternatively stay silent. A slightly awkward pause buys you time and, as a bonus, throws them off their game.
Once you’ve composed yourself, it’s time for the last step.
Use I statements.
This is something I learned in class called Bridges. It’s very useful.
I statements are key to reducing defensiveness. Why? You can make your own feeling known without slinging accusations, which are a one -way ticket to escalating the conflict. Plus, no one can argue with your opinion or your feelings.
I statement focus the conversation on you and what you feel, and will help you make your point without getting defensive
However, make sure the I statement isn’t a you statement in sheep’s clothing, like I’m sorry you didn’t understand or I wish you’d just grow up.
Better I am not comfortable with this. I have a difficult time listening to you when you raise your voice. Or I get frustrated when you remind me over and over. It makes me feel like you don’t trust you. Sometimes a simple I hear what your saying, is enough to defuse the tension and have a real conversation.
Leave great defense to the balled-up porcupine. It might make us feel better but in the end, we get a lot farther leading with our best selves.