Reacting to unwelcome information…

How do you react to information you don’t like (or want to hear)? Do you shoot the messenger? Do you take a deep breath and formulate a considered response? Often, our response lands somewhere in between those two.

Most of us get defensive before we get thoughtful. Most of us put up our defenses in one way or another and that rarely makes the situation better, and it certainly won’t make the unpleasant information go away!

Photo of a woman with her hand up.

We’re wired for defensiveness – it is in our DNA to jump first to the conclusion that we must defend ourselves at all costs – even if we’re totally in error! A defense mechanism is an unconscious, psychological response to protect ourselves from feelings of anxiety, or other threats to our self-esteem – they reflect our reaction to all the things we would prefer not to think about or deal with; information that upsets us.

What does defensiveness look like? It can look different in different situations or with different reactors. Some of us:

  • Make excuses: If someone critiques us, we might bring up excuses and explanations as to why we aren’t to blame.
  • Deflect blame: If someone accuses us of doing something wrong, we might deflect by reminding them of something they’ve done wrong, shifting the focus to them and make them feel hypocritical for challenging us.
  • Respond with drama: We might exaggerate what they’re saying. For example, if we’re reminded of a promise we made and failed to keep, we might say, “Are you calling me a liar?”
  • Make false promises: We rush to promise (even more) things we probably can’t deliver, just to avoid the confrontation.

It doesn’t matter which flavor of defensiveness you run toward, we’ve all got a favorite that we (mistakenly) believe will protect our ego and fend off the truths we prefer not to encounter. It’s human nature.

I know for me, defensiveness shows up fast when I’m questioned about my decision-making skills or challenged on the integrity of my work – both touchy subjects for this card-carrying controller!

But the defensive reaction isn’t immutable – we can change, we can become thoughtful people who respond to threats with that deep breath and a measured, meaningful response! Experts have named this response the ACCEPTIVE person who stands in contrast to the DEFENSIVE person we’re all familiar with.

What does it take to move from defense mechanism to measured, thoughtful response, to become one of those ACCEPTIVE people who can:

  • Actually listen, and hear someone out?
  • Be honest and stay vulnerable in the face of accusations?
  • Admit mistakes?
  • Stay open to criticism even if it isn’t constructive?
  • Focus more on finding solutions and learning from mistakes?


Self-care is every conscious action you take that feeds your soul, nourishes your body, nurtures your spirit, or replenishes your relationship with yourself!

It takes a commitment to changing our interpersonal communication and making our subconscious, reactive brain WAIT until our pre-frontal cortex can catch-up and take us in a more thoughtful direction! How do we do that? Here’s what one expert in the field, Dr. Daramus*, suggests as some ways we can be less defensive:

  • Develop more self-awareness: This helps you identify when you may be using a defense mechanisms too often, when it’s become your auto-pilot response to any potential threat.
  • Listen: Listen to the issues before you rush to defend yourself. Sometimes, just listening to the person can help them feel seen and validated.
  • Seek clarifications: If someone is accusing you of making a mistake, ask for clarifications so you understand what they’re accusing you of and how it’s affecting them.
  • Take responsibility: If you’ve done something wrong, own up to it and take responsibility for it. Treat it as an opportunity for personal or professional growth and try to learn from it.
  • Ask how you can help: Ask what you can do to improve the situation. Be honest about what you can do to fix it. Don’t make promises you can’t keep for the sake of creating calm.
  • Fix the problem: If it’s within your power to do something to fix the situation, do it and get the job done.
  • Pay attention to your triggers: When you get defensive, ask yourself why and with whom you generally feel this way. It may also help to notice where in your body you feel the discomfort!
  • Set boundaries: If the person is being harsh or disrespectful, you can put some limits around the discussion. You might say, “I’m willing to talk about this, but I need it to be a calmer and more mutually respectful discussion. Let me know when you’re ready.”

These behaviors can form a framework of effective coping skills that can help you move from Defensive to Acceptive as a person, a leader, a spouse or family member – wherever your reactive-self sneaks out and starts to complicate your relationships! Wishing you both the insight to notice your own style of defensiveness, and the willingness to adopt new strategies for healthier relationships in every aspect of life!


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About Paula

I help other caregivers – both professionals and family caregivers – acknowledge their pain and learn to practice the many small skills of self-care that can sustain them through the challenges of wholeheartedly caring for others.

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How Can I Help You?

Through Co-Create 4 Life, you will learn a range of well-being strategies from skillfully implementing self-care to holistic approaches to well-being, rebuilding resilience, and battling burnout. Book a free consultation call today to discuss your options.

How Can I Help You?

Through Co-Create 4 Life, you will learn a range of well-being strategies from skillfully implementing self-care to holistic approaches to well-being, rebuilding resilience, and battling burnout. Book a free consultation call today to discuss your options.