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Understanding Defensive Behaviour

by Anne and Heather Dranitsaris, PhD and Dranitsaris-Hilliard November 26, 2012

Defensiveness in Daily Life

Not a day goes by that I don’t notice my Self-Protective System (emotional/instinctual brains) being triggered and that I am on the verge of reacting in a defensive fashion. It might be triggered by something as simple as being asked whether I have finished something that I haven’t even started yet because I am so far behind on my workload; or something more mundane such as getting stuck in traffic when I am already late for a meeting. Most of the time, I notice my automatic reactions and can shift gears in my brain so that I respond to situations in a way that doesn’t trigger defensiveness in others. Other times the Self-Protective System of my brain takes over, causing automatic reactions from my emotional brain to dominate.

Certainly not a day goes by that I don’t have to deal with the defensiveness of others. I am sure this is the same for most people. We don’t always “name” what is happening, i.e. “Oh, I just realized I was being defensive. Can we start again?” or “I’m not sure what just happened, but you seem to have taken a position, rather than discussing options. Is this the case?” When people experience the self-protective behaviors of others, they go into their own defensive strategies — avoid, withdraw, challenge, deny, etc. Everyone tiptoes around the “elephants in the room”, for fear that we trigger someone’s defenses and we won’t know how to deal with them. In the workplace, this is demonstrated in various behaviors — the leader who frequently chastises employees publicly for insignificant errors putting everyone else on the defensive; an employee that fails to get their work done on time causing problems for the entire team, without comment from their leader; or employees who spend half their day in personal activities on their computer without comment from anyone.

While feeling defensive and acting from our Self-Protective System is normal human behavior, we rarely talk about it as though this is the case. We are often embarrassed by our own need to protect ourselves and can even be defensive when someone points out that we are being defensive. Not accepting how normal it is for us to behave this way and that it’s our task to develop our brains so that we can respond to life situations rather than reacting defensively keeps us in dysfunctional patterns of behavior that limit our growth and development.

The Physiology of Defensive Behavior

The Self-Protective System of the brain is there to ensure that we, as human beings, physically and psychologically survive. Our brains have evolved so that we are now able to use reason in our responses to life as well as emotional and instinctual reactions. However, delays in brain development during childhood cause us to continue to use our instinctual and emotional self-protective behaviors without awareness of the limitations our defensive reactions put on us. We are born with our brains wired to survive and this remains our agenda in adulthood if our childhood environment is not safe and our attachment to our mother or primary caretaker is not secure.

Contrary to popular ideas about defensive behavior, we don’t learn them. They are hard-wired into the fabric of our brain’s physical organization and the function of the brain that dominates. Based on the function that dominates, we are wired to use defenses that ensure we get our psychological needs met. Understanding the mechanics of the mind and how the brain develops is critical to learning how to manage and develop behavior. We need to observe our thoughts and feelings and know when we are scaring or undermining ourselves with negative automatic thoughts or telling ourselves upsetting stories about why others are behaving the way they do (and it’s always because of us!)

Behaviors of the Self-Protective System are self-focused. They are only concerned with the preservation of the self, self-image or self-concept. These emotionally charged behaviors look different in people of different brain organizations. This means that the person who is in control, perfectly rational and logical is just as self-protective as their emotionally expressive, seemingly out of control, counterpart. While the behaviors look different, the self-centered approach and the insistence that they are right and others are wrong or that they have been wronged or victimized come from the same place.

While it is a normal part of human psychology and brain functioning, I have found through my research that most people don’t know much about how our brain is wired to be self-protective and what to do when they find themselves taking a position or denying what they know to be true. While people are curious about why they are defensive, most of what is written about it seems to be bogged down in psychological jargon or doesn’t really explain why you immediately go to those behaviors even when you know there is nothing to be defensive about. I have had many clients who were so used to being self-protective by denying their needs that even when they had the opportunity to open up, they chose not to. We know the subjects, behaviors or emotions that put us on the defensive, but we don’t know the mechanics of the mind and how to step out of the reaction once we find ourselves in it.

Living in Survival, Without Knowing It

We age, but we don’t all mature. We have some idea that when you reach a certain age we should know better, act mature, not be emotional, and certainly not show any fear or vulnerability. Many people are so busy judging themselves for not attaining their idea or image they have for the way they should be, that they ignore their gifts, talents and potential. Living in survival, they never feel good enough, because they are constantly telling themselves that they aren’t. In order to thrive, to live life from the Self-Actualizing System of the brain (rational, emotional and instinctual brains with connecting neural pathways) we have to learn how to work at developing the neural pathways that allow for constant communication between impulses, thoughts and feelings.

As adults, we have the potential to shift from living in our Self-Protective System, but first, we have to realize that we are living in survival mode. We have to know what this looks like for our particular brain organization or Striving Style. Our brain doesn’t develop automatically and if we don’t think of development as changing our physiology the same way going to the gym and exercising does, we can believe that we only need to learn what to do and we will magically change. This is not the case. If you want the Self-Actualizing System of the brain to develop so that you can live your life in the pursuit of your hearts desire, experiencing and dealing with everything life brings to you and achieving your potential, you have to strengthen the neural pathways from your emotional to your rational brain.

Working on shifting from automatic self-protective behaviors and strengthening your Self-Actualizing System requires that you develop your observing self; the self that notices how you are feeling and reacting and is curious about why. This ability to observe one’s own feelings and intervene on your own behalf requires that you exercise self-awareness and know your automatic defensive behaviors. Too often we keep defending ourselves even when there is no threat. It might feel that way, but that doesn’t make it true. It’s the automatic nature of the self-protective System that causes us to keep living in survival despite having already survived. Living life from the Self-Actualizing System allows us to experience ourselves and our lives to the fullest, without apology and without having to defend ourselves.

How often are you Self-Protective?

Check in with yourself when communicating with others and notice what your self-protective behaviors are. Here are some things that you might notice you do.

  1. Rationalize - Explain, Defend, And Make Excuses: You find yourself saying “Yes, but…” to comments about yourself, explaining why you have to do things the way you do or explaining why the other person is wrong. You always feel that you have to justify your behavior and act as though questions are attacks on you. If someone expresses a feeling, i.e. “I am disappointed you won’t be coming to the company picnic.” you get upset with them and explain again the reasons why you can’t rather than just knowing you will be missed.
  2. Agree with Your Attacker: Someone tells you something negative about yourself that you know isn’t true (i.e. you always want to be the center of attention or you always want your own way) and rather than correct them or create conflict, you agree with their perception. You might even defend the person’s right to treat you negatively as a result of their idea of you.
  3. Undermine or Devalue Others: Rather than asserting yourself and negotiating to get your own needs met, you say yes and give in, appearing to be cooperative. You then feel victimized by them and go around talking about this person behind their back, calling them names like “selfish” or “control freak”, undermining them to others. You might also fail to do what you agreed to, negatively impacting the other person who was depending on you to get what you agreed to finished.
  4. Withdraw, Deny or Avoid Conflict: You protect yourself by going inside yourself and not saying anything about what you think or feel about a situation. You might also leave the situation physically by calling in sick or not showing up to a meeting. You avoid people that make you feel nervous or who expect something from you. You might also avoid talking to someone about something you are having difficulty with. When you do talk about the issue, you deny that it is a problem and tell the other person it must just be them.
  5. Passive-Aggressive Position: When you feel someone has power and authority over you, you find a way of combating this by refusing to be helpful to them when you know they need help; you hold on to information that someone else needs so that they will make a mistake or have to work harder on their own to find it; or saying you will do something, knowing that you have no intention to at all.
  6. Attack, Counterattack: You complain about a problem that you are having and when someone gives you some insight into your part in the problem you attack or judge the other person. You feel wounded, misunderstood or victimized by the suggestion that you might play a role in your own problems. You might accuse them of being mean and insensitive or you counter by drawing their attention to something that they are struggling with and how ineffective they are being.
  7. Long-Suffering, Martyr: You experience interpersonal conflict as a burden that you have to bear. You talk to others in a way that makes them feel that by raising a legitimate issue with you that they have mortally wounded you or caused you suffering. Somehow, your emotions become more important than the actual issue and the other person is forced to think about how you are feeling.
  8. Blame: You shift the focus from yourself by making the other person the reason for your behavior or the way you feel. If you didn’t get to work on time, it’s because you just missed the bus and the insensitive bus driver didn’t stop when he saw you.

You don’t think it’s because you didn’t give yourself enough time. If you treat a coworker or friend badly and are confronted, you let them know it’s because of the way they have treated you.

When we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we use these behaviors more frequently than we like to admit. However, recognizing them for what they are — your automatic self-protective behaviors — allows you to start shifting your behavior and strengthening your Self-Actualizing System.

Strengthening Your Self-Actualizing System

The Self-Actualizing System of the brain is strengthened by sustained learning, reflecting, experimenting and experiencing new activities and behavioral responses. Strengthening the Self-Actualizing System — building neural connections between the emotional/instinctual brains and the rational brain can only happen through the repetition of new behaviors and the letting go of old, unproductive habits of mind. Living from our Self-Actualizing System is key to becoming who we are meant to be and fulfilling our potential. The Self-Actualizing System must be strengthened before we can do any other developmental activity; it does not just develop on its own. You can’t just say “I’m not going to do that anymore” or “Now I know what to do. I just have to...” So, it’s important to know exactly how to do it.

By trying new things, facing your fears, having new experiences and by making different choices for how you think and behave, you can develop the neural pathways connecting your three brains in order to start living from your Self-Actualizing System. This takes a planned and disciplined approach with constant checking in with yourself to make sure you haven’t slipped back into auto pilot. Remember, change and development are physiological processes, and if you don’t stay on course, you won’t be building the new neural pathways that create the desired automatic habits of mind.

For more information about how you can learn to live from your Self-Actualizing System, take the SSPS Level I Assessment and download your complementary Development Workbook. It contains everything you need to help you become who you are meant to be. It provides a complete roadmap for development with the steps required for developing your Self-Actualizing System. It offers all the information, tools and experiential activities needed to help you get to know yourself and the mechanics of your mind. You will build self-awareness through the practice of mindfulness and other developmental activities; learn the needs that drive your behavior in relationships; and build skills to create the types of relationships you want to have.

Anne Dranitsaris Ph.D.