5 Graceful Ways to Stop Getting Defensive

If your defensiveness gives a linebacker a run for his money, you’re in luck. Savvy Psychologist offers 5 tips to hear feedback while keeping your cool.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #194

image of a porcupine symbolizing defensiveness

What do a medieval fortress, a balled-up porcupine, and a lymphocyte have in common? They’re all pros at getting defensive.

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Now, when we humans are faced with criticism, we often unleash our own equivalent of flaming arrows, a ball of spines, or a cascade of antibodies. Getting defensive helps us protect our character and our sense of competence. When we feel like we’re under attack, it makes sense that we pull up the drawbridge and ready the boiling oil.

Sometimes we even get defensive with ourselves—it’s our personal spin control. We distance ourselves from our mistakes, blame outside forces for failure, and judge others in order to affirm ourselves. Or we drink or otherwise self-medicate to cope with threats to our self-image and self-esteem.

The only problem? Getting defensive with friends, your boss, your partner, and yourself often backfires. It pushes people away, makes us look immature, and sends a message that we’re unable to regulate our emotions.

Short term, it might feel like it’s all we can do. But long term, it undermines us and our relationships. When we lash out, we dig ourselves deeper.

Therefore, this week, by request from listener Ashleigh and an anonymous listener, we examine five ways to stop getting so defensive.

5 Ways to Stop Getting Defensive

  1. Remind yourself of your deepest values.
  2. See criticism as a sign of others’ belief in your abilities.
  3. Cultivate a growth mindset.
  4. In the moment, buy time.
  5. Use a classic: “I” statements.

Let's dive deeper into each tip.

Tip #1: Remind yourself of your deepest values.

Simple reminders of our deepest values can make us feel less defensive. The best part? It doesn’t even have to be related to the criticism at hand.

In other words, if your academic performance gets criticized, you don’t have to tamp down defensiveness by thinking about all your past academic triumphs. Psychological wounds can be healed indirectly; thinking about your commitment to living a healthy lifestyle, your religious faith, being a stellar parent, helping others, making art, or another value you hold dear can shore up your self-esteem and reduce the need to get defensive.

Tip #2: See criticism as a sign of others’ belief in your abilities.

Do you remember how confusing seventh grade was? You’re still figuring out who you are and what you bring to the world. The feedback you get from teachers, coaches, and friends makes a big impact.

Therefore, it’s at this age that many kids of color start 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 do they know if they’re being pandered to by adults who want to prove they’re not racist? Or, on the flip side, how can they be sure criticism is justified or just driven by bias? When is getting defensive justified? And when is it a misinterpretation?

A study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology delved into this issue. The researchers tracked white and African-American seventh graders who received critical feedback from their white teachers on a draft of an essay.

For half of the kids, both white and black, teachers prefaced their feedback with the following affirmation: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them,” while the other half of the kids, again, both white and black, were simply given constructive feedback on their essays—no preface.

What happened? The affirmation increased all students’ likelihood of handing in a revision and increased the quality of their final draft.

But the effects were particularly strong among African-American students whose mistrust of school had already begun. Indeed, in an environment that can feel like invalidation-by-a-thousand-cuts, these kids were already feeling defensive.

Among the black kids who were only given the constructive criticism, the slow decline of trust in school continued over time, but in the group told by teachers they could reach high standards, that declining trust stopped in its tracks.

So how does this apply to you? Even if the magic words of “I believe in you” or “I know you are capable” go unsaid, if you know in your heart that your mom, your boss, or your partner is only offering feedback so you can achieve great things, it’s easier to hear the words and feel motivated rather than defensive.

Tip #3: Cultivate a growth mindset.

We usually think of defensiveness as getting verbally defensive. But we actually defend ourselves against holes in our self-esteem in lots of ways: we might trash-talk our haters, compare ourselves to people who have it worse, or splurge on some retail therapy to soothe our wounded souls.

Now, each of these methods might make us feel better, but they channel our energy into defensiveness rather than moving forward.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.