Understanding Defensive Behavior 1


Understanding Defensive Behavior 1

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.   

Visit the blog next week for the conclusion to this article. You can find out more about your Self-Protective System by taking the SSPS Level I Assessment and reading the General Report for your Style.

Anne Dranitsaris, PhD


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