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How To Stop Being Defensive: A Simple 6-Step Process

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Have you ever been accused of being too defensive?

Do you feel the need to justify and explain yourself against any bit of criticism that you may face?

Sometimes that’s a good thing! Sometimes you might have been misjudged, or you’re legitimately under attack.

Problems arise, however, when defensiveness is the reaction to any and all criticism.

After all, the ability to entertain and accept valid criticism is essential for building friendships, relationships, and succeeding in life.

You may accidentally overstep boundaries, act in a harmful way, or simply not know something you need to accomplish your task well.

The only way you’re going to get that information is through criticism and positive communication habits. That’s right, criticism can be positive, even if it’s not something we want to hear.

Why am I so defensive?

The kind of defensiveness that is extreme enough to be causing problems in your life can be rooted in different parts of your life experience.

Emotionally healthy people who grew up in stable homes tend not to have a knee-jerk defensive reaction to criticism. They may still be defensive at times, but it’s more likely to come out when they are attacked head on, rather than simply criticized.

People who have anxious-attachment styles may feel this reaction harder than others. Those kinds of attachment styles are typically rooted in childhood and how you grew up.

Suppose your parent was frequently critical and belittling of you. In that case, your mind may automatically slip into a defensive mode to keep you from being harmed.

It may also come from surviving an abusive relationship where your partner was constantly needling and criticizing you as a way of controlling you. Your brain is reacting to a situation that it perceives to be similar so that you can get ahead of it and preserve yourself.

It will be a good idea to talk to a certified mental health professional if you experience defensive reactions that interfere with your ability to have healthy relationships or function. They are very likely rooted in issues that you may need professional help in overcoming.

But even without the help of a professional, there are ways to interrupt the process and stop being defensive, so that you can improve your relationships with other people.

6 Steps To Being Less Defensive

1. Take a moment to breathe and collect your thoughts.

The best time to start controlling your defensiveness is right when it’s triggered.

You need to pause, take a deep breath, and give yourself a moment to clear your thoughts.

That initial surge of anger and defensiveness will rise up, but you need to work through it. Don’t respond immediately. Silence is unlikely to escalate the situation, but getting defensive might.

2. Repeat what was said back to the person as you understand it.

Positive, healthy communication comes from being able to understand one another. The easiest way to demonstrate that you understand what was said is to relay that information back to the speaker as you understand it.

This will confirm that you heard the person. It also allows them to clear up any misconceptions that may have been drawn in the process.

There are times when just being heard is enough to resolve a problem. Sometimes people just feel like their feelings aren’t being acknowledged. This is an excellent way to show them that you are listening and considering how they feel.

Clarification of the disputed points can be enough to avoid getting defensive on your part.

3. Consider what the ultimate goal of the criticism is.

Criticism comes in many flavors, shapes, and forms. Healthy criticism often serves a positive purpose in that it is meant to solve a problem, provide perspective, or spur growth.

If you feel like you are being attacked, consider the ultimate point of the criticism. Is the person just being a jerk to be a jerk? Or are they someone who cares about you or your success?

Your boss at work may not be giving you criticism in a thoughtful and tactful way, but it might be necessary for you to do your job well and succeed. Only a lousy boss wouldn’t want you to succeed at the job you’re performing for them because that just makes their job harder.

And similarly, healthy friends or a good relationship partner want you to succeed as well. Your success has a direct impact on the quality of their own lives and perspectives.

If you can see the criticism as something that had good intentions but may have been poorly delivered, you’ll be less defensive about it.

4. Leave emotion at the door.

As much as you can, leave your emotions out of the discussion. It is far easier said than done, but if you’re angry, you’re not going to be listening and hearing what the other person has to say.

Tell the other person if you need a moment to bring things under control so you can have a clear discussion with them.

A simple technique that may work for you is Box Breathing. Inhale for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and repeat until you feel the anger and anxiety leave you. Try following this meditation GIF to keep your breathing in time:

box breathing GIF

Focusing on your breathing distracts your mind from the emotions, depriving them of fuel, so they have a chance to recede. A flatter emotional response means you won’t take up such a defensive position.

5. Look for and acknowledge your responsibility.

In a healthy relationship, whether it’s romantic or not, you’re going to do things that will upset or be a problem for the other person.

You’re two different people, so you’ll have two different perspectives and experiences with life. That’s okay! Healthy relationships are forged in differences when we can see and accept responsibility for our actions.

Look for your responsibility in the criticism. Is it valid? Is it something that you need to work on?

If it is, then accept and acknowledge it. A simple, “I apologize. I was wrong.” can go a long way to repairing a breach of trust or hurt feelings.

6. Consider where the criticism is coming from.

Maybe the criticism isn’t valid or fair. Maybe it just came out of nowhere and didn’t really align with how you perceive the situation to be at all. It happens. Sometimes the other person can be wrong.

Consider whether something may be going on with the other person to make them feel that way.

Maybe they are stressed and had an excessive emotional reaction to a situation that wasn’t your fault.

Maybe something happened that they perceived to be your responsibility but was outside of your control.

Sometimes perceptions get jumbled up, and arguments pop out of frustration. The more control you can exert over your initial reaction and emotions about the criticism, the more likely you will get at the truth of the matter and find a solution. It may not be about you at all, in which case, what is there to be defensive about?

These 6 steps are all it really takes to stop getting defensive when you feel criticized or attacked. It may seem like a simple process – and it is – but it’s all in the execution and that is not always easy when your initial reaction is one of defensiveness.

The first step is the hardest, and in many ways the most important because if you can pause and collect your thoughts, you’ll be able to remember and implement the rest of the steps. And the more you manage to practice the process in real life, the more it’ll become your natural approach in similar situations.

Still not sure how to stop being defensive? Talking to someone can really help you to handle whatever life throws at you. It’s a great way to get your thoughts and your worries out of your head so you can work through them.

Speak to a therapist about it. Why? Because they are trained to help people in situations like yours. They can help you to understand where your defensive behavior comes from and provide tailored advice to help you change it. is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.

While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.

Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.

Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service provide and the process of getting started.

You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspectives from the side of the mental health consumer. Jack has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.