How To Deal With Highly Defensive People
15th May, 2010
Many times in life, we come across people in our lives who seem to be super quick to take offense when you thought you were offering help, advice or constructive feedback. Worse, some of you might have someone like this in your life who asks you for feedback. Your heart sinks as you know that no matter what you say or how you say it, they’ll likely be devastated. People like this can be found in every family, workplace or group of friends. Dealing with them requires a special set of skills.
The Dark Side of Sensitivity
People like this often describe themselves as being sensitive and they are. But often their reactions to your comments are a defense mechanism. The two may feel the same to the person experiencing them but in reality, they are worlds apart. Sensitivity is born of careful attention, it involves looking closely, understanding deeply and therefore not causing harm. Defensiveness is the bastard child of shame. For people who have survived harshly judgmental environments, shame dominates the psychological landscape.
Knowing that highly sensitive people’s destructive behaviour comes from shame doesn’t excuse it, but it does help you understand why. From the outside, defensive behaviour is disproportionate, bizarre, often appalling. But from the perspective of the highly sensitive person, these actions are justifiable self-protection.
How to Have a Functional, Trusting, Relaxed, Mutually Satisfying Human Relationship with a Highly Defensive Person
In short, you can’t. The long answer is you can’t, don’t bother trying. The reason you can’t look to defensive people for satisfying relationships is that it requires two human beings.
I’m not being flip, defensive people genuinely think more with their ancient, reptilian brain and process in the parts of the brain that control social interaction and which evolved much, much later less. Beneath our elaborate neural structures that mediate our subtle social interactions we all possess what neuroscientists call the reptilian brain. It’s the most ancient part of the brain which evolved in reptiles and isn’t capable of nuanced emotion or logical thought. It’s primary driving force is fear. Two fears to be exact.
The first worry of the lizard brain (yours, mine, everyone’s!) is “I don’t have enough!” – enough food, money, love, glory. Insert your own noun here but the theme “not enough” pounds away constantly. The only other major concern for the lizard brain is “someone’s out to get me!”. A highly sensitive person perceives threat coming from lots of sources; one day the enemy could be a colleague, a relative the next, that mean women in the check-out at Tesco’s two minutes later. But to the lizard brain, someone somewhere is always about to attack.
Evolutionarily this makes sense. Lizards live longer if they obsessively acquire more food, shelter and mates, and if they expect predators to jump out at them at any moment. Sadly, reptiles are blind to non-defensive emotions; to the glow of love, the joyful giggle. The only thing playing on their mental movie screens all day, every day is The Lack and Attack Show. The same is true of highly sensitive/defensive people.
When humans are gripped by primal fear, they get completely in touch with their ancient lizard brains and highly defensive people are virtually always gripped by primal fear.
So the best relationship you can hope to sustain with a highly defensive people is the sort you might have with a reptile. Listen out the lyrics to the song The Snake by Al Wilson to get a better idea. You can treat a highly defensive person as tenderly as the woman in this song but you’re still highly likely to get bitten. Handle with care, step back and maintain some distance is your relationship with a highly defensive person.
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