How to deal with highly defensive people

Many times in life, we come across people who seem to be very quick to take offence, 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 for your feedback. At this notion, your heart sinks as you know that, no matter what you say or how you say it, they’re likely to be devastated. Sensitive people can be found in every family, workplace or group of friends. Interacting and maintaining healthy relationships with them requires care, caution and understanding.


The dark side of sensitivity

As described above, people portraying these qualities often describe themselves are 'being sensitive'. They are sensitive but, often, their reactions to your comments are a defence mechanism. The two may feel the same to the person experiencing these feelings but, in reality, they are worlds apart.

Sensitivity is born of careful attention, it involves taking a closer look at themselves, understanding deeply and, therefore, not causing harm. Defensiveness, on the other hand, is born from living in highly judgmental environments, where shame and unworthiness dominate the psychological landscape.

Knowing that highly sensitive people’s destructive behaviour comes from shame helps you to understand their actions. From the outside, defensive behaviour is disproportionate, bizarre, unexpected and irrational. But, from the perspective of the highly sensitive person, these actions are justifiable self-protection.

Man hugging crying girl

Understanding defensiveness 

Developing a functional, trusting, relaxed and mutually satisfying human relationship with a defensive person is highly complicated and difficult. The reason for this is their brain processing tool is different.

It is common that defensive people genuinely think more with their ancient, "reptilian brain" (lizard brain) and less with the areas of their brain that control social interaction. Beneath our elaborate, neural structures that mediate our subtle social interactions, we all possess what neuroscientists call the lizard brain. It’s the most ancient part of the brain which evolved in reptiles and isn’t capable of nuanced emotion or logical thought, with its primary driving force being fear - two fears to be exact.

The first worry of the lizard brain is “I don’t have enough!” – enough food, money, love, glory. The theme “not enough” pounding 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 unfriendly women in the check-out at Tesco two minutes later. To the lizard brain, someone 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 thought running through their minds every day is the “lack of” or the “attack” train of thought and this is true for highly sensitive or 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.

It can be said that the best relationship you can hope to sustain with a highly defensive person is one of respect, caution and a sense of empathy, as their doubts about self-insignificance are paramount to their highly defensive nature. However, the tendency to get bitten when offering advice and thoughts from a loving place is exclusive in this relationship and may not sustain long-term.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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