Isn’t defensiveness one of the most frustrating traits to deal with? When you know you’re right – but despite making sound, reasonable, logical and compelling arguments, you get a bunch of irrational, angry nonsense back instead! Once you understand where it comes from, you might look at it in a different way. See how many of these traits you can relate to.
Defensiveness is essentially shame driven fear:
“Back off, because I feel threatened”.
“I’m frightened you’ll think of me as flawed, or not good enough”.
“I feel vulnerable about being flawed”.
“Being wrong means I’M wrong, as a person”.
Because shame will do anything to protect itself, the power of defensiveness can turn fear into anger into rage, enough to make people walk out of situations, jobs, relationships and even families.
But its not anger – its fear.
Its not rage – its fear.
Of course, the other person may be rightfully defensive about something – a belief, a value, a personal opinion, or a fact that you’re wrong about.
But there’s a difference between defending something in a calm, reasonable way, and the kind of fearful defensiveness that we’re talking about here.
Its very easy to spot the difference.
Defensiveness without feelings of shame
If a person isn’t bringing feelings of shame to the argument, then they don’t really have anything to lose (with shame, the person has false confidence, imagined power, and protective, fragile self-worth to lose).
Because there isn’t an emotional fear driving the “need” to defend an argument, the person is more likely to remain rational and reasonable in making their arguments.
There may still be emotion behind it, but its more likely to be passion (a positive emotion).
You may be thinking “but what about the fear of being wrong?” but that’s exactly what shame is – the fear of being wrong, broken, not good enough, flawed. Without deep running feelings of shame, a person isn’t worried about being wrong in that sense, because they understand (and believe) that it doesn’t mean they’re a bad, or flawed, person.
Without feelings of shame, a person in a defensive position is more likely to:
- Calmly state their arguments – evidence, opinions, experiences etc.
- Listen to the other person
- Admit they’re wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence
- Agree to disagree if there’s a stalemate
- Not take things personally, whether they’re wrong or not
Defensiveness WITH feelings of shame
This is where things get messy, quickly.
With feelings of shame, a person doesn’t need to consciously think of how to be defensive. The unconscious mind has plenty of tricks up it’s sleeve.
They’re more likely to:
- Become angry – which can be extremely unpleasant. It can also be a diversion tactic.
- Lose the ability to truly listen to you – logical arguments “fall on deaf ears”. They’ll be thinking of another caustic argument whilst you’re giving a perfectly sound and reasonable one. This forces you to repeat yourself, to which they might then mock you for repeating yourself, or use it as a cue to say that you’re “going on” about it. If you remind them that they didn’t respond to it the first time, they might deny this, without actually giving their response, or distract with another tactic.
- Ignoring – similar to above, but slightly more hostile in its approach. It implies a power struggle, that they’re controlling the argument with silence.
- Find irrelevant examples from other contexts in the belief it supports their claim. This might include using false beliefs about what “everybody else” thinks or would do. E.g. “Everyone does it, I don’t care” even if they know its incorrect or immoral. Using conformity is also a subtle way of suggesting that you’re “not normal” or “the odd one out”. In another argument, they’ll happily criticise “everyone else” for being wrong.
- Launch personal attacks – with or without subtlety make slights and snidey remarks which question your integrity or value as a human being. Example – I was trying to advise a friend against a really bad decision to invest in one of those dodgy MLM schemes. He took it personally, and replied “What do you know? You’re not rich, or happy, who are you to know what’s best for me?” Without feelings of shame, I’m sure he’d have responded more along the lines of a calm “well I appreciate your looking out for me, and understand where you’re coming from, but…” and provided some solid evidence (if it existed). Criticism could be full blown, with a person using authority, superiority, class status, power status (imagined or real), wealth, health, height, strength, gender, sexuality, age or any other variable to “one up” you, as if it gives extra weight to their argument. This is essential shaming behaviour, which is an unfortunate common manifestation of feelings of shame.
- Become hostile or critical about others. If they aren’t personally attacking you, then the shame-rage might flood into other areas or people. They’ll suddenly start ranting and raving about something else, as a vessel to discharge the built up negative energy.
- Blaming and shaming – you get blamed for the argument. For bringing it up (even if you didn’t), for making it worse (even if you didn’t), for making them angry (when you aren’t the true cause).
- Threatening behaviour – something like “I’m warning you” or “you don’t want to go there, believe me”. “You better watch it!” It could also manifest physically – pointing, gesticulating wildly, or grabbing, gripping or punching nearby things as an expression of “I have violent rage, and I could use it on you”.
- Seeking agreement from another close by – this is a weaker version of the conformity tactic. It doesn’t really support a false argument to have another agree with it – especially if that person has a vested interest, a bias, to agree. Its also used as an implied bullying tactic – “there’s two of us, and only one of you!” They know, deep down, that the other person is likely to help with their irrational arguments, so they can hide behind the mob mentality. If that other person makes a ridiculous argument that even they know is wrong or nonsensical, they’ll let it ride, enjoying the overall effect of “fighting” even if with dirty tactics.
- Avoidance – they’ll naturally want the argument to end as quickly as possible – so will use any opportunity to end it. They’ll make arguments that end with tonal crescendos, as if a natural climax that should be the last word. Continuing then provokes further anger, as if you’re now fully responsible for the continuing bad feelings. You’ll get chastised for “going on” about it, and asked why you “don’t just shut up” or “pack it in”.
- Using humour or mockery as a distraction – e.g. laughing, saying how funny it is, how funny you are, or how “hilarious” your argument is.
- Withdrawal – “I don’t have time for this”, “That’s it, I’m done”, or walking away.
When two people with shame are in disagreement…
…the results can be disastrous.
If you look at the examples of defensiveness above, you’ll see that most of them (if not all of them) are shaming behaviours.
They all threaten, belittle, attack, blame or directly shame the other person.
Even ignoring is a shaming behaviour – its saying “you aren’t important enough to bother with”. “I don’t care”.
When a person feels shamed, their shame levels rise, so their own defensiveness increases.
What you get, are two vicious circles of shame feelings, feeding each other.
Sometimes this could be controlled by both, and you end up with a “slanging match” that doesn’t really go anywhere, other times it can escalate pretty bad.
Why family arguments are the worse
Frequently, feelings of shame originate from family, especially parents.
Not only that, but the feeling of lacking which causes the shame, might be tied to other family members.
E.g. if feelings of shame have created a desperate need for approval, affection, recognition or love, then other family members may be seen as the “source” of the cure.
If that person with the perceived support not only doesn’t provide it, but instead resorts to shaming behaviour, then they’re going to be unleashing huge reservoirs of shame in the other person.
Frequently, we look to our partners, friends, siblings, parents, bosses and even our own children as vital sources of approval.
Those people then become potential shame triggers.
If you’re not an approval source for them (e.g. your boss perhaps), then a disagreement could lead to them being calm, and you being defensive.
If you’re both sources of approval for each other, then you’re in that risky zone of vicious circles. This is why family arguments can be so common and explosive!
My dad and I often get into huge arguments over stupid things, that escalate. I hate that he never offers approval or recognition, and starts these petty little shaming attacks about something trivial. I’ll that respond with an argument to try and make him feel stupid, or small. Except he won’t listen – he’ll be throwing out his next misplaced irrational argument. Soon I might be shouting, and he’ll become ever more irrational. There’s no clean end to a situation like that, it usually ends with me leaving then deeply regretting getting so involved in it.
But as mentioned elsewhere on the site, shame triggers primal centers of the brain where rationality and higher-level cognitive processes are inhibited.
If and when those super-bad vicious circle arguments get resolved, the mutual approval which is then offered does wonders to the feelings of shame. You’re suddenly best friends again, and continue offering love and approval until it wears off back to the normal feelings of shame carefully tip-toeing around each other.
In a volatile sexual relationship situation where you’re both the main sources for each others approval, this might become “make up sex”, the reward as you both mutually agree to fulfill each others desperate needs for approval following feelings of shame.
So why do some couples fight, and others don’t?
Where both partners in a couple have feelings of shame, how much they argue will depend on how much each is perceived as a shame threat by the other.
Sometimes they’ll get on well enough to not become shame triggers for each other.
Other times, they will develop shame triggers, mostly as a result of lack of communication, trust or awareness of each other.
For example – imagine one is too long replying to a text, too late home from work, slightly withdrawn or grumpy.
The other person might think “that’s ok, it happens” and not feel threatened.
OR they could unconsciously imagine “they’re cheating on me / they don’t like me, I’m not good enough for them, they’re going to reject me and abandon me” and then respond with distancing and barriers. Now depending on how that behaviour is taken by the first person, a vicious circle has started, with each person becoming a shame trigger for the other, resulting in more shaming behaviour.
But with communication, trust and mutual awareness, all shame triggers should be nulled. Also, mutual approval, recognition and loving behaviour will ensure that feelings of shame are eroded over time.
The shame dynamic always has the potential to be altered though, into new territories.
For example, if a persons shame levels suddenly sky-rocket from a rare shame trigger, or combination of factors. This could be a health scare, being fired or made redundant, being nervous in a unique or threatening social situation. They might then become defensive in a new way that the other person isn’t used to, and doesn’t understand, which could easily become a shame trigger for them too.
A couple who “never argue” might go travelling for example, and find themselves arguing to the point of breakup. The tiredness, personal challenges, disorientation and distracted attention could easily become a shame trigger for one or both parties.
Disagreements then quickly become defensive arguments rather than discussions.
Couples who don’t fight may or may not carry feelings of shame. The feelings could be well managed, or lying dormant like a trojan horse ready to unleash its misery with the right trigger.
Share your story
Did you relate to any of these ideas or examples? Please share them! Whether you’ve been defensive, been on the other end of it, or have any thoughts or observations from your own life, please contribute to the discussion and share your story.