I remember my supervisor talking many years ago about how frustrating it was for her when a person on her team was defensive about feedback. She was venting about how difficult it is to mentor people when every time you point out something you’d like them to work on they start explaining, rationalizing or defending what they do/did. She went on to say it leads her to focus her energy on the other, more promising, open-minded employees.
As my supervisor was saying all this, I was well aware that I had a difficult time taking in feedback myself. I turned to her and asked if she was speaking about me. She laughed and said no. I knew, however, that if I didn’t learn to take in feedback she soon would be.
As crazy as it may sound, I vowed that very day to stop being defensive. I decided that I would stop expending endless energy on covering my imperfections and instead push myself to grow from them. I have never once regretted that decision.
The freedom this one decision has given me throughout the years is difficult to explain. No longer being defensive has allowed me to accept my humanity as well as the humanity of others. It has been life altering.
Defensiveness shuts down relationships, blocks intimacy and stifles growth. It is one of the most common complaints I hear about in struggling couples. Being with a partner who is chronically defensive often leads to a sense of hopelessness. When people are defensive, they’re not accountable. If they’re not accountable, it’s unlikely they will change anything. If they’re unlikely to change, then you’re stuck with what you’ve got…how discouraging.
Defensiveness can be about a lot of things, most of which stem from childhood. It can be about perfectionism—needing to look like you have it all together. It can also be about entitlement, which is you thinking you’re above the rules and don’t need to be accountable. It could stem from a childhood where you had to be perfect to be loved, or perhaps you would get attacked if you ever admitted to any fault. Either way, it sets you up to CYA (cover your “arse”).
Constantly covering your mistakes becomes a pain for you as well as for everyone around you. People start feeling you’re impenetrable; eventually they stop trying to give you feedback. They give up. When your partner stops trying to give you feedback, their silence does not mean they’ve now accepted you warts and all. It likely means they’ve quit thinking there’s a chance you’ll change. They’re trying to figure out what they need to do and if they can stay with someone who’s so utterly unworkable. As my supervisor said, they’re trying to see if they should invest their energies in someone or something that is workable.
The bottom line is the more defensive you are, the more problems you create. Just because you don’t cop to your mistakes doesn’t mean you didn’t make them. It just means you didn’t have the courage to own them and repair the damage.
Challenge: If you struggle with defensiveness, look at what that has cost you. Pay attention to what happens in response to your defensiveness. Get conscious. Next, begin to take ownership of your minor mistakes. Learn to say you’re sorry on the small things and work your way up to the bigger mistakes. Pat yourself on the back when you are able to own your mistakes without justifying or defending them.