Self Defeating Defenses

  When faced with a threat we take defensive measures. As the threat increases usually are efforts at defense increase as well. Sometimes these defenses actually make things worse.  As things get worse people often put more effort into their defenses and a vicious cycle is created.   One threat people face in social situations is that other people won't like and respect them. In these situations people are likely to resort to defensive behaviors that they believe will prevent disapproval by others.  Just being in a defensive mode one come's across as very uptight which makes other people nervous and uncomfortable and less likely to be friendly.

    A common self destructive defense mechanism is responding to constructive criticism with hostility and anger.  If Mike and Mary are in a relationship in which Mary does something to hurt Mike, Mike has to be able to communicate that to Mary without Mary blowing up at him.  If Mary responds to Mike's criticism with, "Well last week you did such and such" she is just pouring fuel on the fire of his anger.  This brings up another inappropriate defense mechanism in which people instead of communicating, retaliate later on.  The appropriate way for Mary to communicate with Mike is to apologize and then to explain why she did what she did.  She should listen to what Mike has to say and try and learn from it so that she can improve her behavior next time.  When Mike is less angry she should suggest to Mike some things he could do that might help the situation in the future as well.   The best approach is usually "Lets determine what we are doing wrong" and not "You're in the wrong, shut up".  In the case where Mike is totally in the wrong, just saying you're wrong is unlikely to convince Mike.  My past experience with my ex-girlfriend was that when I communicated criticism in a loving way I was much more likely to convince her than when I did it with anger.  She'd even laugh at herself.

    People often respond to a constructive criticism with a counterattack that is irrelevant and just muddies the water.  If Mike had criticized Mary for not cleaning the dishes Mary might retaliate with "Well you didn't walk the dog last week when I asked you to."  Walking the dog has nothing to do with her doing the dishes.  Mike's faults are not an excuse for Mary's.  Mary may be getting back at Mike for not walking the dog by not doing the dishes but that is not likely to persuade Mike to walk the dog.  In fact he is likely to resent her bringing that up.  Mike may have had a good reason for not walking the dog last week.  If she has a problem with Mike's behavior she is more likely to get him to change it if she discusses it with him.  Defending her behavior by reminding him of his faults sends him the message that she intends to continue her behavior and is likely to make him angry and hurt his relationship with her.

   When I have a fight with my spouse I often tell her all the wrongs that I feel she did to me.  Often her defense is to deny that she did anything wrong.  She does this partly because she wants me to stop being angry but her defense only makes things worse.  If I feel hurt by her actions and she claims she did nothing wrong that gets me angrier.  I partly become angry because I then feel that I'm being accused of flying off the handle for nothing.  I also feel angry because if my spouse hurts me I want her to acknowledge it and apologize for it and reassure me that she will make every effort not to do it again.  If she denies that she did wrong that will not happen.   Her defense just makes things much worse.  If she did what I wanted her to do that would cool me down. 

    Another self defeating defense is to become anxious in social situations.  Feeling anxiety can be thought of as a defense mechanism.   If we were in the African jungle and were in danger of stepping on dangerous snakes anxiety on our part might lead us to wear protective gear so that we are not bitten.   In that case anxiety is a defensive mechanism that protect us.  In social situations however anxiety makes us unpleasant people to be around and so hurts our chances at social success. 



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