8 Tips to Help You Stop Being Defensive

Last week I looked over some old press clippings about myself from 10 years ago, profiles in places like the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. The articles talked about me in the context of the release of my first novel, and quoted me accurately in ways that now make me cringe. “I vomit to be called a Latina writer,” I told a reporter. It was my way of letting him know that in spite of my last name, I was born and raised in the United States and as such, that I was as American as Stephen King and should be called merely “a writer,” just like he was. After all, I thought, that was only fair.

Lord, I thought as I read that quote now. How many ways might that quote have been misunderstood and used against me, or taken out of context? Was I really such a defensive, self-centered, ungrateful, angry human being that I needed to voice that opinion then, in that outlet, for a piece that was supposed to celebrate me as “the Latina Terry McMillan”? Was I really so blinded by my need to defend my equal place in the world that I could and would blurt out something so ill-advised and open to misunderstanding from folks who might take the comment to mean that I was “ashamed” to be Latina (not the case)? I was trying to say that I thought Latina writers like me should be given the same respect and status as white male ones, but it came across in exactly the opposite way.

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Was I really that stupidly defensive? The sad answer was yes. I was.

With age and experience I have come to understand something vital that I wish I’d understood long ago: Nothing in life is as destructive to good communication and healthy relationships as defensiveness. Nothing blinds us to our long-term goals more than acting impulsively and defensively in the face of perceived criticism. Nothing is better at making us commit acts of self-sabotage than lashing out when we feel attacked.

Because of the way I was raised, I actually thought defensiveness was noble. My dad was a fearless fighter for human rights, and he took great pride in it. He himself had been raised by a loan shark on the wrong side of Havana, and this sort of defensive, fighting Cuban swagger was what I thought would help me in life. If I saw what I thought was an injustice, I called it out, with no regard for who was hearing me, how I sounded, or what consequences my behavior might have. I had a chip on my shoulder the size of a conga drum. I am sorry to say it has taken four decades for me to figure out how much my own blind defensiveness was ruining my life—but I’m happy to say I have figured it out, and I’m living a much better life as a result.

That said, I want to say that we can all be defensive sometimes, especially when we feel our humanity or rights being trampled on. As women and minorities, I think Latinas are at increased risk of falling into the trap of defensiveness, precisely because there is a segment of our society that will marginalize and underestimate us because of nothing more than our sex or ethnicity. I also think that the overtly confrontational nature of some Latino cultures makes some of us at higher risk of alienating people in our careers or relationships in mainstream American culture, where the rules of conduct are different. This is why I think it’s so important for us to get a handle on our defense mechanisms, and learn healthy ways to manage our negative feelings in the face of criticism, injustice or other perceived attacks.

So, what’s a mami to do?

1. Like yourself, for real(s).
According to social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson (who herself admits to having a problem with defensiveness) the best thing any of us can do to combat our own defensiveness in the face of perceived criticism is to come into the situation with a strong sense of self-worth. The more secure you are in yourself, the more you like yourself, the better able you will be to withstand someone else’s negative opinions of you.

“When I suspect criticism may be coming my way,” writes Halvorson, “I take a moment to reflect on something I really like about myself.”

The question of whether you actually like yourself is a deep one that only you can deal with. But if you fundamentally do not like yourself, chances are good that you will continue to be defensive. Secure people can handle others’ negative opinions better, period.

2. Don’t take it personally.
Halvorson and others also advise to sometimes pretend that the criticism you’re hearing about yourself is actually about someone else. Think about what the critic is saying, and try to empathize and understand rather than react.

3. Accept that you aren’t perfect.
If you are your own worst critic, if you always expect yourself to be perfect, you greatly increase the chances of reacting negatively to someone else’s criticism of you. Smith College professor Randy O. Frost has studied perfectionism for decades, and is convinced that being a perfectionist is the single most effective behavior people have to ruin themselves. The smarter and more successful you are, the better your chances of being a perfectionist. You’ve got to learn to accept your own human frailty and shortcomings. We all do.

4. Listen carefully.
It can be very difficult in the midst of hearing criticism to listen carefully to what the other person is saying, because the urge to defend yourself will kick in. Your heart might race with indignation, and your adrenaline might start to churn in preparation for a “fight.” You must stop these physiological reactions in their tracks.

Use mindfulness techniques to focus yourself on the here and now, and push your own need to react away. Focus on listening. Remind yourself that listening to what someone else says is not the same as accepting it or agreeing with it. You will have time to respond later. The better you listen now, the more you understand, the better equipped you will be to respond productively.

Watch your facial expressions. Keep a poker face if you can. Studies show that eye-rolling and smirking at your partner during a disagreement is one of the biggest indicators of divorce down the road in married couples. Respect your critic’s opinions, even if you don’t share them.

5. Be honest with yourself.
If there is truth to what your critic is saying, accept it. Accept it without judgment of yourself. Love yourself enough to know that recognition of a shortcoming is the first step toward correcting it. Be grateful for your critic’s honesty, and be glad you have this opportunity to improve.

6. Use “I” statements to respond.
No matter how attacked you feel, do not attack back. Good communication during times of conflict hinges upon using “I” statements instead of “you” statements. For instance, if your critic has made you feel badly about yourself you can respond with an “I” statement such as, “I’ve heard what you said and I have to be honest and let you know that while I understand what you mean, I can’t help but feel hurt by it,” or you can use a “you” statement such as, “You know, you’re really mean and critical and everyone is sick of it.” Both convey basically the same information, but only the former invites continued healthy dialogue. The latter approach shuts everything down.

7. Accept that someone else’s view of you can be true to them while being false to you, and that’s okay.
The old cliché about not being able to please everyone is 100 percent true. You can’t. And that’s okay.

8. Respond rather than react.
There is a very big difference between responding and reacting. When you respond, you communicate carefully and thoughtfully, with a long-term strategic goal in mind. When you react, you lash out with a short-term goal of “winning.”

It’s okay to be hurt by criticism and to disagree with it. And it’s okay to express your feelings on the matter. You don’t want to hold your feelings inside, but you must be very careful about how and why you express them.

When you respond to something, you have thought it through and you have a certain distance and control over your words. When you react, you behave impulsively. Always, always, always respond rather than react when you feel criticized or attacked. Remember, reacting will only make your critic feel attacked, and will likely escalate the conflict and give them more reason to think ill of you.