Why are people Defensive? Reducing the anxiety of change


Defensiveness is a behavior that people consciously and unconsciously engage in to avoid the anxiety which inevitably arrives with change. Change requires us to drop our perceptions of permanence… this means that when we change we are offered an experienced example of how our concept of self is ever transient… it can feel uncomfortable to be reminded that who we think that we are is not quite as fixed or stable as we like to believe. People are often defensive to maintain the illusion of an unchanging identity… the belief is that if you defend against suggestions of change you will be able to avoid the anxiety involved in altering your identity or your beliefs. Of course people are also defensive when they fear that your suggestions will have a negative impact on beliefs, people, and organizations etc that are very important to them… In this way people are defending against a perceived threat. For this piece I will be talking about defensiveness when a change is proposed that could be perceived as beneficial by the person receiving the suggestion… when a person is willing to consider that the suggested change might be in their best interest.

In short, it feels easier to stay the same than to change… people are defensive in an attempt to avoid the difficult feelings which accompany change.

Reducing defensiveness in yourself… 

One of the best ways to avoid defensiveness is to be pro-active with important people in your life that will likely offer you feedback.

Tell them how they can best help you… if you are in a place of vulnerability and a person’s “help” is in no way accommodating or nurturing to your individual needs, then you are more likely to get defensive.

Try this proactive step in your relationship when you are seeking assistance:

  • “I need you to ____________” or, “it would be most helpful for me if you ___________” (just listened, offered advice, took action etc) as I tell you about a difficulty that I am going through.


As a couples counselor I have witnessed that one of the main sources of defensiveness and arguments is when a person confides in their partner and their partner offers to “fix” the problem or offers “advice” instead of simply listening with an empathetic ear.


  • The best way to avoid this is to prep your partner before you start confiding… “I need you to just listen… please don’t try and fix this.”

 Reducing defensiveness in others…

It can be very helpful to gain a degree of compassion for a person who engages in behaviors which you find disagreeable… this can reduce their defensiveness.

The compassion or the empathy can serve to reduce the anxiety in the person who you plan to offer constructive criticism.

  • Allow yourself an emotional understanding of how difficult it is to change.


  • Understand that the person’s defensiveness is their way of saying, “I am fearful of changing… I am fearful of the seen and unseen repercussions of your suggested change… I am fearful of the unknown which accompanies change… I am worried that if I change I will no longer be the person that I believe myself to be.”


  • Have you experience the same fears when you were encouraged to change?


When a person is being defensive it can be helpful to take a more collaborative stance and to be open-minded about their reaction.


  • If a person is defensive and they perceive you as ‘attacking’ then it is not very likely that they will truly be able to hear your suggestion.


  • Instead, ask them about their experience related to the change… ask them what changes they would view as helpful… ask them how you could approach this topic in a way that would feel more helpful… allow them the space to tell you why this topic is so difficult (and be open and accepting of their reasoning).


We do not always agree with others on a ‘rational or logical’ level… we can be quick to label someone viewpoint as ‘irrational’…

Is it irrational to allow yourself to be accepting of your emotional reaction to change? Is it irrational to allow yourself to be accepting of another’s emotional reaction to change?


Is it rational to incessantly push your ‘rational’ viewpoint on another when you know that doing so only heightens the person’s defensiveness thereby reducing their likelihood of accepting or even hearing your suggestions?


Perhaps it is most rational to be accepting and empathetic to the emotional reactions of another if you want them to consider your ‘rational’ suggestions of change.


Be nice to yourself… change is difficult… allow yourself to be accepting of your emotional reaction to change… when you are accepting of yourself you offer yourself nurturance… it is helpful to feel nurtured as you enter the anxiety inherent in change.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.