Dealing with defensive people

By | March 25, 2008

This is something that I run across sometimes at work: extremely defensive people. A very good friend of mine at work is one of my favorite people to be around. But she is kind of exhausting to be around, too, because she is a Highly Defensive Person. Especially when she is tired or stressed. As much as I like talking to her and spending time with her, I feel like I have to walk a tight-rope, watching everything that I say to make sure that I don’t trigger a defensive reaction. Exhausting… yeah, that’s a good word.

So I was reading an article on Beliefnet about how to protect one’s self when around a highly defensive person. This was very interesting, since I had never heard the term “highly defensive person” (HDP) until I read that article. And I know won’t be able to forget it. It’ll always be in my noggin’. The author, Martha Beck, describes an HDP thusly:

But defensive people don’t think like humans. They think like reptiles. I mean this literally. Beneath the elaborate neural structures that mediate our subtle social interactions, we all possess what scientists call a reptilian brain. This ancient biological structure, which evolved in reptiles, isn’t capable of nuanced emotion or logical thought. Its primary driving force is fear. Two fears, to be specific.

I think that calling people reptiles goes a little above and beyond – and might just have a little touch of meanness to it – but the general gist of the analogy makes sense.  And definitely seems to apply in my case. However, I have to disagree with Beck’s statement that one can’t have a “functional, trusting, relaxed, mutually satisfying human relationship with a highly defensive person.”

Well, okay, maybe not the relaxed part.

But the rest seems possible. Our friendship is functional, I trust her implicitly and she mostly trusts me, we both seem to be satisfied with the outcomes of our friendship. I do admit that I wish she could be more relaxed at times, but other than that, it’s good.

Beck’s advice is to do one of two things: either put up a strong emotional shell, and resist the urge to respond defensively to the HDP, or to stand up to the attack and defuse it. That actually isn’t a problem for me. I am one of the most patient people that I know. [grin] I especially have patience when it comes to my friend. 98% of the time, I either don’t have the urge to defend myself from one of her defensive attacks, or am able to easily deflect it. Every now and then she throws something my way that gets through and either hurts or gets a crabby response out of me, but that is rare.

So I am obviously a defusing type of person. I am able to do that most of the time with my buddy. Listening, acknowledging what is said, and reminding her that, in the big picture, everything is all right. That’s how I withstand the storm. It seems to work very well for our friendship.

This has turned out to be a much longer post than I meant it to be. I was looking for information at handling people to pass on to my successor here at work, and this article piqued my interest.

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