Now, when we humans are faced with criticism, we often unleash our own equivalent of flaming arrows, a ball of spines, or a cascade of antibodies. Getting defensive helps us protect our character and our sense of competence. When we feel like we’re under attack, it makes sense that we pull up the drawbridge and ready the boiling oil.

Sometimes we even get defensive with ourselves—it’s our personal spin control. We distance ourselves from our mistakes, blame outside forces for failure, and judge others in order to affirm ourselves. Or we drink or otherwise self-medicate to cope with threats to our self-image and self-esteem.

The only problem? Getting defensive with friends, your boss, your partner, and yourself often backfires. It pushes people away, makes us look immature, and sends a message that we’re unable to regulate our emotions.

Short term, it might feel like it’s all we can do. But long term, it undermines us and our relationships. When we lash out, we dig ourselves deeper.

Therefore, this week, by request from listener Ashleigh and an anonymous listener, we examine five ways to stop getting so defensive.

5 Ways to Stop Getting Defensive

  1. Remind yourself of your deepest values.
  2. See criticism as a sign of others’ belief in your abilities.
  3. Cultivate a growth mindset.
  4. In the moment, buy time.
  5. Use a classic: “I” statements.

Let’s dive deeper into each tip.

Tip #1: Remind yourself of your deepest values.

Simple reminders of our deepest values can make us feel less defensive. The best part? It doesn’t even have to be related to the criticism at hand.

In other words, if your academic performance gets criticized, you don’t have to tamp down defensiveness by thinking about all your past academic triumphs. Psychological wounds can be healed indirectly; thinking about your commitment to living a healthy lifestyle, your religious faith, being a stellar parent, helping others, making art, or another value you hold dear can shore up your self-esteem and reduce the need to get defensive.

Tip #2: See criticism as a sign of others’ belief in your abilities.

Do you remember how confusing seventh grade was? You’re still figuring out who you are and what you bring to the world. The feedback you get from teachers, coaches, and friends makes a big impact.

Therefore, it’s at this age that many kids of color start to come to conclusions about whether they can trust mainstream institutions like school, or whether they are being stereotyped. Both praise and critical feedback can be confusing for kids of color—how do they know if they’re being pandered to by adults who want to prove they’re not racist? Or, on the flip side, how can they be sure criticism is justified or just driven by bias? When is getting defensive justified? And when is it a misinterpretation?

A study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology delved into this issue. The researchers tracked white and African-American seventh graders who received critical feedback from their white teachers on a draft of an essay.

For half of the kids, both white and black, teachers prefaced their feedback with the following affirmation: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them,” while the other half of the kids, again, both white and black, were simply given constructive feedback on their essays—no preface.

What happened? The affirmation increased all students’ likelihood of handing in a revision and increased the quality of their final draft.

But the effects were particularly strong among African-American students whose mistrust of school had already begun. Indeed, in an environment that can feel like invalidation-by-a-thousand-cuts, these kids were already feeling defensive.

Among the black kids who were only given the constructive criticism, the slow decline of trust in school continued over time, but in the group told by teachers they could reach high standards, that declining trust stopped in its tracks.

So how does this apply to you? Even if the magic words of “I believe in you” or “I know you are capable” go unsaid, if you know in your heart that your mom, your boss, or your partner is only offering feedback so you can achieve great things, it’s easier to hear the words and feel motivated rather than defensive.

Tip #3: Cultivate a growth mindset.

We usually think of defensiveness as getting verbally defensive. But we actually defend ourselves against holes in our self-esteem in lots of ways: we might trash-talk our haters, compare ourselves to people who have it worse, or splurge on some retail therapy to soothe our wounded souls.

Now, each of these methods might make us feel better, but they channel our energy into defensiveness rather than moving forward.

So how can we channel our energy into self-improvement rather than self-defense? According to a study by Dr. Carol Dweck, grande dame of the mindset movement, cultivating a growth mindset can help us make the leap.

In the study, university students were primed by reading one of two fake news articles: one said that intelligence was inherited and fixed from a young age, while the other said that intelligence could be increased substantially over the life span. Then all the participants were given just four minutes to read a long and confusing passage from Freud’s classic The Interpretation of Dreams, which, with its late 1800s language and esoteric ideas, was about as easy to get through as airport security on Thanksgiving weekend.

After they read, they answered some questions that supposedly gauged their comprehension. But psychologists are tricky, so no matter their actual score, participants were told they scored in the 37th percentile. Not good by any measure, but not so bad that they were truly the bottom of the barrel.

The researchers found that those who had been primed to think intelligence was fixed made themselves feel better by comparing their performance to those who did worse than them—a defensive reaction: “Well, at least I did better than those morons.”

But the participants who had been primed to think intelligence was malleable coped by being curious about the strategies of those who performed better. Rather than getting defensive, they wanted to learn how to improve their own performance.

Of course, if you receive criticism that is cruel or insulting, no one expects you to grow from it—go ahead and use your time and energy repairing those wounds.

But if the feedback is meant to help you or is neutral and objective—like scoring in the 37th percentile—rather than channeling your energy into soothing yourself, channel your energy into improving yourself. Adopt a growth mindset and take critical feedback as a chance to get better and better.

Tip #4: In the moment, buy time.

Okay, that is all fine and good, you say—I can affirm my deepest values, interpret feedback as the fact that others believe in me, and trust that I can grow. But what about in the moment? How can I manage that split second when I know I’ll dig myself into a hole if I get defensive, but all I want to do is clap back in epic style?

The answer: your biggest asset is time. Buy yourself a few seconds to let the adrenaline surge crest and to gather your thoughts. You can do this is one of two ways.

One, keep them talking. You could say, “Go on…” or “Oh? Say more about that.” And then, use their airtime to take a few slow breaths and gather your thoughts.

Two, don’t be afraid to stay momentarily silent. A slightly awkward pause buys you time and, as a bonus, throws them off their game. Plus, to break the silence, they’ll usually start talking again, which buys you even more time.

And then? Try Tip #5.

Tip #5: Use a classic: “I” statements.

This is a classic for a reason. “I” statements are key to reducing defensiveness. Why? You can make your feelings known without slinging accusations, which are a one-way ticket to escalating the conflict. Plus, no one can argue with your opinion or your feelings.

For once, making it about you is the way to go, and “I” statements will help you get there without getting defensive.

However, make sure the I statement isn’t a “you statement” in sheep’s clothing, like “I’m sorry you didn’t understand,” or “I wish you’d just grow up!”

Better: “I am not comfortable with this.” “I have a hard time listening when you raise your voice.” “I get frustrated when you remind me over and over. It makes me feel like you don’t trust me.” Sometimes a simple, “I hear what you’re saying,” is enough to defuse the tension and have a real conversation.

To wrap it all up, leave great defense to the likes of Dick Butkus and Bill Russell, not to mention that balled-up porcupine. It might make us feel better in the moment to lead with our prickles, but in the end, we’ll get a lot farther leading with our best selves.

Order Ellen’s book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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