How to Beat Defensiveness and Handle Criticism
Aspire Learning Space
May 16, 2022

Celebrities, actors, and singers aren’t the only ones that are met with harsh reviews by critics.
Putting your all in a project, and then hearing your boss, teammate, or colleague express
disapproval towards it can be very frustrating. Doing your best on an assignment, and then
hearing your professor critique it can be very discouraging. Not only on a professional level, but
also on a personal one. It can be difficult to be confronted by our loved ones over traits we may
have that could be damaging to them. The habit of defensiveness can stand in the way of
beautiful relationships. As relationship expert and clinical psychologist, John Gottman, put it –
“Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent
victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.”

Being criticized can almost feel like your whole identity is being attacked, until you realize that
it doesn’t have to be that way. There are possible reasons for and different types of
defensiveness, and once you’re aware of them it’s easier to work on the issue at hand.

Types of defensiveness:

● Bringing up a past mistake made by the person criticizing you
● Gaslighting others by making them question the validity of the claims they’re making
against you
● Giving the other person the silent treatment as a form of revenge
● Finding it easier to blame or point a finger at the person criticizing you or anyone else for
what you’re being criticized over
● Attacking the other person somehow to make them look bad
Possible reasons for defensiveness:
● Feeling insecure about a particular thing, and feeling ashamed when you’re called out for
● Learning it from a parent, and so you modelled their behaviour
● Wanting to hide something, and so you become defensive when the truth may come up
● Reacting to what feels like attacks on your behaviour or character, so you feel the need to
justify your actions

How to Welcome Criticism:

1- Ask questions to understand more
Some people are naturally critical of everything and they’re point of view might not necessarily
be valid. Others can be critical of you because it’s a form of their own defensiveness. It’s
important to assess the situation and the nature of your relationship with that person. Do you
trust this person’s opinion? Do they have your best interest at heart? Why is this person saying
this? Could there be any truth to their opinion/feedback? Once you’ve answered these questions,
it will be easier to discern between constructive criticism and deliberately destructive comments.

2- Listen to process the criticism + discuss possible solutions
Train yourself to welcome healthy criticism with an open heart and mind. Listen and give the
other party a chance to explain their point of view without dismissing it entirely. Rather than
dwelling on the negative feedback, discuss possible solutions and ways to work on it.

3- Resist the urge to criticize back
As stated earlier, defensive people find relief in diverting the negative attention back to the
person giving criticism. Criticizing someone back can feel good in the moment, but it often
leaves us feeling worse off. Aim to stay focused on the topic at hand, without picking apart the
other person.

4- Don’t let it define you
Understand that the criticism is not the sum total of who you are and your abilities.
Overgeneralizing, which is one of many cognitive errors, is what we tend to do when we are met
with criticism. We tend to label ourselves. If you mess up on one assignment or project, that
doesn’t mean that you’re a “failure”. Some people deem themselves as “not equipped” or “not
good enough” to handle specific tasks just because they were criticized before. It’s important to
address a mistake without thinking that it defines you and your abilities.

5-Use criticism as an incentive to do better
It’s all about perspective. What would happen if you viewed criticism as an opportunity to grow
rather than an attack on your identity? Ask yourself, how can I grow from this? A great example
of someone who was harshly criticized in the media for years, but was able to be fueled by it, is
Taylor Swift. Swift was inspired to write a song about being harshly criticized by the media, and
what makes it better is that she received a grammy for it in 2009. Taylor Swift turns all of the
criticism as a tool for motivation and more content – and she shows up big time!
Being firm in one’s identity makes you open to suggestions, because you know that you’re not
defined by negative comments. Living with an unoffendable heart, or a heart that isn’t easily
offended, is full-time work that requires reflection and intentionality. It’s important to reflect on
possible reasons that cause defensiveness, and to stop oneself in the act.

Reflection Questions:

● Who do I tend to be defensive with the most? And why?
● Are there any particular topics that make me defensive?
● Have I learned to be defensive from my parents, or have past experiences made me this
● When was the last time I was defensive? How could I have responded differently?
● How can I respond, rather than react, when I’m met with criticism?

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