Vindication? Or, “I must defend myself !”


From what? Defensive people seek to intimidate others, prove their supposed superiority, prove they have been wronged – all to deflect from their own shortcomings. They feel a need to defend themselves against others’ perceived slights (even if imagined).

There are those who are defensive solely in order to protect themselves from experiencing their own failures, and those who go further, to vindictive defensiveness.

Defensive people lob emotional hand grenades at others, who they (often erroneously) believe are attacking them. In fact, it is they who know themselves to fall short. It’s difficult to face one’s own shortcomings;
defensive people do not have the courage to do so, instead punishing others who they see as pointing to any of their weaknesses.

A defensive person who is capable of real emotion and relationships will be appalled by his behavior after his defensive outburst. He doesn’t intend to irrevocably harm his child, his spouse, his assistant. He acts instinctively to protect himself from perceived threat, and can see, after the fact, that the other person was never really attacking him at all. He seeks help with “anger management” or learning how to control his reaction to stress. With therapy, there is real hope for him. By facing his own perceived failures, and his automatic defensive behaviors that hurt those he cares about, he takes a crucial step toward self control. By his willingness to address the root of his defensive behavior, he takes a crucial step toward self awareness. By his courage, he can see the difference between real threat and his fear of failure. Through therapy he can accept himself – and others, and experience deeper connection with those he loves.

But for another sort of defensive person, a normal desire for love and intimacy is replaced by a drive toward a kind of protective vindictive triumph. Why? The arrogant, vindictive person cannot tolerate anyone who wields more power, knows more or achieves more. He feels a need to humiliate or defeat anyone he considers a rival. When hurt (which occurs any time he feels exposed or weak) he retaliates by hurting, even destroying, the supposed enemy. Cynical and ruthless in relationships, he prides himself on exploiting and outsmarting others. He trusts no one. He scorns real feelings: tenderness, dependency, emotional closeness, friendship. For him, relationships exist solely in order to enhance his own social and economic position, to “get others before they get him”. He is proud of being self-sufficient, needing no one. In fact, he is isolated by his own hostility and fear of real attachment to others.

For the vindictive person, any tenderness or compromise is experienced as vulnerability. Since he assumes others will exploit him as he would exploit others, he avoids rational discourse with those with whom he might disagree. Terror of being humiliated or played for a fool colors his behavior. His is a vision of life as war, a war in which he is bound by neither human emotion nor morality. I have yet to figure out how therapy can help him.

Recognize yourself or anyone you know here? Any suggestions welcomed by all who deal with defensive co-workers!

Copyright © 2010 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.


8 responses to “Vindication? Or, “I must defend myself !”

  1. This post was very interesting and timely! I was just talking with someone the other day who became defensive about something very trivial. I couldn’t figure out how to disarm their defensiveness….it was very frustrating!

  2. I feel that you use the word “defensive” in too narrow a sense: Defensiveness typically arises through a perceived threat—and if that threat is real and the defensive response measured, defensiveness is not necessarily a bad thing.

    What you seem to discuss is a chronic and undue attempt to compensate for misperceived threats and/or fear of inner weaknesses. Basically, we have the principle “X looks like he might hit me—I will hit him first to avoid being the one who is hurt.”, which is, indeed, one example of defensiveness. It is, however, not all there is to the issue. By analogy, someone who ducks and backs away when X actually does try to hit him, is also being defensive.

  3. myownworstenemy

    “Terror of being humiliated or played for a fool colors his behavior. His is a vision of life as war, a war in which he is bound by neither human emotion nor morality. I have yet to figure out how therapy can help him.”

    This really resonated with me. I just had a defensive reaction, albeit with someone on an Internet forum, which, given some people’s total lack of manners, is easy to do! Part of my post talked about my rough childhood. Then this person and I went back and forth a little on that and something else, but this person felt the need to lead with a comment that said, more or less, “I thought I had it rough, but I guess your post made me grateful for what I had–no offense!”

    Um, kind of offensive, when I laid out very plainly that I did have it rough-when I already made myself vulnerable. I wasn’t cryptic about it, you know? It did seem like the guy was rubbing my face in it, you know? And then to say “no offense!”–wtf is that? Poor manners, at least– and kind of passive aggressive. And they *led* with that. That wasn’t, say, at the end of their note or even more sensitively stated than how I literally put it above. No sensitivity at all. He led with that comment, which I thought was in poor taste, and then wrote a lengthy email blathering on about himself and his comparatively trivial issues.

    So I was defensive, but I also said in my reply, “I know it’s hard to tell emotion in email, but when you lead with that kind of comment, yeah, pretty offended. I already said openly I had it rough–I didn’t need you underlining it.” I then went on a little more about how that hurt me and told the person not to contact me again. Is that defensive because I didn’t want a whole back-and-forth with this person anymore, because I didn’t want to continue emailing? I mean, I do have trust and intimacy issues, which is why I ask. But what’s defensiveness and what’s the right to be rubbed the wrong way and to have boundaries? I think this dude crossed a line and needed to be put in his place, sorry.

    So to read about how you don’t know how therapy can help the defensive person…that was really depressing, because I would say, yes, I do grapple with being defensive (not exactly for no reason, as we can see above I do encounter a lot of insensitive people in day-to-day life, people who just, frankly, haven’t been through the trauma I’ve been through and hide behind their screens and don’t know how to empathize). I’ve also had trouble taking criticism–because, well, it’s so rarely CONSTRUCTIVE criticism, ever. Do you have thoughts on identifying/separating constructive from non-constructive criticism and how to accept/ how to deal with constructive criticism? Do you think I was being defensive in the above scenario? Maybe just a little? I do have boundary issues, but I also think the other person was legitimately being a bit of a jerk. Thoughts?

  4. I’m not certain what you mean when you say you have boundary issues. You let people in too close, not close enough, you’re not sure what’s you and what’s the other person, other?

    Is there a difference, do you think, between insensitivity and being a jerk? Between being clumsy and rubbing your face in it? Because what I read is someone who may have thought, may have intended, to underline what you said in a positive way – to reiterate, agree with – rather than to punch you when you were down, so to speak. Maybe you’ve found that if you say something tough about yourself or your life first, the other person won’t feel they have to. A kind of pre-emptive strike, as it were. But from this example, I’m not clear that he was going for a strike at all.

    Just saying “no offense” sort of sets things up for someone to take offense, doesn’t it? But maybe it’s just a bad phrase. And maybe the sarcasm that seemed obvious when you read it wasn’t intended (in fact, I read it as rather earnest, if ham-fisted). I can see how, with your deserved sensitivity, you read sarcastic put-down, but re-read and see if it’s possible that is not what he thought he wrote. Because if you do, and you can, well then he might just be somewhat self-referential and not too sensitive, rather than someone who is an obvious jerk. You say you often encounter insensitive people who do not understand the magnitude of the trauma you endured. Perhaps that is literally true: they do not understand, because they haven’t been through trauma like that.

    None of which means you have to continue corresponding, nor that you can’t find he (or anyone, for that matter, myself included) rubs you the wrong way. For any reason. For no reason. You could simply have come to the end of the line corresponding because it no longer suited you, without needing somehow to have it spring from something wrong about him. But do consider one thing: if you go to the trouble to write to him about what he did that troubled you, and why, and if he’s already inflicted the hurt (by design or not), why not see if he writes back anything that suggests he didn’t mean it how you read it, he apologizes, he IS a jerk? Why not be open to the possibility that he responds to you, not as a jerk but as a more sensitive than you thought person? Why not be open to the possibility that you were wrong? It might just be a revelation for you, and the risk, it seems to me, is really quite small: you can always cut him off one exchange later. You get to see how he responds, what he says, how you feel, if he cares; you get to test out your hypothesis rather than rushing to judgment about what is the ‘truth.’

    Any of that feel like constructive criticism? Because it’s meant to. Difference between constructive and destructive criticism? The intent. The true intent. And mine is to help you with some ways to protect yourself enough while opening yourself enough, all to the end of you learning more about yourself and your interactions with others, so your life can get richer and fuller, your relationships better.

    Good luck. All best. And thanks for sharing.
    Copyright © 2012 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

  5. myownworstenemy

    Thanks for your reply. I think the guy’s remark was not even as thought out as you make it out to be…but at the same time I think it did transmit things about status, i.e., our relative statuses in the (email) relationship, and I did not like being left as the underdog just because I made the mistake of being vulnerable. I think “no offense” is a crappy phrase in general and I think it almost always has passive-aggressive undertones unless the person really tries to add something to that to make it clear that they understand what they are saying has the potential to be offensive, but was not meant to be taken that way. (That is, it can be okay if it’s buffered by some show of sensitivity, which wasn’t the case here.) I mean, why even introduce a potentially offensive thing to make a point if you don’t have to if not because you are wanting to prove something about yourself/ your position relative to the other, right?

    Most of the time, though, I think people using “no offense” fail to have that nuance (i.e., talking about delicate matters with sensitivity), and, at the least, it shows laziness. At the most it can be really flippant and damaging, as it was in my case. Even if he wasn’t actively malicious (which, given the medium, is hard to tell), it showed me that here was someone who was careless about his thoughts and writing and how he came across– and then tried to sweep it under the rug and move on so he could talk about himself.

    So I ended the correspondence much sooner than I would have liked, and chose not to follow your advice regarding continuing a little more–mainly because I have had similar email exchanges that have also blown up in my face, along the lines of: (1) i make myself vulnerable (2) person is oblivious and/or insensitive–or expresses disbelief at my experience/ invalidates my experience (3) i am shit on when i ask for more emotional support/understanding/ time to discuss the issue & the significance of it–or I am shit on for saying I really had it as hard or harder than I disclosed (4) person is offended at my being offended, accuses me of being a [whatever]/ having a thin skin/ need to get a life/ get laid, etc.; insists that they are right and i need ‘help.’ and that’s usually the flowchart of that dynamic– i think the other person gets to (4) without actually making the effort of understanding me as a person and then (5), me feeling like crap about myself, usually happens.

    If I am defensive, it’s because I really do feel that people are judging me, which in the past had very bad consequences, so much so to the point where I do limit my interactions and social experiences. Judgments have included snide things about literally everything, from my clothes/poverty, my weight, my voice, my job status, where i live, etc., etc., etc. I have constant feelings of inadequacy from these repeated experiences of major and minor humiliations. I thought meeting people online would allow me to pace myself, to disclose unflattering things and develop trust at my own pace, but what I’m finding is that people rip you to shreds for being open and honest, just as in the real world. I mean, they might not be the cream of the crop either, but they somehow know what to keep to themselves and/or have different definitions of intimacy, I guess? They seem pretty happy, and I don’t know how they are; and I’m deeply unhappy, so deeply unhappy that I don’t think happy and me have ever been in the same sentence.

    It’s hard for me to relate with people at all, in person or online. I think I have all manner of boundary issues you described. I disclose personal things to the wrong people or disclose them too soon after knowing someone because I have a poor time telling when’s the right time and a poor time telling if someone is a person I can trust. Or because I think I’m going to lose them anyway or that they’re not interested in me anyway. Then I swing to the opposite and demand extreme privacy from the people one would think I should be able to trust–but fearing being hurt, I do close off from them, self-isolate, avoid, etc. Then they react by pulling away, being disapproving, etc. So I have cultivated a personality (from this pattern and also from being neglected and emotionally abused as a child and not having much of a childhood) to being OK with being alone 80+% of the time, but that 10-20% of the time that I actually would like some human contact, in some medium, never seems to go very well, further reinforcing my “I guess I should be alone” kind of life.

    I do go to therapy but I find it difficult because I would like my therapist’s approval but cannot get it. I find in life that if I cannot get people’s approval, it is somewhat emotionally more tolerable to self-isolate (which is kind of intolerable) rather than engage in interactions where I do, more often than not, wind up taking the defensive position. Perhaps I’m just one of those people who is not meant to have relationships. I would have less of a problem with that if everything these days, from jobs to whatever, wasn’t social, social, social.

    On a related note, I am beyond introverted (obviously) and I feel that today’s world is designed to really have us introverts die off. So, like you, I’m not optimistic on how to help defensive persons either. But I don’t think it’s quite a chicken-and-egg thing: people become introverted, become defensive, because of how they’ve been treated, and on more than one occasion. Whether that defensive personality can change, I don’t know. It does really seem to be holding me back. But when people seem to be insensitive or invalidating of my experiences, I don’t know of any other way to act or react.

  6. Exactly how much time did it acquire you to publish “Vindication?
    Or, I must defend myself ! | FEELING UP IN DOWN TIMES: Psychology in real
    life, for the good life”? It features a good deal of great knowledge.
    Thx ,Kerry

  7. “Vindication? Or, I must defend myself ! | FEELING UP
    IN DOWN TIMES: Psychology in real life, for the good life” ended
    up being a good blog. However, if it owned a lot more pics this would definitely be quite possibly more beneficial.

    Regards ,Ila

  8. Wow …too far out

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