Becomes defensive when challenged.
Doesn’t get curious about his part in problems.
Tries to justify, explain, or rationalize his behavior.
May blame others to avoid feeling blamed himself.
Very sensitive to perceived criticism
Becomes angry, judgmental, retaliating, upset, or withdraws.
Can become rageful, extremely upset, or act out destructively.
Defensiveness is to avoid underlying feelings of shame and worthlessness.
Child was judged or shamed, but has learned to compensate for this so that he doesn’t live in it as a self-judging or insecure person does. Therefore he must defend himself against falling into the shame.
It’s not my fault. There’s nothing wrong with me.
You don’t understand me.
I must defend against my underlying feeling of shame.
Self: Unjustly accused
Sees Others As
Healthy Capacities Blocked
Self-curiosity, self-understanding, responsibility, problem ownership
Being challenged or confronted
The defiant pattern is similar, but it defends against others’ power rather than their judgments.
Self-judging, insecure, or passive-aggressive clients also respond to criticism by feeling bad, but their reactions are not so intense because they are used to feeling bad about themselves. There is no defensive compensation to be pierced.
Self-protection is a healthy capacity where a person can protect himself from harmful attacks from others. However, self-protection only comes into play when the person is really being attacked in a harmful way, whereas defensive people often perceived themselves as being attacked when they aren’t. Or they over-react to an attack. Self-protection also doesn’t usually involve justifying behavior (unless the attack is based on a misunderstanding of one’s behavior) but rather protecting oneself.
Combinations of Defensive Pattern with Other Patterns
Often combined with prideful, charming, or entitled patterns because these provide the defensive compensation for the underlying shame.
Isolated: Defends against underlying shame by isolating.
Need-denying: Defends against shame of having needs, so especially gets defensive about having needs.
Invulnerable: Doesn’t allow vulnerability of any kind. Uses defensiveness as one way of doing this.
Defensive pattern and self-judging patterns are opposites.
Defensive people tend to get into conflicts with judgmental or angry people.
Related Technical Concepts
Narcissistic fragility or vulnerability.
Reacts to the therapist’s interpretations, feedback, or suggestions as attacks and defends himself.
Tries to prove that he has no problems, or defends against seeing any new problems that he hasn’t already recognized.
Can react to perceived criticism or any lack of mirroring with upset and shame, or brittle defenses against this. (Brittle variation).
Countertransference toward Defensive Client
Frustration about not being able to get through to client. Arguing with the client. Getting into power struggles.
Accepting the client’s defensiveness as indication that therapist is wrong in his approach rather than seeing it as the client’s pattern.
When client reacts in a brittle manner, therapist tries to reassure the client without dealing with underlying issues.
When client reacts in brittle manner, therapist keeps going with the challenge and frightens the client.
Countertransference of Defensive Therapist
Can’t tolerate clients’ confrontations; becomes defensive or angry. Turns everything back onto the client as transference. Can’t examine own mistakes in therapy, and especially can’t admit them to client. Subtly discourages clients from challenging.
Members tiptoe around brittle member, and develop underground resentment.
Forming the Alliance and Circumventing the Pattern
With a brittle client, avoid anything that can be construed as a challenge. Attempt to give perfect mirroring of the client’s surface experience. This may be necessary at first to allow the client to trust you enough to form an alliance.
In a group, try to prevent group members from confronting the client much in the early stages before he has formed connections with some other members. You can work with him on difficult issues such as monopolizing without criticizing him. Also frame the client’s sensitivity clearly so other members as less likely to react to it.
Understanding of Pattern Needed by Client
That his defending himself is often not based on being attacked but on a need to avoid underlying shame. With a brittle client, that he is very sensitive to criticism.
This can’t be approached directly by the therapist because the client will just feel attacked and respond defensively or brittly.
However, when the client does become defensive or devastated, the therapist should respond with empathy that helps the client to feel understood but leads in the direction of his seeing his sensitivity. This is the major contribution of self psychology. It involves empathic interpretation of the underlying shame, where the interpretation feels supportive and the client feels understood.
Accessing Core Issue and Origins
While responding with empathic interpretation, once the client begins to acknowledge his underlying shame, you can help him explore where it might have come from.
Healing Response to Accessing
Understanding and acceptance of the client. This comes naturally through the therapist’s empathy and compassion. Also appreciation of the client’s vulnerability and courage.
Accessing Healthy Capacities
Help the client to access self-protective anger at parents for judging him. This is especially useful for clients who don’t have access to healthy aggression.
Experimenting with Healthy Behavior and Attitudes
When there is a solid therapeutic alliance and the client has healed much of the underlying shame, he needs to experiment with tolerating challenge and exploring himself without defensiveness. With a brittle client, don’t try this until much later in therapy. With a stronger defensive client this can be tried sooner. It is a weakness in self psychology that they don’t do this.
Healing Response to Experimenting
Appreciation of the client’s step forward in growth in being able to explore non-defensively. This is especially important when the person is exploring issues that he may feel ashamed about.
A relationship in which the client is appreciated for both his personal strengths and his vulnerability, where he is accepted and understood with his problems and weaknesses, and where he is not judged or criticized unduly.
A brittle client can be so deeply wounded by challenge or perceived criticism (or even lack of mirroring) that he will leave therapy or engage in destructive behavior.
In an interactive group, the natural confrontation of the group can be too wounding for a brittle member, so such a group may not be appropriate