Defensive reactions

As we describe in the workshop our defensive reactions are almost always triggered by a perception of being separate from one or more people that matter to us. The somatic response usually stems from the fear associated with being separate from the group. In a fraction of  second we find ourselves in some kind of defensive state due to our unconscious processing of the perceived social threat. We “take offence” because we perceive someone is “attacking” us in some way.

Note: In this article I am not talking about when someone is physically threatening – that is something different.

Social threat

“Sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us”

Except they can hurt us in the sense that we do experience “hurt” in our bodies. But why? They are “just” words after all.

Words are, of course, symbols for meaning. Communication is only possible through language because we share a common understanding of the meaning of the symbols. Yet we know from neuroscience that while we might agree on a precise linguistic definition, the internal representation of that definition (both cognitive and emotional) will vary from person to person.

Not only that, the internal representation is in the context of our unique life history. The same word will inevitably have varying significance for each of us simply because we each construct the meaning and significance it has.

The threat we experience when we react to words is a social one. Invariably, the meaning is rooted in our shared evolutionary humanity – if I am genuinely out of connection with a person or people that matter to me there could be consequences for my physical survival. We are a social species. We are wired to stay connected in whatever way makes sense individually. In a work environment the consequences of being in the “out-group” or “on the outer” could ultimately be loss of income resulting from reputational or career damage. So, being socially separate can matter a lot – there could be a survival implication.

What is really at risk?

It is not surprising we spring to our own defence in these situations. We do it so quickly we call it a reaction. There is a cause and effect (well, affect, actually). We know there could be survival consequences of being separated but if you reflect on your personal history I am guessing in almost all situations your survival was not actually at stake, even tangentially.

So if our physical body is not at risk what is it we are protecting?

We are protecting the idea of the Self we construct. More specifically, it is the idea of a Self in the context of the relevant social group (also constructed in our minds). Just like any other symbol, we construct a symbol for what we consider to be a Self and since we are social beings we locate that Self within in the various groups we “belong” to (also symbols in our minds).  If I agree with the science that my brain constructs my experience of the world (and I do) then I must also accept that my experience of this Self to which I am so attached is also my construction. I cannot have it both ways. See also: We exist in multiple versions.

Defending a constructed Self

What I am defending is the idea of who I am in a given context. My physical being is not being attacked but my idea of myself is being challenged in some way. Given we are our constructed experience it is not surprising it feels like a “real” physical attack. That is my felt experience, after all.


  1. I know my Self is only an idea I constantly update in order to survive in “the world” (by staying part of the relevant social group).
  2. The “attack” is also coming in the form of constructed experience (i.e. the “words” I hear or read and the meaning I give them).
  3. The person expressing the words is actually addressing them to their construction of me. I am constructed in their mind in the same way they (and I) are constructed in mine.
  4. I cannot be sure of the motivation or intent of the person expressing those words (since all I have to go on is my construction of them) so I will give the words meaning according to what I think they mean for me and about me.

I know this sounds incredible “narcissistic” yet that is what the neuroscience implies. Yes, the other person said some words and after that everything is happening in my own mind. Any “hurt” I experience is done to me by me. So why do I “hurt” myself like that?

What we defend against is the possible rejection or alienation from the relevant social group. Evolutionarily speaking, such social rejection was likely to be a threat to physical survival. In some places in the world it still is. We have a short-cut for defending ourselves against that threat – generally called a defensive reaction. The trouble is that in our contemporary western culture the short-cut doesn’t take into account the modern context because short-cuts are wired to be instant – those that spent too long contemplating threats tended not to survive. Even in our modern context we are socialised from birth (both biologically and psychologically) because our evolutionary advantage is in large part derived from being a highly social species. Millions of years of evolution are at play here. It has become somewhat maladaptive because the context (a modern world) arose in relatively recent times but our brains are still using the older wiring.

A deconstruction – “impostor syndrome”

It is worth considering the idea that generally the attack “hits the mark” only when there is a mismatch between one’s relevant “public facing” self and one’s inner self. For example, a common experience is that of so-called “impostor syndrome” where a person’s outer personality or identity exudes competence and confidence while their inner self is saying “One day they will discover who I really am!”. (I am using this term in the colloquial sense often expressed in the workplace). Clearly in this regard the public personality has a façade covering a perceived gap in the person’s inner version of self.

When confronted with two opposing pieces of information about oneself human beings invariably resolve the dissonance by selecting the piece that agrees with their inner version of themselves because that inner version is the coherent story that “holds them together” in the world. No matter how supportive or critical is our inner story it at least has the virtue of consistency! We say it is “who we are”. As we have seen, this is an illusion but a very convincing and necessary one and we feel it in our bodies as being “our true self”.

Now, when a person with “impostor syndrome” hears some criticism of their work, no matter whether accurate or not, they will tend to agree with the assessment simply because that is what their inner self also thinks is true. They resolve the cognitive dissonance between their public and private self-image in favour of their private one. That triggers a threat response because in internally “agreeing” with the speaker they are now in the position of perceiving themselves to be out of connection with the group. After all, the public façade was designed to maintain their position as an accepted member of the group. From their perspective someone has “seen the truth” behind the façade and they risk the threats they perceive from inevitable social alienation. Note that the speaker might or might not have “seen through” them, nor said anything they thought was critical. The point is that the listener’s inner world is on the lookout for evidence to support their coherent view of themselves (as impostor) so will seize upon anything that looks like being “seen through” as evidence. That process usually happens outside awareness.

The typical response is to push back against the speaker’s assessment to reassert the façade and usually some kind of conflict follows.

This pattern can also be applied for such internal stories as “not being { good / lovable / intelligent / confident / funny / serious } enough”. There are lots of adjectives to choose from for a given individual.

If a person’s public self and private selves are congruent it is less likely the attack will find a mark because the inner version of the person simply disagrees with the assessment and is likely to be able to quickly find evidence to support their internal view. There is no dissonance in their mind. Disagreement might still follow but not from a position of defensiveness since there is no façade to defend – there is a congruent public and private construction of self in this regard.

Leverage for self development

When one understands this mechanism one is able to reflect on one’s reaction to perceived criticism and use it as a way to help surface the hidden assumptions or unhelpful stories one holds. Taking conscious steps in this way helps builds a congruent self. The Overcoming Immunity To Change® process is one that can be very powerful in this regard. It is designed to surface the hidden assumptions driving one’s inner self.


One can use the feeling of hurt as a signal. The reason I feel the hurt in my body is because my body and mind are intricately linked, so the construction in my mind has an expression in my body. That part is straightforward. The question then becomes: what is it about the meaning I give the whole construction that leads me to experience a threat? I could “take offence” at the hurt and stay in that experience, or … realise I want others to accept me at some level so I can survive as a group member. One’s varying fears of “disapproval” stem from the varying degrees of risk we construct. What am I constructing that leads me to believe I am at risk in some way? I know I have made up a story about the perceived offence and my hurt feelings. Getting stuck in that story will not help me adapt to the world in any useful way. All it does is keeps me subject to my perception of reality. In the face of that I suggest one tries to go curious. It takes practice. I am still learning 😉

The hard-line

I have found that the most useful approach is to make a habit of this thought:

“If I am experiencing hurt or upset it is always because I am hurting myself. Attributing that upset to the other is both inaccurate and unhelpful”.

Who is right or wrong is beside the point. What I can learn and what is the best next step is, to me, a far more useful approach.

From that starting point I am then able to ask questions like: “What is really at risk here? What did the other mean by their words or actions? What is the story I have made up and what is the evidence for it? What conversations do I need to have to check my story? Then what?”.

Even if, after that, I conclude the other was intending to be mean or attacking in some way, I will not be “disabling” myself in that situation because my SEEKING system will be engaged. I will not be “subject to” the other. The curiosity is an expression of self-care and as we know the CARE system offsets the PANIC/GRIEF system and the felt experience of separation is thereby diminished. This is the pointy end of personal growth and development, beyond knowing the theory; this is where we put it into practice. And practice we must.

This is essentially the Managing Defensive Reactions and Conversation Framework processes we covered in the workshop. It is a doorway into a deeper understanding of self and others.


Even if it turns out my hard-line is too harsh in a particular context, it works better for me to start there and possibly be a little less harsh as I learn by asking questions than to stay stuck in my righteous indignation and learn nothing. I know as a result of holding myself to this I am far less reactive than I once was.