How to Deal with the Highly Defensive People in Your Life
How to Have a Functional, Trusting, Relaxed, Mutually Satisfying Human Relationship
Short answer: You can't.
Long answer: You really can't. Don't even try.
The reason one can't look to defensive people for top-quality relationships is that such relationships require two human beings. But defensive people don't think like humans. They think like reptiles. I mean this literally. Beneath the elaborate neural structures that mediate our subtle social interactions, we all possess what scientists call a reptilian brain. This ancient biological structure, which evolved in reptiles, isn't capable of nuanced emotion or logical thought. Its primary driving force is fear. Two fears, to be specific.
The first worry of all reptile brains (including yours and mine) is "I don't have enough!" Not enough love, money, food, credit, glory—the subject of our deprivation obsessions varies, but the theme "not enough" pounds away like a monotonous drumbeat. The only thing as loud to the reptile ear is its other major concern: "Someone's out to get me!" An HDP perceives threat coming from lots of sources; one day the Enemy may be a coworker, the next a relative, the next an entire nation. But to the reptile brain, someone, somewhere, is always about to attack.
This makes evolutionary sense. Lizards live longer if they obsessively acquire more food, shelter, and mates, and if they expect predators to jump them at any moment. Sadly, however, reptiles are blind to nondefensive emotions; to the glow of love, the tickle of amusement. The only thing playing on their mental screens, all day every day, is The Lack and Attack Show. The same is true of HDPs. When humans are gripped by primal fear, they become their inner lizards—and HDPs are virtually always gripped by primal fear.
So the best relationship you can hope to sustain with a defensive person is the sort you might have with a reptile. As a doctor here in Arizona once explained to a man who was bitten on the lip while kissing his pet rattlesnake (it made the newspapers), you simply cannot expect a loving connection from a reptile, even if you raised it from the egg. Remembering that these people are basically giant talking lizards will keep you from futilely trying to please them, persuade them or explain yourself to them. That's a key step. But a solid defense against defensiveness requires you to go further—to manage the fear that may put you in HDP mode.
How to Avoid Becoming a Highly Defensive Person
Defensiveness is extremely contagious. When Joanna "forgave" me for what I thought was glowingly positive feedback, I felt a jolt of angry defensiveness myself. If I'd followed my own inner lizard, with its worries of being insufficiently loved and excessively criticized, I'd have accused Joanna of being paranoid—which would've sent her inner lizard into all-out combat mode, triggering still more defensiveness in me, resulting in a relationship catastrophe I call War of the Dinosaurs (dinosaur means "fearfully great lizard").
It's easy to say that we should stay out of reptile mode, but that's hard advice to follow when some HDP launches an attack—especially if the person has any power over you. When your highly defensive parent, boss, head nurse, or gang leader launches a dinosaur attack, you may not be able to stop yourself from getting upset in return. But if you can't help slithering into reptile mode, there's still one option left: Don't go lizard. Go turtle.