Three distinctions clarify what is sensitive versus defensive in a relationship.
Clients often refer to a person in their life as “sensitive.” Yet, there is a difference between sensitive and defensive. A truly sensitive person is typically a person who is conscientious and aware of the feelings and emotions of others. Caring, he or she tends to be attuned to those with whom he or she is closest, and frequently tries to understand and empathize. This type of individual is often sensitive to criticism, hard on himself or herself, and tends to “take things on the chin.”
Alternatively, a person who is sensitive in a temperamental way is usually defensive regarding threats to his or her ego. Hypervigilant about protecting his or her self-esteem, this person often, unconsciously, deflects accountability and unfairly projects blame onto others in order to escape internal discomfort. This hypersensitivity often results in self-centeredness in relationships because he or she is preoccupied with his or her own needs and emotions.
Although these dynamics are intangible and difficult to sort out, three relational tendencies may help a person discern a sensitive individual from one who is defensive.
First, an individual who is robustly defensive may appear to care deeply, but frequently focuses on pursuits which fuel his or her ego. For example, Sally spends a great deal of time and money ensuring her child becomes a great ice skater. This seems selfless until the child falls short of the Sally’s expectations.
Angry, Sally lashes out at the child and rejects the child, emotionally. The child is left alone with her disappointment and the additional shame Sally inflicts. The ice skating is more about Sally feeding her own ego and then it is about the child. Because the child’s short coming threatens Sally’s ego, she retaliates against the child, chastising her for failing and embarrassing Sally.
Now, pretend Sally is sensitive and less defensive. She may spend an equal amount of energy assisting her child succeed at ice skating, yet she also attends to the child’s emotional needs. Offering understanding, reassurance, and encouragement, Sally is truly sensitive to the child’s disappointment and puts her first.
Second, a defensive individual also tends to lack self-awareness. Due to an overarching defensive structure, this person deflects the uncomfortable emotions which tax a fragile self-esteem. It is the difficult feelings, however, that allow a person to look at himself, hold himself or herself accountable in a relationship, and feel for others.
A massive defensive structure sometimes acts as a forcefield, protecting a weak core. Because of this shield, a person may have less access to his or her deep feelings. Instead, the person remains on the surface, emotionally, unable to access sophisticated relational capabilities such as, empathy, accountability, and self-awareness.
For example, say Tim jokingly refers to his partner, Anne, as “an idiot” at a family dinner. After the meal, Anne mentions the comment and says it hurt her feelings. Indignant that Anne is challenging him, Tim deflects accountability and excuses his comment as a joke. Next, he accuses Anne of continually needing to start drama. He asks, “Why can’t you just be happy?” Systematically, Tim deflects responsibility and projects blame onto Anne. He lacks the ability to look at himself, take ownership, and experience empathy for Anne.