Try as I might to be open-minded and reasonable, I find it hard to take criticism. On an intellectual level, I understand there is no animosity on the part of an individual who gives me constructive feedback, but I can’t help but experience an emotional reaction to it anyways.
And I’m certainly not alone. Defensiveness is incredibly common; just about everyone is defensive at least some of the time.
But for some people, defensiveness is a more dominant personality trait than others. It can manifest itself in different ways, but all defensiveness involves feeling challenged or threatened by a perceived criticism in order to protect the ego.
Today, I want to discuss stubbornness as a form of defensive mechanism. A person who is acting stubborn will cling to their decision regardless of the consequences. It is an attachment to their decision, and a tendency to resist change in general.
Stubborn people are driven by a resistance to being forced into doing or experiencing anything against their will. I don’t want to experience the sting of criticism, so I make an excuse, and tell myself that I can’t be wrong and don’t need to change.
Of course, standing your ground isn’t intrinsically a bad thing. But there is a fine line between standing your ground and being overly stubborn. And being overly stubborn has some serious consequences:
- Makes you more afraid to experience new things or experiment. Over time, this significantly narrows you as a person.
- Closes your mind, making you less knowledgeable.
- Interferes with your relationships. Being stubborn makes you seem like an ass, and people notice.
- Makes you stagnate, and prevents you from integrating valuable feedback into your life.
So, how can you tell when you are being defensive and stubborn?
Good question. While it depends on the person, I think there are at least one or two areas where most people already are aware of how stubborn they are. You should focus on those areas first.
But for everything else, here is a useful heuristic: if you have a desire to react immediately, you are probably being defensive. Learn to tame your emotions in these circumstances, and you can focus on delaying your reaction until the emotions have passed. In the next section, you will learn how to do this.
Overcoming Stubbornness And Defensiveness
The best way to reduce all kinds of defensiveness in the long term is through cultivating a strong sense of self-worth. The more you value yourself, the less you will feel an instinctual “need" to protect your ego.
If you reasonably expect you are going to be criticized (say, for a performance review at work), then you can remind yourself of things that you are good at beforehand. This can soften the blow of the criticism, thus priming your mind to be more receptive to it.
Remember that there is no need to “prove" yourself. You need not make excuses when you are criticized or someone disagrees with you. Sure, sometimes excuses are valid, but it is best to just accept responsibility.
Developing the sense of self-worth that decreases your “need" to protect your ego is a long-term process. It is something to continuously work on.
In the short and medium term, there are numerous things you can do to make you less stubborn and defensive.
When are you most likely to be stubborn and why? Some situations are easier to identify than others, but it is worth spending at least a short period of time doing a personal analysis.
I for one tend to get stubborn when it comes to issues or discussions of political philosophy, economics, health, and nutrition. And I tend to get very defensive when someone calls into question my efforts or the values that I live by.
That quick analysis took me about thirty seconds, but there is a lot of wisdom in it. A simple awareness of these “trouble spots" can make you far more conscious and responsive to when you become defensive in real time, so you can take action and adjust.
Cultivate an Open Mind
Question your assumptions about everything. Oftentimes we are stubborn because we hold a particular worldview, based on certain assumptions, and we refuse to look at the world in a different way.
Philosophers debate whether there is such a thing as an objective truth or not. We need not go into this debate in order to gain insights from it (although being familiar with the philosophies is certainly beneficial). The point is, your “truth" probably isn’t the whole “truth". Whether you are right or wrong, there is value to looking at something from a different perspective.
Even when you disagree with someone, you should respect their opinion and their right to hold it. It’s quite possible that they are more insightful than you think.
You Aren’t Always Right
Even if you are very smart, you are not infallible. You might be fully confident in your correctness, but that doesn’t mean you actually are.
Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone is wrong sometimes. Remind yourself that this time might be one of them.
Back in my Hebrew school class about ten years ago, my teacher Avi mentioned the word “harbinger" in his lesson. I “corrected" him. “It’s harbringer, with an ‘r’, Avi", I interrupted. After one or two back-and-forths, Avi told me I was probably right. Some combination of him being incredibly kind and wanting to shut me up. Smart move.
Somehow, this exchange has stuck in my mind after all these years. I was SO sure. 100% positively convinced that the word was “harbringer". When I ultimately learned that I was wrong, my mind was blown.
And you might not be as wrong as I was then. There are many situations where you can be “half right". The issue may not be that clear cut, and both you and your “opponent" are both approximating the truth.
In nutrition, this comes up a lot. For example, if someone says “red meat is unhealthy", I instinctively want to correct them, for it certainly is NOT unhealthy. They are “wrong" and I am “right". The reality is that most red meat IS unhealthy, because most meat is of poor quality. But grass-fed meats are downright some of the healthiest foods out there. The issue was not black and white.
Ultimately, the combination of having an open mind and the modesty of understanding that you aren’t always right is a solid combination that you must work toward in order to decrease your stubborn and defensive nature.
Listen to the Other Side of the Story
This is the practical side of the previous two points. It’s not just a mindset; there is action involved.
You must put effort into honestly trying to understand the other side. This means listening, but it goes even beyond that. You must try to “get" other perspectives, even when you don’t agree with them.
If there is a disagreement with another person, then put yourself in their shoes. If you are being stubborn on your own, try to play devil’s advocate with yourself. If you choose to do this out loud (recommended), then I suggest you do it in private 😉
There is no need to blindly accept or deny anything. Ask questions instead.
Say “I Don’t Know"
These words are so rarely uttered. It’s strange, but people can’t seem to say “I don’t know", even when they don’t.
Most people feel like they “should" have an opinion about everything. This is silly.
I am a very ideological person, and I often feel the “need" to “defend" my positions. And I’m damn good at it too, most of the time. But the reality is, there are a couple of areas that I’m less familiar with or don’t have an answer for. Rather than making something up, the right action is to say “I don’t know".
Luckily, this is one area that I have been able to improve upon significantly over the past few years. It’s not too challenging, so it is a good place to start for people who want to become less stubborn and defensive.
Admit When You’re Wrong
And you will be wrong.
Admitting to being wrong is beneficial for you. As in my “harbringer" story from above, actively recognizing that you are wrong humbles you. It serves as a reminder in the future that you might not be right, even when you’re certain that you are.
Doing this is challenging, but it fosters integrity and makes you accountable.
When Is It Okay To Be Stubborn?
While you should make it a point to be less stubborn in general, there are times where a little bit of stubbornness is healthy and even necessary.
It can be hard to draw the line between healthy and unhealthy stubbornness. It’s going to vary case by case.
At first, it will be tempting to consider most situations to be ones in which stubbornness is healthy. You will usually be wrong. I suggest making your default assumption that stubbornness is inappropriate to the situation, and only occasionally make exceptions.
A situation where stubbornness is healthy has three conditions: there is a decision that is yours to make, you are the one who lives with the consequences, and you believe you are right. Of course, this all just stems from the need to take personal responsibility for your life.
For example, any major life decisions of yours may warrant some stubbornness. If you really, really want to go to a certain college and your parents disagree, you should go where you want. Of course, this only applies if you are the one paying for it; keep in mind the second necessary condition. It is worth taking your parents’ opinions into consideration, but the decision is ultimately yours to make.
Stubbornness can also be a virtue if you are defending something very important to you. If you’ve already explored alternatives, played devil’s advocate with yourself, and so on, you might have a principle or opinion that you hold to be very important. Feel free to be a little stubborn or defensive with your ideals, so long as you are still respectful of other perspectives.
As a final note, make sure to pick your battles. Even if you do have these strong ideals, it’s not always the right time to be defensive about it. My Hebrew school teacher knew that a word wasn’t worth debating, so he just admitted to being “wrong", checked his ego at the door, and got on with it. Chances are, this will be the wisest course of action much of the time.
Stubbornness and defensiveness are some of the worst, most grating personality traits to have, yet they are incredibly common. In fact, everyone experiences at least occasional instances of each.
That being said, you never want to be that guy who everyone hates because you always have to disagree. And then push it.
But through awareness and a bit of practice, you can drastically reduce the frequency of these behaviors. I personally will be focusing on this area of my life a bit more over the coming months.
Do you have any advice for someone, such as myself, who is trying to stop being so stubborn and defensive?