Understanding Defensive Behavior and Self-image

Understanding defensive behaviour

Defensive behaviour is defined by the APA Dictionary of Psychology as “aggressive or submissive behaviour in response to real or imagined threats of harm.” Defensive mechanisms have existed in human beings over generations due to their ability to protect and enhance survival rates. When an individual identifies or perceives a situation to be harmful to self or the concept of self, their defence mechanism comes to the rescue.

Understanding Defense Mechanism

Through this article, I am going to write about the evolution of our defensive responses as a result of transformations in our concepts of self. To observe an overview of the change in defensive responses over time, let’s discuss one prime example of a defensive response. Let’s talk about war. Many brave man have fought and dedicated their lives towards the service of their country, their tribe or their kingdoms.

They fought these wars with an awareness of the potential loss of their lives. Why didn’t their defence mechanisms kick in to prevent them from participating in these deadly events? If the purpose of defensive behaviour is to protect an individual from a threat, what enabled these people to serve their lives for an abstract cause willingly? The answer lies within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

According to Maslow, every individual has a set of needs. These needs when unfulfilled leads to a rise in motivation to perform a set of tasks that will enable the fulfilment of said needs. For example: the need for food will motivate a hungry person to search for food. As per his theory, the progression of needs changes as an individual grows. Once a teenage kid’s needs for food, shelter, and safety have been met, their desire for acceptance by friends becomes very high.

Now let’s consider the previous example, soldiers who fought wars to defend their tribe or their kingdom were dependent on their association with the given tribe for survival, safety and a sense of belongingness. Their sense of self was directly related to the land they originated from and therefore an attack on their land meant an attack on themselves. Their need to protect their land, their people and their culture was an effort in itself to protect themselves and their identity. They were therefore willing to sacrifice their physical self in an attempt to protect their legacy. Their defence systems worked towards protecting this legacy and not towards protecting their individual selves.

Sense of self

As generations progressed and societies evolved, there no longer existed a continual threat to land. The focus shifted from protection towards development, and gradually humans began to shift their attention toward themselves. Today, due to globalisation, an individual’s need for belonging or acceptance is not directly related to the land he comes from but to his sense of self.

Read: A Nuance Look at Social Media and self – perception

Therefore, defence mechanisms are focused towards the primary protection of self (physical and psychological). Even a perceived threat to a person’s self-image may result in defensive behaviours. Today, society regards individual characteristics, values, belief systems, and emotions as sacred. A criticism of any of these criteria may lead to a defensive reaction, an argument or the end of a relationship.


Therefore, it is essential to identify those things that we care deeply about in our lives and to question why those things are so valuable to us prior to offering unquestionable allegiance towards the subject. When we begin to question and identify possible flaws in our own beliefs, we avoid a defensive reaction when someone else points them out to us and we begin a unique journey towards growth.

We must also tread carefully while highlighting another person’s flaws because you never know when you may be instigating war!

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