“Being defensive about defensiveness”


Click play to listen to the full chapter:

(Coming soon)


So, this happened …

It has been described as one of the most significant books of the twentieth century, and its title has now become an often-used phrase in the English language.

So when my boss made his accusation against me, the title of that book flashed inside my head in bright red letters, with alarm bells going off.

“Catch-22!” my brain screamed silently. Outside in the real world, my mouth was locked, trying to decide how best to reply.

In this book written by Joseph Heller, he describes an interesting scenario where the act of trying to get out of the situation, ends up getting a person even more trapped in that situation. Perhaps it’s a bit like being caught in quicksand: the more you struggle, the faster you get sucked in.

“Catch-22” is set during World War II, and the phrase refers to the following:

  • As a pilot, you have to fly on life-threatening missions
  • If you are “crazy” (if you have mental issues), then you don’t have to fly these dangerous missions
  • If you don’t want to fly these missions anymore, you will have to prove that you’re crazy and thus shouldn’t have to fly
  • But in trying to get out of flying, you are showing that you have a clear awareness of the situation, which means you can’t be crazy
  • Therefore, wanting to be seen as crazy shows that you aren’t crazy, and so you still have to continue flying those life-threatening missions.


As for my boss? Well, we were having a disagreement on how to deal with a particular problem, and he was getting frustrated that I wasn’t just doing what he wanted me to do, because it didn’t align with my values.

“You’re so defensive, Greg,” he said to me, out of nowhere.

I opened my mouth to say something, and froze. The words “Catch-22” flashed inside my head, and the alarm bells were trying to tell me that I was in danger of crossing a line.

In that brief moment, my mouth agape, my mind actually managed to think through a lot …

He just called me defensive. That’s got nothing to do with the conversation here, we’re just trying to decide on an action. Why is he saying this? I’ll just explain to him that I’m not defensive. Wait! As soon as I defend myself from his false claim, he will be able to jump at me to show that he was right, and that I am defensive. But if I say nothing, then he wins this point and feels he was justified in accusing me of being defensive. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

I was trying to decide if he honestly didn’t appreciate the implications of his accusation, and that this is just something that he says when he gets emotional. Or was he really trying to set me up?

I noticed that, despite the fact that I was silent in the middle of a rather fast-paced and fiery discussion, he too had stopped talking. He was waiting! I saw the pause in his eyes, and I realized in that moment that it wasn’t just a naive comment by him. He had intentionally done it to set me up, he was waiting for me defend myself against the accusation of being defensive, and he was waiting to jump at me with righteous indignation.

Did he really think that just by winning this “point” with me, he’d muscle me into suddenly being contrite, and then I’d back down and just do what he was pushing me to do?

The little respect I still had for him evaporated in that brief pause, since I could see he was prepared to fight dirty in order to win a simple argument.

Fortunately, my mind was able to quickly identify and label that moment of “Being defensive about defensiveness”, so that I didn’t trap myself by saying anything . . . defensive.

That discussion was a turning point for us. I wasn’t crazy. And I most certainly didn’t want to fly on any more dangerous missions.

Simple Definition

Being defensive about defensiveness: By defending against an accusation of being defensive, you are fanning the flames of that accusation. Similarly, there are other situations in life where, in attempting to get out of the situation, you actually embed yourself further in.

Summarizing what it means

It is possible that a person is defensive. And it is possible that someone else points out to them that they are defensive. And it is possible that they then instinctively defend themselves against the accusation that they’re defensive.

All that is possible.

But here, we’re exploring something more manipulative!

In this #hashtag-story we look at situations where the accusation is intended to create a specific defence which then proves the accusation, especially when the accusation isn’t true.

To understand this, we highlight three layers of “being aware”:

  • Be aware it’s happening. Understand that if someone accuses you of being defensive, especially if it’s out-of-context, then there is a chance they’re trying to trap you.
  • Be aware of your response. If you are ever prodded to “defend against defensiveness”, just pause and smile. Then wink. Don’t fall into the trap.
  • Be aware of similar scenarios. Although the story is about being defensive, be aware that there are many other contexts in life where this “trap” exists, both in terms of how you shouldn’t respond, as well as in terms of how people can manipulate you into such traps.

Let’s read on, to see how these situations play out in real life.

Discussing what it means

Not my boss!

OK, so in the story I talk about my boss. This event wasn’t actually with one of my bosses, but rather with another senior person in the company who had rank over me, and was pressuring me to do something I wasn’t comfortable with.

I tried rewriting the story to make it more accurate without using the word “boss”, but it made the story clumsy, and just distracted from the flow. So instead I wrote “boss”.

But remember that when I said boss I didn’t mean boss.

Let’s get analytical

I recall one conversation with my sister where we were talking about personality profiles. Out of the four personality types she used, she thought I was predominantly “analytical”.

“No I’m not,” I responded, “let me explain to you the reasons why I don’t think that’s true.”

She burst into laughter, and it took me a few seconds before the stupidity of my response sunk in.

In trying to prove that I wasn’t an analytical type, I used a very analytical approach, thus proving her right. Ouch.

Your words may be used against you

What’s interesting about the dialogue with my ‘boss’ is the circularity of the accusation and response. You’re defensive! No I’m not. Aha!

This circularity also played out in the discussion with my sister – I took an analytical approach in order to defend myself against being told I was analytical.

Of course, the words ‘accuse’ and ‘defend’ are rather strong, but they make the point of two opposing parties with contradictory opinions.

I just want to be clear that not all attack-then-defend scenarios have the same “circularity” as is being addressed in this chapter. For example, if a person had accused me of being selfish, I might have defended myself too. But that’s not circular: defending yourself against the claim that you’re selfish doesn’t prove you’re selfish.

Are you still with me?

There are of course many scenarios where this circulatory plays out, where your response could be used to prove the assertion. Be careful out there!

Here are a few, but if you have others, please drop me a note, or leave a comment below.

  • Kaiser wanted to split the bill in half when we had a quick meal after school, in spite of the fact that he had ordered much more expensive stuff than me. I resisted because I wasn’t earning a lot, and had specifically opted for a simple meal to stay within budget, so he accused me of being a penny-pincher. You can imagine that when I responded, “I’m not a penny-pincher, it’s just that you ordered the …”, he jumped at the chance to point out that by listing the individual items, I was in effect giving him evidence that he could use to prove that I was indeed a penny-puncher.
  • If you get angry when someone points out how easily angered you are, then that potential circulatory should be anticipated.
  • If an annoying non-friend keeps messaging you, demanding a reply, then they might accuse you of being cold because you’re ignoring them. But by ignoring this accusation, you actually prove them right. Of course, if your desire not to engage with them is stronger than your desire for them not to be right, that’s fine. (Remember, you don’t have to reply to people – read #[Luxury Bridges] to remind yourself why.)
  • If someone is accused of being unaware of what’s going on around them, and they deny that, then a counter-accusation could be “You see, you don’t even realize what you’re really like!”
  • Here’s a (slightly edited) quote from a recent tweet I saw: “She used to cry and tell lies about me, it was her way of manipulating people. They then assumed I was horrible because I had (apparently) made her cry. If I stayed quiet, it meant that what she said must be true. If I said she was lying, then I actually came across as horrible for verbally attacking someone who was crying.”
  • If your partner says that you are only affectionate when you feel the relationship is under threat, and you affectionately try to reassure them, then they can use that as “evidence” that their accusation was true.

It might not actually be manipulation

In the examples so far, there has been the sense that the circularity created by the accusation is somewhat manipulative. In my case, I’m generally not defensive (see how I’m defending myself here 🙂 ) so in fact the false accusation must have been done in order to trigger me to be defensive.

But sometimes, the accuser might actually be right!

As we learned in #[Interesting but ugly], we are sometimes at risk over over interpreting what people say. Don’t assume that, because you can think of their words as having an evil motivation, it doesn’t mean they’re thinking anything other than what their words literally say.

For example, in the above point about affection, it might actually be true that you are only affectionate when the relationship is under threat. And your affectionate response may indeed be yet another example of your suddenly becoming affectionate in order to pacify them. It might be feedback for you, and not manipulation.

So please keep your self-awareness high. Just because you find yourself in a “Being defensive against defensiveness” situation, don’t instantly use this #hashtag-story to tell yourself that you’re the victim and you’re being trapped by a manipulative person. See #[The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches] for more details on this point.

You might actually be a defensive person, or an angry person, or an affectionate-only-when-necessary person. Their accusation might not be a trap, but instead could be an honest effort to draw your attention to something that needs work.

Are you sure you can tell the difference?

How will they respond?

In the chapter #[The field that became a black hole], I point out how important it is (and easy, once you get into the habit) to think about your answers.

That’s the third level of meta-awareness: thinking critically about your answers. (We talk about the other levels of meta-awareness in other chapters – it’s not needed here.)

While that chapter focused on thinking about the technical strength of your answer, part of the message in this chapter is to think about how your counterpart will respond to your answer.

This is the fourth level of meta-awareness: anticipating how your answer will be taken.

As my boss accused me of being defensive, and I contemplated defending myself, my meta-awareness was such that I realized that my response could be used to prove him right, so I stopped myself.

I had anticipated his response to my response, and caught myself.

“It’s a trap!” Said Admiral Ackbar

Admiral Ackbar says "It's a trap!" Defensive about Defensiveness

My boss tried to trap me. And I get the feeling it wasn’t the first time he’d used this technique on someone. He seemed quick to make the accusation, totally out of context, and was ready to pounce when he saw me pause, waiting for me to fall in.

Similarly, if you’re having an argument with someone (let’s face it, arguments happen) and you’re getting angry, a clever response is for them to accuse you of always easily getting angry, even if it’s generally not true. But if they catch you at the right moment, they can leverage the timing so that your response will prove their point.

Of course, that’s incredibly manipulative. I don’t think it’s right to play games like that with people’s minds. In the same way that police (in general) are not allowed the entrapment of criminals, so too it’s wrong to set people up like this.

  • Takeaway 1: My suggestion for you is: don’t do it. If you already do, then stop.
  • Takeaway 2: There are people out there who will try trap you. Once they’ve found a technique that works (“You’re so defensive!”) they will use it more often. So remain aware, and don’t fall in the trap. Just pause, smile, and wink at them. Show them you know what they’re doing 😉


Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and emotional abuse, where the perpetrator intentionally feeds false information to the victim in such a way that the victim starts to question their own sanity, as they start to wonder whether to believe themselves or the other person.

When my boss trapped me, I believe his goal was simply to get the upper hand, to be able to claim that he was right and that I’m a problem, and thus to put himself into a position of power in the argument.

But this “Being defensive about defensiveness” can also be used in a gaslighting manner, making it even worse. For example, if a person argues back when falsely accused of being defensive, and they get called out on that, then they might start to feel insecure, wondering if they are indeed defensive, and that perhaps they really are “a difficult person” when they didn’t think they were?

Creating this self-doubt and insecurity is the first step in gaining further manipulative control over a person. Gaslighting is clearly a form of emotional abuse.

Get help, please

The story of what happened to me is light-hearted, in that it was obvious to me what my ‘boss’ was trying to do, and I didn’t get pulled in. And if you have sufficient awareness, then you too can either avoid or pull out of those situations.

But if you are regularly being accused where you find yourself “Being defensive against defensiveness”, or if you believe that you are a victim of gaslighting (or other forms of emotional abuse), please seek professional help.

Whether it’s a local suicide helpline, marriage counsellor, psychologist or other – please seek professional help if you feel your mental health is being affected. Look after yourself!

Making it personal

Here are a few things to ponder, following today’s chapter. Don’t forget to write the answers in your #HashtagYourLife journal …

  • When last did you accuse someone of being defensive? Did you realize you were in effect setting them up?
  • And if you wanted to communicate to someone that they really are being defensive, what would a better way be to do that?
  • Is there someone at work who’s regularly trying to drag you into these circular accusations? What would a good way be of dealing with this?
  • Does your partner, a family member, or someone at work do this to you? How best could you deal with this going forwards?
  • Are you the victim of gaslighting? Are you seeking professional support for this?

OFFER: If you feel caught in such accusation traps on a regular basis, and would like to bounce ideas on how you might respond in an empowering way, please drop me a message (there are many ways to reach me through email or social media), and I’d be happy to arrange a 15 minute no-strings chat with you. Just click on one of the links at the bottom of this page.

Related Stories

#[Luxury Bridges]

#[Interesting but ugly]

#[The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches]

#[The field that became a black hole]

#[It’s not about the typo]

Headline Picture Credit