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The Relationship Between Empathy and Defensiveness

When we feel attacked or threatened our survival instinct creates feelings and physiological changes which help us defend or protect ourselves. We might try to protect ourselves by running away or by hiding. Or we might try to protect ourselves by fighting back. In English this is called the fight or flight instinct. Still another option is to freeze and "play dead."

When we feel defensive or protective, it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to feel empathy. The more we attack someone, verbally, psychologically or physically, the more defensive they become. And, the less empathic they become. I learned this fundamental, highly important and relevant truth one day through a personal experience which I have never forgotten.

On that day I was feeling verbally attacked by a woman I had been dating and living with. She was attacking me for not caring, for not showing empathy. I remained silent, feeling a little stunned by her words. At one point she came closer. She thrust her arm and finger towards me and said loudly, in tears, "...and you don't even care how I feel! DO YOU!?"

I paused a moment and said "Well, actually right now I really don't because I am just thinking about how to defend myself."

A few hours later I realized that feeling empathy and feeling defensive seem to be mutually exclusive. You simply cannot feel empathy when under attack. This apparently is due to the hierarchy of survival responses. In other words, we have evolved to protect and take care of ourselves first. Only when we feel safe ourselves can we feel empathy for someone else.


See below for the implications of the relationship between empathy and defensiveness.

Core Topics

Respect | Empathy
Caring | Listening

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Empathy and Defensiveness Implications

As discussed in the section above, feeling empathy and feeling defensive seem to be mutually exclusive. The implications of this are far reaching, yet little understood.

With children, if we remember this principle it will change how we handle common, everyday situations. If we see a one child hurt another, we can try to avoid putting that child on the defensive in order to help increase the chances they will be able to feel empathy or the child who was hurt. When one child feels empathy for another, they are more likely to think about how others will feel and less likely to do things which will cause others pain. They won't need to be told not to do such things, because their own feelings or "conscience" will be their guides.

In our adult and personal relationships when we feel hurt by someone, it helps us to remember that causing someone to feel defensive is unlikely to create feelings of empathy. We might be able to cause feelings of guilt, but these are not the same as empathy. In fact, feeling guilty may be closely connected to feeling defensive. While guilt has its place in human interactions, it does not connect the same healthy connections and bonds which empathy does. Keeping this in mind, we might be able to prevent many conflicts from escalating, and prevent many relationships from either breaking apart or becoming overly guilt-based.

Finally, in the legal justice and punishment system, we see an important example of the lack of understanding of the relationship between empathy and defensiveness. It is unlikely, for instance, that a perpetrator of a crime will feel empathy, and thus remorse, if he or she feels threatened with punishment for their actions. Without such true remorse and regret, it is very difficult, if not impossible to achieve any voluntary change. This as a fundamental flaw in the traditional thinking about social control. A major change in thinking, or a major paradigm shift, is, therefore, deeply needed.