Are there certain questions you hate being asked? Or comments that set you on edge and make you feel defensive, angry, frustrated or all of the above?

Maybe it’s “How’s the job search going?” or “When are you going to get married?” or “Did you work out today?”

Or perhaps it’s “How’s your business doing?” or “I’m surprised you weren’t invited to the offsite too.”

For me, they started out being questions like, “Are you the younger sister?”, which made my 16-year old self upset for seeming less mature than my little sister.

And “Are you going to be a doctor like both your parents?”, which out of rebellion was the one career path I was never ever going to take.

These days, I’d love to be mistaken for the younger sister, and the questions that make me defensive are ones like, “Are you ready for Christmas?” which makes me feel like a Grinch and a bad mother because I’m not good at gift-giving.

Everyone has a chip on the shoulder about something

Whether it’s about age, status or something else, we all have a chip on our shoulder about something. It’s usually about being underestimated in some way and often centers around something you fear may be true. That’s what makes us so hyper-sensitive about it.

So, while the specifics of what puts us in this defensive state will be different for each person, once we’re triggered, our basic instinct is the same – to protect ourselves from what we perceive as an imminent attack.

The problem is that other people see the chip on your shoulder even when you don’t. We give ourselves away in what we say, how we say it, our facial expressions, and our body language.

All of this can hurt you in at least three ways.

How the chip on your shoulder can hurt you

Vulnerable to detours

When others can hijack your emotions, whether by design or by accident, it distracts your focus from your goals. It takes time to get over the emotion of being upset, and this acts as a detour that delays you from achieving your goals.

Less effective

When people know that you’re going to be defensive about a particular topic, it makes you less effective. They may avoid including you in the conversation if they know you’re going to be a roadblock on a particular initiative. Or worse yet, they’ll bypass you and isolate you from the decision-making.

And if they’re afraid to talk to you because they don’t think you can have a rational conversation about the topic, your views won’t be heard and your perspective won’t be considered.

Less credible

Going into defensive mode can cloud your judgment and make you seem less than rational. It can also lead you to make poor decisions based on emotion and assumptions rather than good business judgment.

Decision-making and judgement become more important as you grow in your career. So a perceived lack of credibility can prevent you from getting that next promotion or new responsibility.

Three steps to change the situation

The next time you sense yourself getting upset at a question or comment, take a moment to run through the following steps before you react.

1. Notice

Notice when you start feeling defensive. Identify the first sign that you’re about to be triggered to react. Catching yourself in the act is the first step to managing your reactions.

2. Question

Ask yourself “what’s making me feel this way?” and “will this serve me well?” Inserting this bit of rational thinking helps defuse the situation and acts as a circuit breaker so you can have a chance to choose a better response instead of reacting emotionally.

3. Replace

Then, replace the defensive reaction with a more effective response of your choosing. It’s about reframing the situation as one that is not a personal attack, and allows you to look at the situation without feeling under threat.

Then you can decide whether a more effective response could involve humor or greater rationality and logic. You could even decide that emotion is the right choice. But you’d be using emotion on purpose, not on autopilot.

What does it reveal about you?

The questions and comments that put you on the defensive are revealing. They highlight the areas where you feel vulnerable and uncertain. Where your emotion doesn’t match the situation, it’s time to get to work.

It’s like a giant neon arrow pointing at that topic that says, “dig deeper here”. Then use the steps above to learn and grow out of the vulnerable spots that will otherwise limit your progress.

To truly get the most out of life, to enjoy it fully, and to fulfill your greatest potential, pay attention to those areas of vulnerability and treat them as growth opportunities.

What’s the chip on your shoulder that’s worth working on, and how can you manage it better next time?