Defending yourself is a natural survival tool, but too much defensiveness can wear you out. This drain on your energy is easier to manage when you know how your brain produces it.

We are designed to scan continuously for potential threat, but our brain defines threat in a curious way. It responds to a disappointment of expectations as a survival threat. When you know why, the threats feel less threatening so you can lower your defenses.

Disappointment: An Evolutionary View

Imagine a lion who fails in its chase after a gazelle. Disappointed expectations trigger cortisol. The bad feeling of cortisol warns the lion to stop investing energy in a failed chase. The lion still wants the gazelle urgently, but cortisol helps it avoid a path that would lead to starvation. Bad feelings have a good purpose.

Disappointment: A Cognitive View

Your brain releases cortisol when incoming inputs fail to match expectations. When you read a typo, for example, cortisol alerts you to stop reading and go back over the details because they do not match your expectations. The brain is always anticipating the next input and then comparing reality to the anticipation. We navigate efficiently through the world by sifting for information that fits expectations and alerting with cortisol when our expectations fail.

Social Disappointment

Social expectations complicate things. People often fail to act the way you anticipated, so you can end up with a lot of cortisol. The person you smile at fails to smile back. The promotion you expected goes to someone else. The cortisol released paves neural pathways that anticipate more of the same. When the bad feeling is triggered, you may or may not know the reason, but you start feeling defensive.

Animals are skilled at defensiveness. Notice monkeys stuffing their cheeks with food and running to a safe spot before they swallow. They do that because stronger monkeys will literally steal food from their mouths if they’re not on guard. I am not saying you should stuff your cheeks and run; I am saying we have inherited a brain designed to monitor social threats and act fast to avoid them.

A Big Cortex and a Small Disappointment

No one plans to be defensive, but sometimes you feel like your toes are being stepped on. Cortisol makes it feel urgent. Cortisol does its job by making you feel like you will die if you don’t make a bad feeling stop. Cortisol works by commanding your attention so you focus entirely on the threat signals. A big cortex can find a lot of threat signals because it can anticipate the future and generate abstractions that are not currently reaching your sense. A big cortex can make a big deal out of every social disappointment. When you know how your cortisol works, you can protect your toes with less conflict.

We hear a lot about kindness these days, but many people misconstrue it. “Other people should be kind to me,” they think. This expectation is not met all the time, so they end up with cortisol. Thus the quest for kindness can lead to defensiveness. Being conscious of your expectations can relieve some of this defensiveness.

Imagine that our lion tripped on a rock while closing in on the gazelle. The lion doesn’t says “what idiot left this rock here?” It accepts the world rocks and all. We humans try to fix things. We want to solve problems. We often see evidence that someone else is the problem. It’s easy to end up defensive. Since defensiveness is natural, you will be “super” natural when you learn to relax your defensiveness.

About the Author: Loretta Breuning, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, and author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin. She’s Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers resources to help train your mammal brain for more happy chemicals.


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