Authenticity, Boundaries, Defensiveness, and Non-Violent Communication


To be authentic, we must not assume we are correct about anything. If we do, we cannot fully be present with someone while they express their feelings or thoughts about any given situation.

To be authentic, we must have empathy for ourselves and others, which means understanding our own emotions and expressing them but also paying attention to others’ feelings and concerns too, to avoid hurting them.

Being authentic is a way of showing your true self. Every individual has their own unique self, which consists of specific values, attitudes, and beliefs. Still, our behavior is often guided by the demands of society. Oftentimes, people take actions based on social norms instead of revealing a part of their true identity. But when you’re authentic, it means you’re confident enough to reveal your real thoughts and opinions, even if they’re not in line with society’s norms.

Thus, if you want to be authentic, make attempts to accept yourself exactly as you are instead of changing your thoughts and beliefs that may not be acceptable to others. Authentic people work to maintain unconditional positive regard towards themselves and others and work to reduce their fear in order to be who they are.

But even if you feel you find that you’re not authentic, it’s never too late to start revealing your true self. Here are some techniques to increase your authenticity:

  • Practice self-reflection – Self-reflection is a great way to understand your deeper values and desires. And since knowing yourself is key to becoming an authentic person, reflecting on your thoughts and feelings will help you get more in touch with yourself.
  • Be compassionate – It’s true that being authentic means expressing what you really believe, but it doesn’t mean that you should offend other people while doing so. Instead of judging others, try to be kind and compassionate and understand that we are all complex in our own ways. The goal of expressing your inner self is to connect with other people, and making a connection is exactly why it is important to be empathetic to their thoughts and emotions too.
  • Trust yourself – If you’re trying to become the best version of yourself, it means developing trust in yourself by attempting to be mindful about how you behave in the here and now. And self-trust means being confident about your actions and having faith in your capabilities. Even if you’re not thriving in something, self-trust will help you overcome barriers, work through difficult hang-ups, and continue to grow.
  • Check your progress – Even when you’re trying your best to be authentic, it is sometimes difficult to not to lose ourselves while interacting with others. Checking in on your own progress during or post a conversation will help you realize what’s really going on in your thoughts and emotions, and will help you assess if you’re still showing up authentically at any given moment.


There are few doubts that having strong and tight relationships with others is beneficial for our mental health and psychological well-being. However, having boundaries is one of the crucial preconditions of developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

According to the Parkview Student Assistance Program, a boundary is a space that limits interaction between two people with the aim of protecting each of them and improving the relationship between them. Therefore, if your boundaries are healthy, you have a better chance at mental and emotional stability.

Oftentimes, our boundaries can be either too rigid or too loose or somewhere in between. But in any case, the main purpose of setting healthy boundaries is to protect one’s identity from blending with others’ identities. The truth is, people often get lost in close relationships. And in the long term, it can be quite harmful to one’s own identity.

Having healthy boundaries will help you maintain authenticity and individuality without damaging your social relationships. Besides, as Dr. Dana Nelson  (2016) proves, healthy boundaries are an integral part of self-care, which, in turn, is crucial for mental health as it helps manage stress, increase energy levels, and improve your daily life. The main reason why boundaries promote self-care is that having boundaries helps people make their own decisions based on their own values and beliefs instead of relying on what is socially acceptable. Consequently, they experience self-fulfillment, leading to enhanced emotional well-being.

The following tips will help you set healthy boundaries:

  • Engage in open communication – Don’t be afraid to tell others what you need to feel comfortable. Talk to them about relationship dynamics and explain everything that bothers you. Don’t forget to ask them about their opinion on your relationship as well.
  • Emphasize the value of your relationship – Although you want to set boundaries, you should explain that this relationship still matters to you. So, emphasize how valuable this relationship is to you and how much you care about their well-being.
  • Explain but stay assertive – Initially, people might not understand why you’re trying to set boundaries. So, try to explain how healthy it is for relationships to set boundaries and how it will help you both to maintain authenticity. Keep in mind that over-explaining is not often helpful. Often we over-explain out of some type of emotional feeling that we have within us–or an old pattern. Just try to be assertive to let them know you’re serious and mean everything you say.
  • Offer alternative solutions – Sometimes you might need to offer alternative solutions to your problem in order not to make other people think you have given up on them. Show them that you care, and maybe even compromise and offer alternative ways to maintain your own identities without damaging the relationship.


The American Psychological Association (APA) defines defensiveness as “a tendency to be sensitive to criticism or comment about one’s deficiencies and to counter or deny such criticisms”.

Therefore, being defensive means feeling that someone is going to criticize you, and you need to be ready to avoid negative results such as anger, shame, humiliation, or embarrassment. Based on this negative feeling, people acting defensively are willing to perform certain behaviors against environmental stressors in order to protect themselves from harm.

Psychological defensiveness can be manifested in various ways. Some of the most common forms of psychological defensiveness include

  • Forgetting what happened
  • Not paying attention to unwanted information
  • Disengaging from the situation
  • Denying responsibility for what may have occurred
  • Minimizing the result of the harm

The main purpose of defensiveness is to distract yourself from negative feelings of embarrassment and shame and to blame other people (“projection”) in order to feel better about yourself. In classic psychoanalysis, it’s an ego-defense mechanism that aims to protect the self from anxiety. While defensiveness efficiently reduces anxiety in the short term, it’s harmful to our mental health in the long term, as it detaches people from reality.

Consequently, recent psychological studies have focused on reducing the tendency for people to become defensive. For instance, research conducted at Flinders University (Wenzel et al., 2020) proves that defensive behaviors undermine our ability to solve problems effectively. The reason is that they fail to identify the roots of the problem in the defensive state but may still feel respected and valued by social groups. It seems that social belonging has become a sought-after property of modern society, where stigmatization and discrimination for holding different or diverse opinions from certain groups are very common. Unfortunately, many people don’t acknowledge the long-term negative effects of defensive behavior and continue to engage in self-protective actions despite pleas from those in close relationship to them.

Generally, the short-term positive effect of defensiveness is that it helps us avoid perceived failure, maintain a sense of self-esteem, and retain a feeling of “positiveness.” But as many have noted from their own experience, the costs exceed its advantages. Over time, you may come to realize that you haven’t really solved the problem. Instead, you wasted your time defending your ego, focused on being “right” while ignoring the actual problem, and walked with a “chip on your shoulder” ready to defend at a moment’s notice, which is indeed anxiety-provoking.

In order to be less defensive, it’s important to

  • First realize that you’ve moved into a defensive stance instead of fully facing or acknowledging a problem or a relational issue.
  • Acknowledge your feelings of guilt or shame, accept them, and move toward practicing self-compassion.
  • Think about how your “ideal self” would handle the situation.
  • Determine the specific situations when you tend to become defensive and practice “future template behaviors” through your own therapy or with a trusted friend or mentor.
  • Work to improve your communication skills and openly talk about things that bother you before you begin harboring resentment.

Furthermore, if you notice that other people are behaving defensively and want to help them reduce this harmful state, there are some things you can do:

  • Don’t be judgmental – Avoid judging and criticizing people for their defensive behavior. Make requests instead and ask them to change their behavior. Keep in mind that explaining the purpose of this changed behavior will increase the chances of reducing their defensive attitude in a particular situation.
  • Be empathetic – Express your empathy and don’t use shame, guilt, embarrassment to manipulate another person. Show them that you’re concerned about them and attempt to help them realize that experiencing these emotions is normal and acceptable.
  • Help them solve problems – Try to find out the roots of their problem and come up with a solution together with that person. Offer them alternative solutions and demonstrate that looking at the problem from different perspectives is more efficient than being defensive and working to maintain “self-righteousness.”
  • Avoid controlling them – People cannot stand being controlled. So remember, if you are attempting to control someone, they will either notice it or “feel it” and this alone may cause them to become defensive with you. Working on your own codependent behaviors will reduce your shadow control network and hopefully will allow them to choose their own path, make decisions, and even make mistakes.

Some Lessons from Nonviolent Communication Methods:

Living in modern society isn’t easy. Due to our social norms, many people naturally perform defensive behaviors in order to protect themselves from stress and feelings. As a result, we often forget how important it is to feel compassion and empathy towards others and sometimes even ourselves.

Even though most of us spend our lives talking to each other, a great part of our conversations is automatic, based on old habits. Considering this, it’s not surprising that we are rarely able to truly hear others and fully express ourselves. And this is the main problem discussed in Oren Jay Sofer’s book “Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication”.

The main theme of the book is to encourage and teach people how to listen to others empathetically and how to express themselves in a way that provokes empathy in other people. This informative book will change your understanding of human communication and teach you how to use a mindful approach to nonviolent communication in a way to connect with people and understand them.

What is nonviolent communication?

Non-violent communication (NVC) is a concept created by psychologist Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, who describes it as a language of compassion and an instrument for constructive social change. NVC provides ways to help us understand what triggers violent behavior and take responsibility for our actions. The main purposes of this technique are to hear others and to be heard; to deepen our connection with people and ourselves, to change the way we perceive life, and to change our communication patterns radically.

Dr. Rosenberg believes that non-violent communication begins with identifying the roots of violence and making conditions to cooperate in meeting our shared basic needs. To him, every thought and feeling is related to a specific need. And by understanding these connections, we can easily articulate what we need and, thus, avoid conflicts with other people.

The author of “Say What You Mean” shares Dr. Rosenberg’s view and believes that communication is much more than just simple verbal exchanges. Instead, it involves emotional and mental aspects that often complicate our messaging. Learning non-violent behavior which is led by love, compassion, respect, appreciation, and empathy will help people deepen their understanding of one another and take responsibility for what they are responsible for. The purpose of the book is to help people express themselves and develop healthy ways of communicating with each other.

The language of NVC

Just like learning every new language requires some time and effort, learning NVC also takes time to become “fluent” and use non-violent techniques in communication. Therefore, replacing current communication patterns with NVC requires changes in our internal connection with ourselves too.

Nonviolent communication consists of two parts:

  • To express yourself honestly to others
  • To listen to others empathetically

These two parts of nonviolent communication are expressed through 4 elements:

  1. Observation – Specific actions we can observe that don’t include our evaluation or judgments. Thus, it means perceiving the situation without judging it.
  2. Feelings – How we feel in relation to what we observe. Pure feelings usually differ from our interpretations and judgments. And most of the time, our feelings don’t describe our needs but rather represent hidden attacks on other people.
  3. Needs – Our basic needs behind our feelings; Needs are universal, and that’s what connects people with each other. A need is something that we want for everyone and that is equally desirable for everyone.
  4. Requests – A specific action to address our needs; To identify the question of what we would like to request to improve our lives and fulfill our needs.

Practicing nonviolent communication helps people distinguish these basic 4 components from personal judgments, interpretations, and demands. And these key elements, in turn, help us to support our own and others’ needs and foster connection and understanding.

According to Oren Jay Sofer, there are 3 steps to making use of this mindful approach and creating skillful communication:

  • Leading with presence

Bringing an open mind to dialogue and accepting other people as unique individuals; becoming aware that it’s natural that there are unknown things in the world that we can’t possibly understand.

Being present in communication means listening and speaking without judging the other person. It means expressing what we really mean and maintaining a balance between speaking and listening.

  • Coming from a place of curiosity and care

Being interested in what the other person is saying and looking at the things they say with curiosity. Expressing empathy and taking care of other people will help us truly hear what they are saying and value their perspectives.

  • Focusing on what really matters

When we communicate with one another, often what we really mean is lost in translation. But if we acknowledge that every conversation is related to an underlying need and understand what the other person needs and what we need, we can focus on what really matters. For this, we should find our own authentic voice, convey the truth and listen deeply.

Empathy & Self-Empathy

Empathy is an integral part of the practice of nonviolent communication. In fact, NVC involves both empathy and self-empathy.

Empathy is the process of identifying other people’s needs and emotions and, therefore, making emotional connections with them. It’s key to have effective communication because empathy is a way to meet our own needs and others’ needs at the same time. As a result, we understand each other and connect with one another for one purpose:  to meet our basic needs.

Similarly, non-violent communication also requires expressing self-empathy, which means having an empathetic connection with ourselves. Self-empathy is a way to connect with ourselves and accept our feelings, needs, and requests. Through self-empathy, we develop inner awareness and realize what could be our next step, where we should focus our attention.

Once we get to know the techniques of nonviolent communication, we will be able to liberate ourselves and counsel others. Emotional liberation means accepting our responsibility for others’ feelings, taking responsibility for our actions, and acknowledging that it’s not right to meet our needs at the expense of others.

The Conversation Guide: A practical approach to refining our communication.

In her book, The Conversation Guide, Joelle Prevost, LCSW outlines how her work has shown that nearly all interpersonal miscommunications appear to be triggered by you having your reality invalidated or imposing your reality onto someone else.

Grounded in gold-standard techniques from communication and psychology models, the 10 skills will give you the confidence and know-how to prepare for, start, and structure conversations. Through relatable anecdotes, common dialogue examples, and valuable tips, this guide offers practical solutions you can implement right away, without having to wade through pages of communication theory.

The Conversation Guide will teach you skills to:

  • Stop avoiding confrontation
  • Establish common goals
  • Set and enforce personal boundaries
  • Validate the other person
  • Support yourself post-talk

Whether you are facing a difficult conversation with a boss, client, friend, romantic partner, or parent, this book can help you say what you need to say—and avoid misunderstandings—without compromising your boundaries or your relationships.

Joelle Provost LCSW is a guest on The Intentional Clinician Podcast, Episode 82 and she talks about what she learned from writing the book with Paul Krauss MA LPC.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

Share on Social