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Appreciating Defense

Updated: May 31


Day 55 of the lockdown. The official announcement is that the restriction is being relaxed. But …. along with many others, our compound is still under lockdown without any news when or under what condition it will end. Ironically, such discrepancy frustrates people (me included) even more.


In an attempt to 'take some control back', I am trying to derive some learning out of it. In the last post 'Shanghai Lockdown like a GRC', I reflected on how similar the experience is in comparison to a Group Relations Conference - how people interact when being put in a confined space. In this post, I will reflect on how people cope with the stress psychologically i.e. the defense mechanism - the unconscious psychological process to ban those unpleasant, frightening or threatening feelings that we find it too difficult to bear.


In the last few weeks, I truly see defense mechanism differently. I come to appreciate it. But it is beyond the developmental angle i.e. raising self awareness by studying one's pattern in coping discomfort unconsciously. I am simply glad that human beings have such mechanism in place. People need this to stay sane. In the past, I knew such function intellectually but now I really feel it.


I believe this would be very helpful in my work with clients. When I see defense in action, I will approach it more gently with respect, instead of, say, being a cold detective taking pride in finding out the murderer. I heard once a saying 'When you walk on people's dream, walk gently'.


Defense mechanism is not necessarily just an evil blocking us from reality, but indeed also an angel keeping us from being overwhelmed. In addition, the experience is sharpening my eyes to spot them. Perhaps let me share a few live examples here:


1. DisplacementShifting aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target. A few weeks ago, a neighbor literally climbed the fence to ‘jail-break’. Upon return, as a guard stopped him to check whether he could enter back, the neighbor punched the guard! Well, this was probably Regression in action as well.


2. ScapegoatingDisplacement done collectively by a number of people. This is happening every week in the wechat groups. The scapegoats are often informal leaders or representative from the property management office who were given attack out of proportion. For example, we were given two 3-hour window to go out last week. A resident could not get the pass timely and launched into a public attack:


‘….We have been locked down for 50 days. Being able to go out means something to us. Isn’t is difficult to understand….’


See more scapegoating examples to the informal leaders in my last post.


3. AvoidanceRefusing to encounter situations or objects because they represent unconscious aggressive impulses. I found myself avoiding read posts or watch videos circulated on social media or sent by friends. I think such avoidance is partly conscious as I know that they tend to be exaggerated, and partly unconscious as attending them induces / reminds discomfort (including annoyance / anger in myself which I do not want to admit)


4. HumorCreating, sharing and reading jokes about the source of discomfort to alleviate the stress. There are lot of original high quality jokes circulating on the social media.


For example, we have been ‘ordered’ to do antigen test almost every day though there have been ZERO positive case all along in our compound. No reason has been given on why every day.

[Translation]

‘The rationale seems to be problematic…..

-ve in COVID test > test again,

-ve in COVID test > test again,

-ve in COVID test > test again,

+ve, OK, finally relieved!’




Another example – Food supply was uncertain in the beginning. It was particular a problem for essential but inexpensive item e.g. spring onion which is a common ingredient in most Chinese dishes. Thus, lot of households water-plant spring onion.

[Translation]

‘It is hopeless if you do not grow spring onion at home these days.


We should take spring onion as Shanghai’s floral emblem instead…

….in memory of this unusual spring’










And this one is about how the local district provides food supply.

[Translation]

‘It is rather rough in our district. Someone knocked on our door and then threw in a piece of meat. I feel like living in a zoo….’























5. Intellectualization – Well, you are reading this defense right now! Writing posts like this is probably partly my (unconscious) attempt to concentrate on the intellectual components of this situation so as to distance myself from discomfort.


For those in Shanghai now or have been through lockdown in other cities, please share your observation as well.


Final reflection on this - My imagination goes as like defense in some situations should be promoted! For example, ....when the stress is high and little you can do to change / leave the situation. Perhaps we can build something like a restaurant menu which people can choose!!

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