Last Saturday, there was a fatal stabbing outside our local Tesco, one minute from our house. Someone close to me I very much care about happened to be there and to witness part of the crime. It is rare to be so close to the site of major drama unfolding in our lives, yet we hear about disaster every day on the news, and the last year has been a major example of disaster galore all around us.
When we hear about disaster or we are affected by it directly, we tend to say or think:
- The victim must have done something wrong to have that happen to them. They should have known better.
- If I don’t face up to it, it may just go away. What can I do to forget about it? Drink, eat, take drugs, watch TV, sleep?(Admittedly some of these options are better than others).
- The world is a dangerous, horrible place, but this kind of thing only happens to other people, not to people like me (which links with number 1, i.e., the victim must have done something wrong to deserve it).
- I have come in contact with disaster, therefore, I must fully deserve it. It is bound to be all my fault. I hate myself.
- Disaster has happened. It is best that we don’t talk about it at all, this way we will be better equipped to cope with it (which links with number 2, i.e., don’t acknowledge it and it will go away).
- I am a victim of disaster. I am ill, weak, incapacitated, therefore I have no responsibility whatsoever for my actions. Someone else has to take care of me.
- If I make a lot of jokes and I am funny and other people laugh, we will all feel better and will not be affected by it (see no. 2 again!).
- I hate myself for being a victim of disaster. Therefore, everyone else must also hate me and want to get rid of me. Not only am I a victim, but the entire world hates me too! (see number 6).
- I will be strong. I will feel positive. I will help others like me. Helping others, will help me forget about my feelings.
These are all well-known defence mechanisms in the face of what feels like an unbearable turn of events.
In psychoanalytic theory, a defence mechanism is an unconscious psychological mechanism that reduces anxiety arising from unacceptable or potentially harmful stimuli (from Wikipedia).
Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, a pioneer in helping traumatised children after the Second World War has been wonderful in illustrating how children use defence mechanisms to cope with disaster and how some of these coping strategies have been necessary and creative. She identified some ordinary defence mechanisms that we all use in everyday life such as humour, sublimation, altruism. There is always the risk though that defence mechanisms can work against us and they can also be damaging to our relationships with others we care about. Defence mechanisms such as projection, denial, regression, turning against the self can easily take a darker turn.
It has become almost banal in the last year to talk about the importance of kindness. What form does kindness really take? Is it doing charitable acts, putting others first, offering comforting words? Unfortunately, many people understand kindness as a version of the above defence mechanisms, such as ‘think positive’, ‘best not to talk about it’, ‘poor you, I will take over and take care of you’, ‘it isn’t really that serious’, ‘I am sure you are strong and you will be fine’ and so on.
What I have witnessed again and again in the twenty plus years I have worked as a therapist is that what people experience most often as kindness and true support is attentive listening. Listening to somebody’s story, especially when the story entails disaster and trauma may not seem like a lot, but it can make a world of difference. It is also incredibly difficult for anyone, including trained therapists, to just listen, as our defence mechanisms kick in very quickly in the face of disaster. Who would not run away as fast as possible, if a lion chased them in the jungle? When we come in contact with disaster, it feels life threatening, even if we are not directly at the receiving end of it.
On the eve of Valentine’s day, the yearly celebration of love, I would like to suggest that attentive listening is the ultimate act of love. It is an anti-adrenaline process. It is about being there and being with what feels unbearable. To be with each other in the face of disaster and to be able to listen to and validate each other’s experience would also be quite a different collective reality. It would counteract the increasing polarisation, denial of reality, disregard for others and the ultimate literal or emotional violence we have all in some way been exposed to in the last few months.
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