All people rely on psychological defense mechanisms to protect themselves when they feel insecure and/or threatened. These defense mechanisms vary in type and complexity while they may be activated under a variety of circumstances, including when individuals feel emotionally vulnerable, when individuals are insecure in their identity/social position, and when individuals encounter novel information or find their views being challenged. Unfortunately, defense mechanisms can help us as much as they can hurt as us. For example, a freeze response can prevent an individual from escaping danger. Meanwhile, an impulse to react with hostility to anyone who questions deeply entrenched beliefs leaves individuals stagnant and open to manipulation from “true believer” attacks. Defense mechanisms can also help explain paradoxical behavior, such as a woman who refuses to accept her mother’s obvious deceptions/manipulations, i.e. doing so would shatter her sense of security, a man who welcomes criticism from his friends while he lashes out at any remarks made by his wife, because his intimate relationship with her leaves him more sensitive to the betrayal of her dissenting opinions, or the councilor who nitpicks at someone’s less critical faults because she does not know how to address, or she does not want to recognize, the reality of his deeper problems.
Unfortunately, defense mechanisms can hinder our ability to effectively communicate and resolve conflicts with others, unless we are trained to overcome both our own defense mechanisms and the defense mechanism of others. One simple, very effective method is to state a potentially offensive observation in the form of a joke. Doing so allows individuals to process unsettling information without interference from their defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are like shields, so it is important to deliver a piece of information in such a way that the recipient never feels threatened, i.e. his shields are never raised; otherwise, our defense mechanisms divert our attention away from properly processing uncomfortable information and cause us to seek out responses that will allow us to avoid the discomfort.
Furthermore, governments and other non-human actors, also respond to given situations with “defense mechanisms.” That is, when they can properly be modeled as a single “rationale” actor. Consequently, competing countries often experience strife when they attempt to address issues where one or more of the parties perceive an internal lack of strength or an external threat. For example, China and the United States are economic rivals; both perceive a threat from the other and both have internal insecurities that can be used to hurt their vital national interests. Consequently, the American and Chinese bilateral relationship can be rocky at times while many critical issues that undermine both countries’ interests go unresolved. In order to address these issues without creating a conflict, both sides need to continually build trust, so the US and China will know any concessions will be met with equal concessions from the other side. Looking at the civil war in Syria, both China and the US have interests in ending the conflict, yet those interests are not so vital and direct that either country should feel threatened by the other side’s efforts to deal with the problem, unlike Russia versus the US.
Not only would these two superpowers coming together help end the Syrian crisis, it would help build a more meaningful working relationship between both China and the US while it would also build stronger multilateral relationships between the world’s largest powers, including Russia. Clearly, how the US and China frame the Syrian issue will determine if the other side will take offense at given options, i.e. do not make it about democratic revolution for China’s sake, do not insult the US for seeking military action, and do not harp on Russia’s support of the Assad regime when trying to find a solution. Most importantly, by removing American and Chinese leaders from charged issues that are almost certain to cause some kind of friction, it is possible to use the Syrian crisis as a vehicle for expressing and recognizing how each nation interprets and utilizes different information in order to build a relationship that can bridge our differences on issues that more directly and critically affect our interests. In other words, sometimes it is easier to deal with other peoples’ problems than our own, so we can then use the solutions we developed for their analogous problems on ourselves as doing so makes it easier to overcome our struggle with our defense mechanisms. Moreover, it also important to recognize that this type of diplomatic trust building and avoidance of defense mechanisms can be used by all actors to address conflict provoking issues.
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