Much as I’ve enjoyed being cocooned at home with my newborn and thus largely insulated (for now) from the life-rearranging effects of COVID-19, I can’t avoid discussing it forever. And my last post already made passing reference to the lack of “self-honesty” exhibited by our political leaders, which others have already covered more thoroughly than I could. Rather, I’d like to reflect on a more subtle and forgivable form of self-deception that’s likely occurring closer to home for many of us, and for which the practice of proudly asserting self-honesty might yield immediate rewards. I’m talking about a mental coping behavior that often manifests as a particular kind of excessive, unhelpful worry. I’ve referred to it elsewhere as “pretense at planning,” though in our current cultural context it may be more appropriately described as “pretense at prepping.”
This “tail-spinning” approach to coping with anxiety is one that most of us have at least occasionally succumbed to, and that threatens to magnify the already serious toll that the COVID-19 outbreak is taking on our lives.
Of note, this outbreak poses a number of special psychological challenges for individuals who already struggle with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive symptoms. I’ve been happy to see some compassionate and constructive coverage of these challenges and how to address them; further information and helpful resources are also available here, here, and here. My goal in this post is specifically to suggest how self-deception can exacerbate these and other anxiety-related problems for any of us, and how the deliberate practice of self-honesty can help.
The self-deception involved here is subtle because it does not necessarily look so different from genuine planning and preparation for negative contingencies that could realistically arise. Indeed, I think it is quite reasonable to be tracking the COVID-19 situation closely and taking due precautions in light of the real and serious risks posed by this pandemic. But there is a discernible line between this genuine prepping and the self-deceptive pretense at prepping of which I speak.
How do we know when we’re actually doing the latter? Because if we ask ourselves whether what we’re doing will actually teach us anything useful or help us get more prepared, our own honest answer is “no.” This could be true whether we find ourselves Googling slightly different variants of the same search terms; or refreshing the same “live coronavirus updates” site multiple times a minute; or mulling over the same set of catastrophic “what-if’s” in our head; or heading to the grocery store to buy another 50 rolls of toilet paper; or buying out the internet’s supply of surgical masks, despite having read fairly credible arguments against wearing surgical masks if we are not already ill. [Author’s note added on 12/12/20: I’m leaving this line here, despite a strong temptation to remove it in light of all we have learned since the time of this writing, because I think it attests to the fallibility of even our most self-honest inquiries and, thus, the importance of ongoing self-correction.]
Crucially, you might also choose to do any of these particular things for honest reasons, even if those reasons are mistaken. And you might conclude, after an honest inquiry, that some of these are in fact the right things to do, even if I or others disagree. There’s nothing about any of these actions that’s inherently self-deceptive. What would make it self-deceptive, in any given moment, is if it’s at odds with what you yourself actually believe; that is, if it requires you to mask your actual motive from yourself, by pretending that your goal is to “prepare” when it is really something else.
What might that other, unadmitted goal be? Typically, our goal is to feel (for a brief while) as if we are doing something to prepare, and thus to avoid facing the full reality of a future we cannot fully predict or control. (This idea lines up with experimental evidence suggesting that pathological worry serves an emotional avoidance function, as do other forms of repetitive negative thinking closely tied to depression, anxiety, and even bereavement.)
Unfortunately, this emotional fix works like any other temporary illusion of having solved a problem: it leaves the problem unsolved, and leaves us feeling even worse about it in the long run. Plus it runs on the same vicious cycle of reinforcement that fuels every other form of psychological addiction: each “hit” of temporary emotional relief makes the withdrawal harder and the craving for another “hit” even stronger. Thus we may find ourselves descending into a COVID-19 Googling and Twitter-browsing rabbit hole for hours on end, getting less work done and taking less pleasure from our lives in the meantime. The natural result is to feel (not entirely without basis, at this point) that COVID-19 is ruining our lives, which only further amplifies the urge to go through more of the same “prepping” motions at the cost of actually living.
So how might we spare ourselves some of this needless suffering through the practice of “self-honesty”?
For one, we can practice checking in with ourselves on a regular basis, ideally in writing, about any pretenses we might be engaging in. For instance, we might make a daily habit of asking ourselves, “what goal do I think this is serving for me? How much do I believe this will actually help? Would I testify to this under oath?” The more we practice asking ourselves such questions, the more we sensitize ourselves to the difference between actual and pretend “prepping” (or whatever other goal we mean to be pursuing), and the more quickly we can catch ourselves when we’ve slipped into pretend mode. (Of course, this doesn’t mean we’ll have an easy time disengaging from our compulsive coping behaviors even once we’ve noticed and acknowledged them. Fortunately there are many well-established therapeutic tools to help us with this task, such as mindfulness practice, values clarification, and postponing worry, to name a few.)
Just as importantly, through this exercise of conscientiously separating the real from the pretend, we can bring a clearer, sharper focus to what we really want and value in a given situation. For instance: “Is it temporary relief from anxiety that I want? Or is it the actual safety and thriving of myself and my loved ones?” Once we have a clear-eyed awareness of the difference between these goals, we are likely to be less tempted by the former and more interested in the latter.
At that point, we are better positioned to ask ourselves: “What, if anything, can I in fact be doing right now to help bring about these valued goals?” Even if there’s nothing more we can do just now to minimize the potential harm of COVID-19, there are probably other actions we can take to promote the safety and thriving of those we care about. Perhaps this means putting away more money in savings; or researching online meeting platforms; or planning a fun family getaway in driving distance and away from crowds; or spending some extra quality time (even if just via Skype) with those elderly relatives we are worried about. In my case, it meant writing this blog post about a virtuous practice that I believe could equip people to cope more effectively with COVID-19.
Of course, giving up our “pretense at prepping” does not automatically save us from taking wrong turns or being blindsided by unanticipated threats. And it does mean having to bring our fear and uncertainty about these possibilities along for the ride. But if your experience is anything like mine, or that of the many clients I’ve treated, you’ll find this a small price to pay for the proud, serene confidence that comes from fixing your eyes more firmly on the road.