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Psychology of self-change

Artwork: Pneuma (c) Kelsy Landin

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Compiled psychological resources for coping with COVID-19

Posts I’ve written that some might find helpful:

Platforms for finding an online therapist:

  • If you live in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Washington DC, Illinois, Washington State, Connecticut, or California, I highly recommend searching on this platform for a qualified online therapist who meets your needs: https://zencare.co/page/online-therapists . I’ve found that this site provides a more comprehensive set of search criteria, and a more informative profile about each therapist (including a short video introduction), than do the more traditional therapist search sites, like Psychology Today.
  • I can’t vouch for the quality of this platform (or the providers it employs), but it’s among the more commercially established and popular online therapy platforms, and it offers “unlimited video conferencing and messaging” with your therapist: https://www.talkspace.com/
  • This page ranks and lists the pro’s and con’s of this and other online therapy platforms: https://www.verywellmind.com/best-online-therapy-4691206

Resources created or compiled by others:

Note: I have not individually vetted each of these resources (except where otherwise indicated), though they generally come from reputable colleagues and/or are based in well-established therapeutic techniques and principles. Nonetheless, as with everything, I encourage you to use your own judgment and consider your own individual context when deciding whether and how each recommendation applies to you.

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All for Alice

Some experiences have the power to focus one’s ambition and intentionality about life. For Steve Jobs it was, famously, a near-death experience. For others it may be a timely encounter with a work of art, a memorable conversation with a role model, an unexpected triumph, or an epic failure.

For me, it was the birth of my first child, Alice Sophia Bateman, just over a week ago. She has strengthened and clarified my purpose, not just in that I’d do anything for her—which I would—but in that she’s moved me to double down on the riskiest, least certain aspects of my career and life.

As testament to the latter outcome, I present to you this—my inaugural blog post entry—whose arrival is, in some ways, an even more momentous event for me than the birth of Alice.

For roughly a decade now, I’ve been setting various forms of ”writing for a general audience” intentions as New Year’s Resolutions, monthly personal goals, weekly to-do tasks, and so on. Yet I’ve never generated a strong enough impetus to push myself into acting on any of them. But here I finally am, pushing against perhaps the strongest inertia I’ve managed to accumulate with regard to any long-desired and correspondingly long-avoided professional endeavor. Fittingly enough, the topic of this post will be the same as its source and inspiration: it will be all about Alice.

In my long-standing avoidance of writing for a general audience, I’ve dealt with the resulting guilt and pent-up need for self-expression by writing the occasional poem instead. I’ve genuinely loved writing these poems and am overall glad they exist. But they’ve also admittedly functioned for me as a kind of “safety behavior”: a “quick fix” anxiety-relief strategy that shields me from having to fully do what I want but am afraid to do. 

Here’s the 1st poem I wrote during my early pregnancy with Alice. Then follows the “slow fix” of explaining it more fully in prose. 

Something from Nothing

On flying back together
From a city now at peace
With the villainies it weathered
In its days of “West” and “East”,

I scan my awkward body
For the latest signs of you,
And I relish every soreness,
Every muscle ache that’s new.

Are these among the stories
You will someday hear me tell,
As today your grandpa glories
In his tales of Soviet hell?

But what a silly question
When we haven’t even met; 
Did I read it in the books and blogs 
That clamor in my head?

It’s under all the clamor
Of predictions and advice,
Of the ads for “pregnant glamour”
And the listings-out of vice,

That I am soaked in silent,
Inexorable bliss.
The knowledge of your coming;
The magnitude of this. 

But such intense emotion
Is difficult to bear,
So I channel my devotion
Into “ordinary” cares—

Like trying to get work done,
Or complaining when I fail,
As I bounce from nascent projects
To commitments old and stale…

But this is just more clamor,
Just more dithering about; 
It would take a mighty hammer
To demolish all my doubts:

Ought I to be a scholar?
Am I wasting too much time?
Should I not instead devote myself
To callings more sublime?

Yet, under all that doubting,
I know just what I must do.
I must dip into that longing
Which has always pulled me through:

That longing for the nurturance
Of healthy human souls; 
The chance to lift and liberate,
To arm with self-control;

 The nurturance of potential,
Of the noble and the true.
The nurturance of untarnished youth—
The nurturance of you. 

It took Alice’s actual emergence —in all her wrinkly, adorable flesh—for the meaning and power of this poem’s sentiment to fully sink in for me. (In fact, it happened right around the moment I felt her approach; but more on that part of the journey in my next post.)

And what is really so special about Alice? After all, she is pretty boring company, and she drains me of the time and energy I might otherwise devote to more reciprocally rewarding interactions. Have I been taken in by her cuteness, as some evolutionary psychologists might claim, or else fallen prey to popular convention? Neither of these hypotheses explains the depth of what I feel toward Alice, nor why, in committing to her, I find myself committing more eagerly and fully to life itself. 

As Matt and I put it in our Facebook announcement of Alice’s birth:

 “Over the last few years, Gena and I have both experienced, separately and jointly, an unusual surge of coherence. In work and in love, our lives have come together to resemble the vision with which each of us started. But there was still one missing puzzle piece: both of us have, as long as either of us can remember, badly wanted children. …Gena gave birth to our tiny missing puzzle piece this afternoon. We were delighted to meet Alice Sophia Bateman, and we are excited for many of you to meet her soon.”

This “puzzle piece” metaphor is precisely descriptive of Alice’s role in my life. The core themes of my personal and professional endeavors to date have converged upon the nurturance of the struggling, striving, growing person, be it myself, my therapy clients, my students, or my readers. In all my day-to-day decisions about what research or writing projects to prioritize, what therapy clients to take on and how to work with them, what content to cover in my graduate psychology courses, my guiding vision is that of the struggling, striving, growing person, and of the knowledge and ideals that empower and inspire such a person.

That vision is my raison d’etre; it is the essence of what I want out of my life. Put another way, it’s the picture to which I want the puzzle pieces of my life to add up. It’s what empowers and inspires me toward continued struggle, striving, and growth.

Yet I’ve often found it hard to keep that vision consistently vivid in my mind. For instance, I might focus all my energy on applying for a grant that, if I’m lucky enough to get it, will allow me to run a pilot intervention study that, if it generates meaningful results, will eventually help me develop a treatment strategy that people might (or might not) discover and use some 10-15 years from now. To think about and move towards any such activity, I need to zoom out enough to see how the pieces might eventually connect, including the uncertainties and opportunity costs. But conjuring up so many hypothetical pieces and the different ways they might fit together is itself a highly demanding and often anxiety-inducing task. 

In the work of assembling the puzzle of one’s life, piece-by-piece, the easier approach is to follow an existing blueprint that’s already been written by others, and hope that it is a close enough approximation of the vision one was aiming at. The most plausible such blueprint in my line of work, should I choose to follow it, is to focus on the academic activities that typically lead to tenure. Even if this metric is difficult to achieve, it is fairly easy to understand and use.—And it’s not entirely at odds with my picture of the life I want. 

What is less clear, however, is the shape of the other plausible paths, alternative or complementary, that I might focus on if I weren’t exclusively focused on the standard academic one. Equally unclear is how their potential reach and impact compares. And, if I’m honest with myself, one thing I know with reasonable certainty is that writing for a more general audience, though it will not help me get tenure, will be part of any path that truly satisfies my vision. 

In this way, “doing what gets me tenure” has also functioned as a kind of safety behavior: by giving me the comfortable illusion of a clear, well-drawn path to my desired life, it has kept me orbiting in place instead of truly, thoughtfully growing. 

Or so it did, anyway, until Alice came on the scene. This wriggly little creature who began her growth inside me and is now devoting every reflex, every little grunting noise and semi-voluntary wiggle, every ounce of her living energy to growing farther; and who needs a generous supply of my and Matt’s living energy to help her grow. Never has the meaning of my life—to foster human growth—been more vividly, constantly, delightfully presented to me. And never have I been more willing to do the work and overcome the fear of really living that life.

This has manifested most directly in my decision-making about Alice’s care, both prenatally and postpartum; the sheer number and intensity of “existing blueprint”-style recommendations that have been thrown at me, and my efforts to chart out my own scientifically-informed and Alice-tailored path in the face of them, will be the subject of a later post. For now, I want to reflect on how Alice’s clarifying presence has extended to all the other realms of my life, insofar as they involve my own growth or the growth of those I care about. 

To give but one example: For all the love I already felt toward Matt, our 1 week of parenting together has already further concentrated and intensified the feeling. How did a helpless little pooping, peeing, feeding monster manage to work such marital magic? By showering us with a sudden flood of new particulars to reaffirm and intensify the love we already felt. In just these 7 days, we have seen each other through several tearful bouts of emotional overwhelm ranging from sudden, unexpected ecstasy at her adorable sighing noises, to equally sudden pangs of doubt about whether we’re doing something wrong; we’ve cycled through several failed attempts at a mutually agreeable sleep and feeding schedule, and finally settled on one that seems to be working for all 3 of us (not that we’re holding our breaths!); we’ve had and thoughtfully resolved our 1st parenting “fights”, and somehow emerged as even stronger allies and collaborators at the end of both. 

And the same mechanism has already begun to operate in the rare moments when I’ve had at least one hand free to write or answer emails or otherwise catch up on work. For that, this blog post, written largely while pumping or nursing, is its own best example. 

When seen in this light, I think my complete and unconflicted devotion to Alice—and my willingness to push harder than I’ve ever pushed, in every sense of the term, now that it is for her sake and in her honor—is a more genuinely selfish motivation for parenting a child than any of the “tricked by cuteness” sorts of accounts that get bandied about by evolutionary psychologists (though it certainly doesn’t hurt that Alice is the cutest baby I’ve ever laid eyes on). Of course, I recognize that this motivation is deeply personal to me; not every parent will have devoted her life to the nurturance of human growth, be it in the form of mental health treatment (as in my case) or education (as in Matt’s case). In fact I imagine the particular motivations that make parenting a deeply gratifying and personally worthwhile endeavor will vary widely from parent to parent. This is one reason why I think the choice of whether to have kids should be a strictly and exclusively personal one, and that not having kids should be the assumed default, rather than the other way around (but more on this in a future post). 

With all that said: for those of you who do make the choice to parent—or any choice that’s life-altering and irreversible, for that matter—I wish you the kind of distilled clarity and eagerness of purpose that Alice has bestowed on me, as the constant reward for making her my all.

COVID-19 and the Meaning of Life

To Hell with Maslow: Self-actualize Now!

It is only by understanding our physical survival needs in terms of what they mean to us, and by drawing self-esteem from their pursuit and achievement, that we can sustain the motivation and courage to fight for them.

For the first time in most of our lives, humanity is truly in “survival mode”. COVID-19 poses a great threat; as of this writing, the daily death toll in the US is still accelerating. Economy-decimating lockdowns to mitigate this threat have created threats elsewhere. There are countless people whose cancer surgeries and potentially life-saving organ transplants have been canceled or postponed, countless others who may fall ill with other life-threatening illnesses whose diagnosis and treatment will be delayed, and still others facing imminent homelessness . Even food is among the basic needs whose satisfaction is now less assured for many people who are unaccustomed to going hungry.

In the face of challenges, we search for understanding—not just of the threats but of the character of our lives under threat. We need to know not just what to do, but how to cope, how to make meaning of all this.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a framework that purports to provide just such an understanding. It’s been circulating in various adapted forms since the start of the pandemic:

It is interesting how much this motivational framework has permeated popular discourse, given that its core assumption (as interpreted by contemporary audiences)—that the “lower-order” needs have causal or chronological precedence over the “higher-order” needs—is demonstrably false. Science indicates that people’s prioritization of different sorts of needs is much more individually and culturally variable than that. This observation is also at the heart of some of the more humorous (pre-pandemic) memes inspired by the famous pyramid:

And yet this framework clearly has profound intuitive appeal. Despite its chilly reception by the scientific establishment, it is one of the most widely known and referenced motivational theories among the general public. Perhaps that’s because it reminds us of the validity and importance of attending to needs we might otherwise take for granted: to secure our next meal; to find a reliable wifi connection; to have a sane, functional family routine; to enjoy a game night with friends.

But in spite of—or perhaps partly due to—its intuitive appeal, this framework has a number of negative psychological ramifications for those already struggling to cope with this crisis.

1) By implying that our physical needs are more “basic” and “essential” than our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs, it trivializes the devastating mental health effects of this pandemic. In particular, the people least likely to receive sympathy and support from a “hierarchy-of-needs” perspective are those whose lifelong dreams and ambitions have been indefinitely suspended while the virus rages on: the professional musicians, dancers, actors, restaurateurs, small business and gallery owners, athletes, “non-essential” medical providers, early childhood educators, and so many others who have lost the work that gave meaning and purpose to their lives. Ironically, this includes many of the same people who have willingly traded off physical comfort or security for the sake of their art or their business venture at some point in their careers. Yet some have already had to declare bankruptcy and say “goodbye” to their beloved ventures, and others are hanging in limbo, with no knowledge of whether, when, or how they will be able to resume their life’s work. The anxiety and grief of these losses can take a psychological toll not unlike the loss of a loved one, and all the more so when society ignores and downplays them. Yet this is the natural result of treating higher purpose and meaning as disposable luxuries.

2) By implying that the prioritization of our more “basic” needs should mean the de-prioritization of our “higher-order” needs, this framework robs people of the motivational resources needed to secure their “basic” needs to begin with. The fact is that our physical and spiritual needs do not come apart like the hierarchy-of-needs framework would suggest: they are inextricably integrated. It is only by understanding our physical needs in terms of what they mean to us, and by drawing self-esteem from their pursuit and achievement, that we can sustain the motivation and courage to fight for them.

The ones who cope most resiliently with life-threatening challenges are those who define themselves by their fundamental capacity and willingness to overcome such challenges. They are the ones who embrace the threat of death as part of life, and the responsibility for staving off that threat as part of the human condition. They imbue their so-called “basic survival needs” with profound meaning. They recognize that the distinctly human capacities to respond creatively to adversity, to endure the present for a better future, to make do, to step up, to reset, to problem-solve—these capacities have deep spiritual meaning and moral significance.

Imagine for a moment (assuming you are not already living it) that you have been laid off, and that you are now uncertain about how long you can pay for your meals or the roof over your head. What kinds of things might you need to do to cope with your situation?

First and foremost, you will need to acknowledge and grieve the loss of whatever value your job was providing in your life, whether that was a sense of fulfillment, a well-defined plan for the future, a source of daily social connection and shared purpose with colleagues, a means to provide for your family or put your best foot forward on dates, or a path to financial independence. Perhaps you will need to “swallow your pride” and get in line at a food bank, which takes considerable courage for someone who’s unaccustomed to going hungry (one of my students’ therapy clients was recently in this position). Meanwhile, you will need to grapple with the challenge of forming a new plan and finding new sources of income in a context of high uncertainty about when this pandemic will end and what the post-pandemic world will look like. 

Perhaps you’ll decide to take a temporary job in food or grocery delivery services. Even in making this “simple” decision, you will likely face various forms of social and emotional resistance: but what if you get sick? But will it pay enough to be worth it? But will it leave you with enough time to study, or practice your instrument, or stay in touch with your customer base for when you can hopefully one day reopen? To work through all these questions and make an informed decision, you will need to get clear on your personal risk profile, your values and priorities, your cost/benefit tradeoffs. And even having weighed all these factors, you will still need to accept some degree of uncertainty about how either course of action will pan out. Then, having chosen a given course, you will need to stand firm against all the contrary voices that will still continue to clamor in your head. 

Meanwhile, you may need to think about how and whether you can continue working toward whatever long-term goals have been disrupted by the pandemic: are there free online courses you can take to develop the skills you will likely need down the line? Are there ways you can be practicing your craft even while stuck at home? Are there ways you might offer a virtual version of your distinct product or service, even if this seems initially impossible? Perhaps you might draw inspiration from some of the creative solutions others have found: for example, this virtual “quarantine speakeasy” featuring musicians and dancers from around the world; this distance learning platform for very young children and their parents; these stories of the various scrappy survival strategies by which food businesses have managed to stay afloat and to feed their own.

To be entrepreneurial and solutions-oriented in the context of great adversity and uncertainty requires courage, creativity, and self-assertion. These you can only hope to muster if you see your predicament as deserving of your courage, creativity, and self-assertion. A fight for survival can and should be seen as having the character of a quest, an occasion worth rising to. You will need to “dig deep,” often against emotional resilience, for the inspiration and sense of purpose to see it through. And the more desperate things get, the deeper you must dig.

Those who approach crises in this way tend to emerge from them with greater strength and clarity of vision than they had going in. The research on posttraumatic growth and resilience suggests that at least some people are able to “rise to the occasion” in this way. Psychologist Victor Frankl, who survived 3 years in a Nazi concentration camp—where hunger is the least of one’s troubles—wrote of his experience: “He who knows the ‘Why’ for his existence is able to bear almost any ‘How’.”

Why, then, do more people not bring this ennobling perspective to their fight for survival? A major reason, I suspect, is that this is a counter-cultural narrative. The message we routinely get, which Maslow’s pyramid only reinforces, is that survival is the “lowest” of our needs; it is only once our physical survival needs are taken care of and “out of the way” that we can concern ourselves with nobler, more distinctly human ends—like exercising our creative faculties, finding higher meaning and purpose in our lives, and so on. And how do we get our survival needs met in the first place? Alas, this is not a question that most modern-day Westerners have had to think too much about.

It’s high time we started thinking about it.

There is no built-in survival instinct that tells us how to face off against all the various threats that nature indifferently throws at us, infectious diseases being among the most commonplace. Instead, evolution equipped us with an intellect capable of creativity, long-term planning, and meaning-making. It was by the application of these faculties that humans invented such survival mechanisms as agricultural science, constitutional government, refrigeration, electricity, airplanes and automobiles, central heating and air conditioning, iPhones and dating apps, Amazon Fresh and Grubhub, vaccines and antiviral treatments. There is no nobler application of our distinctly human faculties than in figuring out how to survive in the face of existential threats. The more urgent and dire our survival needs, the more creatively we need to think, and the more desperately we need inspiration and moral courage to power our efforts. Just ask the NYC ED doctors when they’ve needed to be the most creative and clear-minded, and when they’ve had the most acute need for someone to remind them of who they are and why they chose this line of work.

Whether you’re barely making ends meet or are finding opportunities to innovate in this crisis—whether you’re working to manage your anxiety or push back against mounting indifference—whether you and your loved ones are maintaining your good health or fighting back illness—this is the stuff of life, of your life. The thought and virtue demanded are as worthy of admiration and self-respect as ever, are as constitutive of who you are as ever. The abnormality of it all can make it feel otherwise. But if you step back and take an elevated perspective on this crisis, you will see that it is a highly concentrated instance of the kinds of choices and challenges you face throughout your life. The less you can take for granted, the more responsibility you have for figuring things out. And with great responsibility comes great power: the power to write your own life’s narrative, by being hyper-intentional about which needs you want to prioritize and the manner in which you want to fight for them.

When you look back on the COVID-19 chapter of your life, what will you want to have been fighting for?

Innovating for the innovators: My professional mission as clarified by COVID-19

Computer generated image of Haas 2 rocket and IAR 111 supersonic plane
Dragos muresan at English Wikipedia

As is in the nature of crises, this pandemic has led me to reflect on what I really value in my work, and where I want to focus my efforts going forward. Throughout my career I’ve struggled to identify myself with a particular “specialty.”  This is partly because I have the soul of a generalist, but also partly because my emerging specialty doesn’t fit neatly within the field’s conventional format for classifying specialties: usually something along the lines of “I study and treat psychological problems A and B in demographic groups X and Y.” Rather, I study and treat people who are seeking to ignite a certain kind of vital energy in themselves; people who are seeking to “launch” themselves in a certain way. This can take many forms, from the college athlete seeking the inspiration and mental focus to break through a performance plateau, to the wife seeking the courage to end a 15-year loveless marriage, to the would-be entrepreneur seeking the impetus and clarity of vision to quit his 9-to-5 job and pursue his startup venture full-time. 

To be sure, most of my clients also struggle with psychological problems, sometimes severe ones. But that is not what sets them apart in my mind. Nor is it what distinguishes my evolving therapeutic approach from the standard “empirically supported treatments” (ESTs), on which I draw extensively. What does distinguish my approach is that it addresses the distinct needs of “my kind of client”—needs that today’s ESTs are ill-equipped to meet. For instance: 

  • Beyond “setting more realistic expectations,” my clients sometimes need help setting astronomically high expectations, while being ruthlessly honest with themselves about the low probability of success.
  • Beyond “reappraising their catastrophic thoughts,” they need help recognizing when their “reappraisal” is just rationalization of what is in fact a looming catastrophe that needs to be faced and problem-solved. 
  • Beyond “taking other people’s perspectives,” they sometimes need help disconnecting from other people’s perspectives long enough to work out their own.
  • Beyond “learning mindfulness skills to manage their stress,” they need help recognizing when their mastery of mindfulness has become a procrastination tool to help them avoid the much tougher and riskier task ahead of them.
  • Beyond “scheduling self-care,” they may need help powering through a week without rest for the sake of a valued endeavor. 
  • Beyond identifying some fairly generic values to guide their action choices, they may need help articulating their own distinctive mission statement for the distinctive project they’re undertaking, in a form that captures its defining elements while allowing maximum flexibility in execution. 
  • And, beyond all of these particular skills, they may need help distinguishing which type of skill they need when—and developing the self-awareness and self-honesty to check what is motivating them to deploy a given skill at any given time.

Why are these needs overlooked by most ESTs? Part of the answer, I suspect, lies in my field’s current methodology for developing and validating ESTs. Most of these treatments were developed and tested with reference to the “average” person with such-and-such DSM diagnosis who enrolls in the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) used to show that a given treatment “works.” As some critics have argued, this “average” participant is a mythical entity stripped of all the “confounding” complexities and “noisy” idiosyncrasies that make up even the individual people enrolled in the studies, much less the people excluded from participating because their struggles did not fit one of our cookie-cutter diagnostic categories. 

To be fair, important efforts have now been made to adapt existing treatments for those with more complex or underrepresented needs, such as racial/ethnic and sexual minorities, the recently bereaved, or those with multiple diagnoses or co-occurring medical problems. Yet such efforts have not been extended to individuals whose underrepresented needs stem from the highly ambitious and innovative endeavors they are undertaking, for example. Indeed, the very idea of developing a standardized, experimentally testable treatment protocol for this “group” implies a certain level of uniformity in the group members’ treatment goals, and in the psychological and therapeutic processes required to help them reach those goals. But what unifies the clients I work with is precisely that they defy uniformity: they are struggling to cast off conventional models and social norms, to find their own voice and choose their own way.

They are struggling to self-innovate. 

Part of what I love about working with such clients is that it demands constant innovation of me: there can be no cookie-cutter recipe for helping someone do something for which there is no cookie-cutter recipe. Every innovation process will be different, and will require a different mix of psychological tools and insights and metaphors to support it. There are overarching principles, of course, but there is nothing approaching a “script” for applying those principles to the unique generative process of each wonderfully complex and unreplicable individual.

This also means a need to innovate in the realm of psychotherapy research methods: the current methods either do not adequately capture the individual variability and complexity of the self-innovation process, or do not allow for the generalization of broad therapeutic principles that can be flexibly applied to any such process. This is why I have been thinking hard about how to integrate qualitative approaches into my research, while also drawing inspiration from methods of systematic evidence-gathering and theory-building in philosophy and education.

Enter the current pandemic, and the need to cast off conventional models and innovate is suddenly much more pressing for many more people than ever before in my lifetime. For the 23 million who have lost their jobs, this means seeking new income sources in a devastated and transfigured economy; for the parents working from home, it means figuring out how to homeschool their children in-between figuring out how to navigate Microsoft Teams; for those getting married or grieving the loss of loved ones, it means finding new, socially distanced ways to celebrate and to mourn. The normal challenges of pursuing innovative solutions to one’s problems are also more intense and concentrated than usual: the knowledge terrain is insanely complex, the uncertainty is high, the stakes are catastrophic, and the voices of social pressure are strident, clashing, and ever-present. Proposing new solutions in this context can feel like stepping into a minefield. Even for such small innovations as fashioning a mask out of a scarf, one must deal with conflicting advice from public health experts, the risk of public ridicule, and lingering uncertainty about whether or how well one’s scarf-mask will actually do its job.

Yet plenty of people are innovating: in tech, in education, in biomedicine, in manufacturing, in research funding, in healthcare access, in entertainment, and in their individual lives. Perhaps this is precisely because the stakes are so high, and so little can be taken for granted; now as much as ever, we can clearly see that it’s on us—on our own fresh thinking and creative innovation—to get ourselves through this crisis.

For my part, I’ve never felt more engaged or “in my element” as a therapist, even despite all the extra grief and terror and rage and despairing loneliness I’ve been helping people process, and have sometimes had to process myself. Nearly every client I see is facing a painful new reality and, with it, an opportunity to self-innovate. Some of them don’t immediately see it this way; they think they are hampered by the loss of their old routines, or by their sudden inability to live up to the expectations other people have set for them. But often it is precisely this departure from old routines and expectations that sets them free to launch in a new direction of their choosing. My job is to help them see the runway, and to arm them with the psychological munitions they need to fuel and direct their own self-defining journey. 

There is no job on earth I’d rather be doing. And in doing it, I’ve gained some insight into my own distinctive “specialty” and corresponding mission statement as a psychologist: To empower and inspire self-innovation in the people who need and can benefit from it most, in the times when it’s hardest.

A brief guide to coping with anger in the context of COVID-19

Plenty of excellent resources have already been circulated for coping with COVID19 stress and anxiety; see my compiled list of recommended resources here, and check back often as I continue to add more. 

Not much has been said about coping with anger, though, which has arguably been running just as hot for many of us as panic and fear. 

Unlike fear, which signals a need to run and hide from a threat, anger motivates us to fight—for better or worse. For better, when it alerts us to real wrongs that our actions can help set right. For worse, when it is either 1) founded on a misjudgment (as our emotions often can be, especially in times of crisis) and/or 2) a defensive reaction against feeling scared, powerless, or some other more vulnerable emotion.  This latter can take some ugly forms, such as scapegoating entire nationalities to give oneself an illusory sense of control and predictability. And it can also take more banal and innocent forms, such as getting caught up in counterproductive vents among like-minded Facebook friends when there are more helpful ways to be spending one’s time. 

The only way to know for certain which type of anger you’re feeling and, thus, how (and whether) to act in light of it, is through conscious, uncensored reflection. Fortunately there are many tools to guide you in this reflection, a few of which I outline below. I have also created a custom spreadsheet (adapted from standard “thought record” tools used in cognitive behavioral therapy) that might help you structure this self-reflective process. The example I’ve filled out on the 2nd page of the spreadsheet illustrates how this process unfolded for me about a week ago, culminating in my decision to write and publish this post

  1. Check for anger in yourself. Is anything making you want to grit your teeth, clench your jaw, shake your fists, shout “what the f*ck” at the top of your lungs, etc? Here’s a worksheet with some helpful “warning signs” for anger, if you’re unsure what to look for: https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/anger-warning-signs.pdf 
  1. Identify (ideally in writing) the beliefs, interpretations, and general tone or attitude underlying your anger. At whom or what is this anger directed, and for what perceived offense(s)? Which of your values do you feel have been unjustly harmed or threatened by these offenses? If you “tune in” to the inner voice accompanying your anger, do you find that it is hostile, aggressive, measured, intense, sincere, defensive, controlled, muted, tantruming, self-indulgent, etc? Note that you may or may not consciously agree with these beliefs or interpretations or approve of the tone of your anger, and that’s ok. Listening to your emotions and caring about what they have to say is not the same as agreeing with them—just as listening and caring about what a beloved friend or family member has to say is not the same as agreeing with them. Suppose your elderly or immunocompromised parents are still routinely going out in public because they feel betrayed by the government and don’t trust its recommendations. Which approach would you take: would you ignore what they’re feeling and just yell at them to stay home? Or would you listen, try to understand and empathize with their feelings of betrayal and mistrust, and then explain, in terms they can understand and appreciate, why you nonetheless believe the current social distancing recommendations are sound? Psychological science tells us you’d have much better success with the latter approach. And this is every bit as true when engaging with your own emotional self. 
  1. Check whether your anger is serving to help you avoid other, more vulnerable emotions, such as fear, helplessness, sadness, or guilt. If so, acknowledge and deal with those emotions directly, seeking whatever support you need (see compiled resources here). Some questions to ask yourself to help figure this out: What would I be feeling if I weren’t busy being angry at X? What change am I actually hoping to effect here, and to what extent do I believe I can help bring it about by expressing my anger at X? Some of the questions I suggested asking yourself in my earlier post on self-honesty are also applicable here. Certain aspects of the tone or attitude you identified in Step 2 can offer clues here; for instance, if you noticed that your anger had a “defensive” tone, you might want to check what other feeling(s) it’s defending you against.
  1. If, at this point, you still feel angry: check whether your anger fits the available facts. Is the perceived offender as exclusively and/or as knowingly responsible for the perceived wrongdoing(s) as your anger is telling you? Are there any complicating or mitigating factors you have not considered? What other causal factors might be at play, if you zoom out and consider the larger context?  Note: This is by far the hardest and most intensive step, especially when applied to the massively complex and uncertainty-fraught epistemic minefield that is the current COVID19 crisis. But even just recognizing this complexity, and having a better sense of what you don’t know, can be an important step toward forming a more nuanced and reality-based view.
  1. Insofar as your anger does not fully fit the facts, or there simply aren’t enough available facts for you to make the call: accept that you might feel the anger for a while anyway, and be kind to yourself for feeling it. Remember that you do not control how you feel in the moment, but you do control how you act in response. So make a considered judgment about how you want to act, based on the available facts and your knowledge of what really matters to you.
  1. Insofar as your anger *does* fit the facts: identify the values that have been unjustly threatened or harmed, and think hard about what (if anything) you can and want to do to help right these wrongs. What are the values at stake, and the costs and benefits (both short- and long-term) of any given course of action you might take?
  1. If and as appropriate: Take bold, decisive action on behalf of your values, as informed by your thinking in the previous steps.

COVID-19 versus the American Spirit

Watching through my apartment window as my beloved NYC has emptied and dimmed, I’ve had the creeping feeling that the whole city—and with it, the whole country—is running out of air. As if in sympathy with the staggering numbers of critically ill in our overwhelmed and under-equipped ICU’s, the rest of us, too, seem to have slowed our breathing and resigned to the helpless wait for a ventilator that may or may not come. 

I immigrated to the U.S. with my parents from the former USSR when I was 7 years old. I still have a vivid memory of the Statue of Liberty coming into view as our jumbo jet descended into JFK. “She’s welcoming us to America,” my dad explained. I remember my first experience walking through an automatic door; my first astonishing encounter with an American grocery store; my first day walking through the friendly, colorful halls of my new Indianapolis elementary school and being greeted by my smiling ESL teacher. I remember my lingering joy and relief at having entered a brighter, livelier, kinder world than the one we had fled. In retrospect, my love affair with NYC—and with the freedom, prosperity, and growth it represented—began with that first sighting of Lady Liberty some 27 years ago, and was consummated 2 years ago when I made this city my home. 

In these last few weeks, I’ve watched with acute heartache as NYC descends into an increasingly Soviet-esque mode of existence, complete with economic shutdown, medical supply shortages, tight rations on diagnostic testing, empty grocery store shelves, and vague, ever-changing political decrees. What disturbs me most is not that we are in this mode, which may well be necessary right now in our fight against COVID19. What scares and angers me most is that many New Yorkers—and Americans in general—seem to have resigned too easily to this indefinite suspension of their freedom, prosperity, and growth, which they’ve historically valued as much as life itself.

Indeed, many of my friends and colleagues seem to have embraced this state of affairs as the “new normal”, even suggesting that compliance with shelter-in-place orders is a no-brainer for anyone with a conscience (in the words of one popular meme: “Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on a couch! You can do this!”). In an effort to convince others to abide by this new status quo, many have even started to engage in “quarantine shaming” of anyone who leaves home for “non-essential” reasons. But such messaging seems blithely oblivious to the catastrophic costs that millions of people are already experiencing as a result of the “shelter-in-place” approach—including unemployment, social isolation, loss of cherished civil liberties, and increased risk for suicide, to name a few. In their panicked rush to adopt this new blanket moral norm, highly educated and well-meaning Americans have begun to sound like the dogmatic authoritarian rulers they normally disdain.

My goal here is not to question whether mass shutdown is the correct and necessary course of action for us to take now, given the unchecked spread of the virus to date and how utterly we failed to prepare for it. But it’s crucial to remember that it didn’t have to be this way; it was human folly that forced us into this horrific tradeoff between lives or livelihoods. As leading epidemiologist Amesh Adalja recounts, infectious disease experts like himself have been warning policymakers for decades to prepare for just this sort of pandemic, and their warnings have gone largely unheeded. Then, when the novel coronavirus began its exponential spread and the imminent threat posed to the U.S. became evident, that threat was flagrantly denied and dismissed by the Trump administration for months despite multiple admonitions from public health experts, while a tangle of regulatory red tape led to unconscionable delays in the availability of widespread diagnostic testing. Had the leaders of the world’s richest nation taken responsibility for mobilizing or even just getting out of the way of the scientists and innovators eager to implement large-scale diagnostic screening back in January and February, we might have successfully flattened the curve without ever needing to put our economy on hold (as attested by South Korea’s example, among others).

As a result of these accumulated failures to get ahead of the virus through widespread testing and strategic isolation, we must now resort to the blunt-instrument measure of mass social distancing while public officials and health providers scramble to make up for lost time. But the moralistic tone with which this “shelter-in-place” measure is now being promoted risks papering over the tremendous costs of doing so and the negligence that has made it necessary.

One could argue that now is not the time to worry about how we got into this catastrophic mess, since we need to focus all of our efforts on getting out of it. But there is a version of this rhetoric that has served dictators and power-hungry opportunists throughout history. If we want to get out of this pandemic having spared not only as many lives as possible, but also as much of the American way of life as possible, we need to be vigilant against the loss of both. 

Besides, it is precisely our love of freedom, prosperity, and growth that is needed to help us defeat this virus. It is not sheltering at home that will ultimately save us, but work. This includes the scientific work of developing new vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests, the design of new technologies to mass-produce personal protective equipment, and the removal of bureaucratic restrictions on the freedom of those trying to fund, distribute, and use these innovations. It also includes the work that we all do, that adds up to an economy of wealth and comfort, where we have the luxury to devote resources to predicting and preempting far-off black swan events. And it includes the distinctly American insistence upon giving a damn about one’s work, about finding in it virtue and meaning, such that when we are threatened our response is to double down on being industrious, rather than resign to panicked passivity.

My friend Doug Peltz (known by his wider audience as Mystery Doug) recently shared a reflection on Facebook that aptly illustrates the resignation I’ve observed, and goes on to model an alternative perspective more befitting of the American spirit I know and love:

My daughter chipped a tooth badly yesterday and—thank god—our local pediatric dentist was able to see her and repair it.

He’s closed for business otherwise, seeing 2 or 3 emergencies each week, even then, hesitantly. I told him how grateful we are, and asked nervously: how will your business fare if this goes on for two or three months? He said it’s likely his business, and nearly 80% of other dental offices, will be out of business.

My father was a dentist. Dentists aren’t scientists, but I know that many of them have a scientific, medical bent. With this in mind I felt a ray of hope and said: “Based on clearer knowledge of how this virus spreads, surely there could be some way to keep business open, like if there were widespread testing, stricter protocols around bleach wiping all surfaces, spacing patients out using scheduling so that they aren’t in a waiting room at the same time, etc.?”

He shrugged his shoulders, looked down and said “No, I’m afraid not. That won’t work. I’ll have to close the business.”

I was shocked at how resigned he seemed to a damning fate, the destruction of everything he’d worked for, the complete lack of curiosity about a way out of this. This is not punishment from some deity. It’s a smutty, grubby little microscopic entity that can’t even survive ultraviolet light.

[T]his restauranteur takes the same view on his business that our daughter’s dentist seems to take, and it is clear he is coming from a place of deep caring and empathy. But I pose the question: are his actions coming from a place of clear thinking and knowledge? I really fear that this man’s resignation, like that of the pediatric dentist I spoke to yesterday, is horribly misplaced. If this way of thinking is widespread, it’s going to destroy a lot of livelihoods, all while having–perhaps–zero effect on the spread of the virus itself.

We need infectious disease experts to speak up quickly, for surely there must be some way for us to adjust our lives and keep in business more of those who cannot work remotely. At the very least, we should not jump quickly to the awful conclusion that livelihoods must be sacrificed in order to slow the exponential spread of this microbe.

This isn’t about money, this is about lives. This is about science, about knowledge being power. This is about not resigning ourselves to a choice between slowing the spread of this microbe and destroying livelihoods. There is a door #3. But like all door #3s in life, we will only find it if we look for it and believe that it’s possible.”

Granted, there is only so much creative planning and problem-solving that private individuals can do amid continued uncertainty about when or how the forced cessation of their productive activity will be relaxed or lifted. But what we all can do is vocally refuse to accept this as the “status quo”. This may mean insisting on clearer answers and more proactive, strategic solutions by those with the power to implement them, or speaking out on behalf of whatever freedom-, prosperity-, and growth-promoting solutions we encounter, or simply celebrating and calling attention to the value of such solutions. Indeed, such advocacy appears to be having some positive effect already, as it puts pressure on policymakers from Trump on down to shift toward offering more specific, reality-based proposals for getting us out of this mess.

So thank you to all those who, like Doug, are not resigning to passive or preconceived solutions in the fight to keep my beloved city—and all that it stands for—alive.

Self-honesty, pt. 2a: Thinking about COVID19 in a culture that doesn’t know how

On this occasion I decided to try my hand at my first-ever tweetstorm, which the Twitter-savvy among you can read and engage with here. For the rest of you (of whom I was recently one, after all), here’s the complete “unrolled” version below:

Recently I tweeted this post on the need for “self-honesty” to help us resist unconstructive, avoidance-driven worry about #COVID19: https://genagorlin.com/2020/03/12/self-honesty-pt-2-prepping-versus-pretending-to-prep/ .

But now I see a deeper, wider need for self-honesty: to remediate our culture-wide response to this pandemic.

Each of us has been called upon to take a stand on the individual and collective measures needed to slow COVID’s spread. This is immensely hard on two fronts:

1. It is really hard to think realistically about exponential growth, and thus to properly assess the looming risk.

2. It’s at least as hard to think realistically about all the economic, cultural, and personal costs that mass social distancing will incur.

What’s more, we’re all prone to ignore one or the other side of the equation:

Those who can more readily appreciate the economic costs—e.g., because they risk losing their livelihoods and ability to feed their families—are motivated to downplay the dire implications of COVID’s exponential spread.

And those of us who have the luxury to work from home (or enjoy a conveniently-timed maternity leave 🙋🏻‍♀️) are motivated to signal our mathematical sophistication and righteous concern for the sick and elderly by preaching that everyone “stay home” & help “flatten the curve”—without giving due consideration to what this will mean for the whole economic infrastructure that enables such luxuries, or for those working to keep it afloat.

(And each group’s preferred media sources tend to reinforce their respective biases, of course.)

Such is the cultural state in which COVID finds us. We’re as vulnerable as ever, b/c we haven’t been taught or incentivized to think, independently and rationally, about complex problems like this.

Such thinking is counter-cultural; it runs against our grain. Sometimes it leads to unpopular conclusions, thus incurring moral censure from one faction or another. Yet such unfettered, reality-based thinking is our only weapon against this (or any) pandemic.

It will take a heroic feat of self-honesty to take full stock of this insanely complicated, uncertainty-fraught situation and develop a truly realistic cost-benefit framework to guide decision-making about COVID.

Who out there is attempting to do this? And how can I help?

New publication: A commentary on forgetting

I had a lot of fun co-authoring this newly published article with my former PhD advisor Bethany Teachman. It is a commentary on this article by Fawcett and Hulbert, who argue that forgetting is a “feature” rather than a “bug” of human cognition. We bring evidence from mental health research to bear on some of their claims about the emotional benefits of forgetting, and suggest an alternative theoretical framework (informed by my work on cognitive integrity, i.e., self-honesty) to help make sense of these seemingly conflicting findings. Here are some representative excerpts:

We suggest a need to distinguish between forgetting processes that serve the function of updating and flexibly accessing one’s knowledge base for improved action guidance (which we term knowledge-constructive forgetting) versus those processes that serve the function of censoring or distorting one’s knowledge base for the sake of short-term emotional relief (which we term knowledge-avoidant forgetting).

And:

In fact, research on the cognitive mechanisms of PTSD (e.g., Resick, Monson, & Chard, 2014) suggests that forgetting of traumatic memories serves just the sort of “Guardian” function the authors describe—by avoiding and selectively forgetting certain hard-to-integrate details of their traumatic experience, these individuals preserve the “stability” of beliefs they held prior to the trauma. Yet, this Guardian function can have negative long-term consequences, especially when it means unhelpful, self-blaming beliefs remain stable. For instance, believing that “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people” (Hafer & Begue, 2005) can be a devastating belief to hang on to if one has experienced a trauma.

Thus, rather than encouraging forgetting, the most efficacious therapies for PTSD actively encourage remembering of the contextual details associated with the trauma to help reduce experiential avoidance. As Mott and colleagues note, “Repeatedly writing and talking about the details of the traumatic memory are central therapeutic elements of both Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure (PE), two of the most widely disseminated evidence-based treatments for PTSD” (Mott, Galovski, Walsh, & Elwood, 2015, p. 47). This exposure to previously avoided and forgotten aspects of one’s traumatic memories, in turn, provides a basis for integrating those memories with the rest of one’s experience and updating one’s beliefs accordingly. For example, a patient might come to recognize that “bad things do sometimes happen to good people, though the probability of this happening to me again is low, and I have the resources to cope in case it does.”

These arguments extend beyond populations dealing with PTSD. For instance, there is evidence that depressed and anxious individuals also engage in strategies that serve knowledge-avoidant, “Guardian”-like functions, and again, these strategies are associated with poorer long-term outcomes. Indeed, there is now growing evidence that perseverative thought processes like rumination and worry (common to depression and anxiety, respectively) function at least in part as experiential avoidance strategies (Dickson et al., 2012, Newman and Llera, 2011). Further, by selectively elaborating on relatively abstract, overgeneral conclusions about one’s experience (e.g., “No one will ever want to hire me”) and minimizing the elaboration of episodic details that might have painful but actionable implications (e.g., “I procrastinated for a week before replying to that job interview invitation”), such knowledge-avoidant processing strategies likely contribute to the well-established autobiographical memory deficits in emotionally disordered individuals (see also Dillon and Pizzagalli, 2018, Ono et al., 2016)…. Analogously, Sumner (2012) posited that the tendency to recall past experiences in a vague, overgeneral manner may itself serve as an avoidance strategy…. [T]he poorer recall of such details, in turn, is associated with more negative outcomes for depressed individuals (Sumner et al., 2010).

And:

…Just as in the case of traumatized individuals who forget painful but potentially informative aspects of their traumatic experiences, the dearth of autobiographical details likely impairs the ability of depressed persons to “learn from experience” when problem-solving or making decisions about the future. The depressed individual who strategically forgets how long she procrastinated on responding to a job interview invitation before receiving a rejection letter, as in the above example, will be less equipped to secure a better outcome in the future. As such, the emerging field of “memory therapeutics” (interventions derived from basic research that aim to reduce memory failures and improve autobiographical retrieval) shows some promising effects in reducing depressive symptoms (Dalgleish & Werner-Seidler, 2014). Likewise, a significant component of evidence-based treatments for anxiety disorders involves helping people expose themselves to the uncomfortable thoughts and emotions they had been avoiding to learn that such internal states are transient and tolerable. Upon completing such treatments, most patients report decreased recurrence of the negative thoughts and images that previously plagued them (e.g., Newby, Williams, & Andrews, 2014)—not, presumably, because of an increased ability to forget these distressing mental states, but because of a reduced preoccupation with doing so.

Finally, quoting from the Conclusion [emphasis added]:

As one of us has argued elsewhere (Gorlin & Schuur, 2019), distinguishing between these fundamentally different metacognitive functions can help clarify why some of our most sophisticated cognitive capacities sometimes work to undermine rather than promote our long-term thriving. According to this framework, the overarching aim of “knowledge-constructive” processes is to help us build and maintain a streamlined, up-to-date knowledge base that can effectively guide us in navigating the world and pursuing our valued goals. This type of working knowledge base is akin to what a long line of ethical philosophers and, more recently, social and applied psychologists (e.g., Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006) have referred to as practical wisdom—that is, a well-integrated, readily accessible set of principles, derived from learning and experience, that can flexibly and appropriately guide one’s actions in wide-ranging situations.

By contrast, the function of “knowledge-avoidant” processes is to censor or distort our knowledge base so that we may feel as if we are effectively navigating the world and pursuing our valued goals. While this type of forgetting (which roughly aligns with the “Guardian” functions described by the authors) can often provide emotional relief in the short-term, we suggest that it will tend to backfire in the long-term, given both the transience of any given emotional state and the fact that pretending does not actually make it so.

Notably, the “knowledge-constructive” construct stands in sharp contrast to the mere accumulation of remembered facts and details that fail to guide us toward more effective everyday decision-making. The “Librarian” and “Inventor” functions described by the authors align well with this classic account of practical wisdom as a feat of active, goal-directed information-processing, achieved through the demanding practice of selectively seeking out and working to understand and integrate new inputs insofar as they have potentially actionable implications for one’s valued goal-pursuits. By implication, such a practice also entails selectively ignoring or disengaging from inputs that offer no informational value, or weighing the relative value of other inputs one could process instead, given one’s limited processing resources. These can be nuanced and difficult judgments to make, of course, and simply having a knowledge-constructive intention does not guarantee that one will always get a good result.Yet, as long as our basic intention is to access the information we need in order to achieve our goals, we have a fighting chance at encountering corrective feedback that guides us to course-correct eventually. By contrast, when we selectively forget or ignore information on the basis of how uncomfortable it makes us feel, we stack the deck against ourselves.

Self-honesty, pt. 2: “Prepping” versus pretending to “prep”

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.

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.

Self-honesty, pt. 1: Knowing versus pretending to know

Those who’ve followed my work over the last couple years know that I’ve been on about “self-honesty” (or “cognitive integrity,” as I’ve termed it in scholarly contexts). Self-deception has received theoretical and empirical attention in the psychology literature; but the field does not have so much as a term to describe the opposite practice: the act of being deliberately, consciously honest with oneself. And yet, as I’ve argued, doing so is among both the most difficult and most necessary character virtues for a human being to cultivate if she is to live her own best life.

No doubt I’ll be returning to this theme in many posts to come, and I welcome you to explore some of my other writing on the topic in the meantime (e.g., here, here, and here).  For now, in keeping with the subject of Alice—since she happens to be my main preoccupation at the moment—I’d like to reflect on some of the ways that self-honesty becomes especially difficult and salient in the context of caring for a newborn.

One reason to regard self-honesty as such a crucial virtue is that it sensitizes us to the difference between actually knowing and merely wishing or pretending to know. To the extent that we’ve internalized this virtue as part of our identity and character, we’ll be less tempted to bullshit ourselves about what we know, and thus also less tempted to act on such BS.

This is particularly relevant when making decisions in a realm like infant health and development, because the invitation to accept and act upon BS abounds. On the one hand, actual knowledge is often scant and hard to come by, given that much of the relevant science is still in its infancy (pun intended). On the other hand, the stakes feel extremely high, as does the pressure to prove ourselves as competent parents. And then there are the midwives and nurses and Facebook ads and family members who relentlessly bombard us with scientific-sounding dictates that they expect us to take as knowledge—“breast is best,” “screen time stunts development,” etc. etc.—and pass harsh judgement on us if we don’t obey. So of course we’re tempted to accept these dictates as a shortcut route to feeling as if we know what we’re doing. But at what cost?

Taking the “breast is best” dictate as just one example: throughout our postpartum hospital stay with Alice, we were inundated with advice from various medical staff who presented the alleged superiority of breastfeeding over formula feeding as an established, scientifically settled fact. This dogma runs deep, and the corresponding stigma against choosing not to breastfeed makes this an extremely difficult decision for many women to think honestly and objectively about. The quick-and-dirty shortcut route (epistemically speaking; nothing quick about the actual process of breastfeeding!) is to accept this assertion as “knowledge” and get on with figuring out how to breastfeed, come hell or high water.

This is the approach I know many new moms have been pressured to take, sometimes with tragic consequences for their mental health, physical recovery, and emotional connection to their baby. I witnessed some of these costs directly while working at a partial hospitalization program for women with peripartum mood disorders, so I fortunately knew better than to accept this particular dogma without question. And I owe a great debt of gratitude to Emily Oster’s books, Expecting Better and Cribsheet, for cutting through much of the BS about the pregnancy and postpartum periods (including the vastly overstated benefits of breastfeeding) and arming me with the information I needed to make my own decisions. As an aside, I highly recommend these books, not only to new and expecting moms, but to anyone interested in an exemplary demonstration of a self-honest approach to understanding quantitative research findings and making informed, responsible choices in light of them. 

Whether or not we have Oster’s books to help scaffold the process for us, though, the process of achieving actual knowledge is one we must ultimately undertake for ourselves. This may involve an evaluation of the expert advice in relation to what we’re trying to achieve, which often means rolling up one’s sleeves and learning enough of the science to be able to make independent evaluations. (Much more on that in a later post.) Of course, we may honestly decide that doing our own research is too time-consuming or unlikely to yield enough insight to be worth it. In that case, the self-honest approach is to acknowledge what we don’t know, and to accept the potential consequences of taking our best guess.

Another aspect of self-honesty is being as clear-eyed as possible about the entirety of our own personal context. How much do these purported benefits matter to us, in proportion to the costs? In the case of breastfeeding, this means needing to think about all the relevant costs and benefits as they apply to our particular life with our particular infant. How will breastfeeding vs formula work with both parents’ schedules, and how will it affect the relative roles that each parent can play in the infant’s care? If breastfeeding is extremely painful for mom, how will it affect her mood and her interactions with the baby? Or if it is extremely time-consuming due to low milk supply or latching difficulties, what other bonding and growth-promoting activities will it lead mom and baby to miss out on? 

Crucially, it’s unlikely that we’d know the answers to all these questions without gathering some of our own data first. This means we need to be willing to try a given method without yet knowing for certain whether it will be the best one. Again, the key difference here is whether we pretend to know, or whether we are honest with ourselves about the nature and extent of our ignorance. The former approach may do more in the moment to give us a comforting illusion of certainty; but only the latter approach positions us to weigh the risks and benefits realistically based on what limited knowledge we do have, and, crucially, to course-correct as needed once new data comes in. 

In my case, largely for personal reasons that have only a little to do with the research literature, I decided that I would try breastfeeding and see how it goes. From the outset I had to make an explicit commitment, both to myself and to Matt, that I’d be willing to switch to formula as and when breastfeeding did not fully meet our or Alice’s needs. Already we’ve made various adjustments to the original plan, including some supplementation with formula when my milk supply was not yet adequate to satisfy Alice’s voracious appetite. And even this small adjustment, I admit, took some deliberate reassertion of self-honesty on my part: when Matt first suggested we supplement, I found myself balking at the idea, and even went in search of research on the alleged harms of supplementation (which, in fact, I do not find at all convincing). With a bit of reflection I realized it was “pretend knowledge” I was chasing, in hopes that I might avoid grappling with the unpleasant possibility that my supply was indeed inadequate. In other words, I had prioritized a comforting illusion over my daughter’s actual nutritional needs. Once I realized this and what it meant to me, it was suddenly not so hard to feed Alice the formula. 

There is a great deal more I’m tempted to say here about the need for self-honesty, especially as I read the news and see the ever steeper price we’re paying for our culture-wide failure to practice and promote it. (The Trump administration’s approach to managing, or rather pretending to manage, the coronavirus outbreak is but the latest representative example.) But then that’s the beauty of blogging regularly, isn’t it? Stay tuned for more, and please leave comments or questions you’d like to see addressed in future posts!