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!

All for Alice, pt. 2 (addendum): Pain made syntonic

In psychology we sometimes make a distinction between “ego-syntonic” and “ego-dystonic” mental states. “Ego-syntonic” states are those we ourselves endorse, those we see as congruent with our identity and values; whereas “ego-dystonic” states are those we disapprove of, those that stand in conflict with the rest of ourselves. This distinction typically gets applied to thoughts and feeling states, but it could in principle also describe one’s relationship to physical sensations, such as tension or pain.

Even though I’ve helped many of my therapy clients accept and even proudly embrace certain forms of temporary pain for the sake of their long-term growth and thriving, I must admit that this has never been one of my strong suits. In fact I’ve always been a bit of a wuss about pain and physical discomfort. Indeed, I once found myself unreasonably thinking that it would be completely reasonable to kill myself if the nausea of a bout of standard food poisoning didn’t pass. Even when in labor with Alice, not only did I aggressively insist on an epidural for the relief of my contractions immediately upon arriving at the hospital, but I even got into a tiff with the nursing staff when they unceremoniously turned off my epidural for the final “pushing” stage.

And yet: when it came to pushing—through the most intense, burning pain I’ve ever experienced and the most mammoth, Herculean effort I’ve ever exerted—there was no hesitation or inner struggle. The doctor and nurses seemed almost a little horrified at my military efficiency as I squeezed out little Alice in a matter of minutes. “You could have fooled us about this being your first,” they mused. But I barely heard them at that point, because the brand new human whom Matt and I had created was now scrunching up her tomato-red face and squirming in my arms.  

The sheer proximity of my goal, and the causal immediacy of how I had to reach it, had changed my relationship to the pain. There was no failing to grasp the mechanism by which every push, every burning and heaving and tearing sensation, brought me physically closer to meeting my child. 

Much has been said and written about the drama of that unrepeatable moment. But what I have found delightfully surprising is that, for me, the same basic pattern survived into the more mundane stages of postpartum recovery and newborn care. The residual aches and discomforts of healing from childbirth; the sleepless delirium; the project of trying to get Alice to drink from my breasts rather than chomp on them uselessly and painfully; the hours of double pumping to extract nourishment from my chafed and battered nipples in the meantime; the pangs of tearful angst over whether I’m doing any of this right; never have I embraced so much pain and discomfort with such profound, unconflicted eagerness.

This would be no less true, I believe, even if I were to suffer a bout of postpartum depression or anxiety, which cannot yet be ruled out. This eagerness runs deeper than any particular feeling or mood state; it flows as a constant current underneath them, giving them context and purpose. Yet it is fueled and maintained entirely by particular experiences: the experience of watching Alice get confused by her own hiccups, catching Matt’s eye as he sees it too, and erupting in a simultaneous bout of laughter as we both plant comforting kisses on her squishy little forehead; the experience of seeing her stubborn determination as she battles her own wriggly fingers for possession of my boob; the experience of sitting together, Matt and I, as we resolve our parenting disagreements and are swept up in a wave of mutual understanding and love. 

Even the painful experiences flow like tributaries into that current of serene, joyful eagerness—because they flow from my dedication to the care and nurturance of Alice.

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.