“Don’t Worry, Everything Will Be Okay”: An Insidious Form of Denial

I wrote yesterday about feeling that my energy was misdirected by trying to warn people who are complacent about the coming (or already arrived, depending where you live) pandemic. It got me thinking more broadly of how people respond to my fears and ways that I have come to discern between people who listen deeply and honestly and those who deflect. I’ve described both stances below (there are of course way-stops between these approaches and times we might use one or the other depending on our energy level) as well as ideas for self-care if you are an anxious person.

“It’ll be fine”

I have a standard retort for people who tell me my worries are unfounded: how do you know? Unless they are a trained expert in the area, at which time I will defer to their judgment, someone telling me I’m “worrying about nothing” gives me far more insight into the nature of their character than it does into the rationality of my anxiety. I definitely believe that some people operate from a default of denial–nothing is real unless it is affecting them personally. They obfuscate and deflect legitimate concerns because these anxieties hint at the fact that the world can be an unjust, unfair and brutal place. If it isn’t happening to them, it can’t be happening.

Yes, those of us with heightened anxiety can easily overestimate the potential likelihood of a danger occurring, but we can also spot trouble before it arrives. I contingency-plan with the best of them and, because of my efforts, I steer clear of certain issues into which others move without pausing. Holding back “I told you so” strains my throat when I notice my unheeded warnings coming true again and again. Attempting to protect one’s self by denying reality has as many consequences, if not more, than wasted worry.

“I have my doubts, but we’ll face it together”

Responding to someone who lapses into extreme anxiety does not mean engaging in panic yourself or denying your read on the situation. Rather, it is perfectly fine to share fact-based evidence that might help to mitigate some of their concerns, especially if you ask permission first. This is where I have would-be comforters lapped; I can quickly absorb a tremendous amount of factual information, so I am ready to go with the latest scientific statistics and projections while they share three-week old data they heard on a podcast. On the other end of the spectrum, anxieties that have little basis in reality might be easier to counter with science, but the people who struggle with them might also be less receptive to scientific reasoning.

To me, the best way to support someone who you might view as “fear-mongering” or overly worried is to establish what your objective take on the situation is, and to then focus most of your energy on the trust you have in both the other person as well as in your relationship. When I share my pandemic prep with people IRL, I wish at least one person would say something along the lines of “well, I know who to ask if I decide to prepare a list of items.” The most I’ve gotten so far was someone declaring they would come to my place if the shit hit the fan, which only angered me at their callousness. If you can connect to the person and let them know that you appreciate their forward-thinking nature, even if you believe it to be too trigger-happy, as well as let them know you will be there to help them cope if or when the situation fully develops, it may help them come down from flight or fight into a more productive, problem-solving state. Scared people make rash decisions; prep for an event such as a pandemic requires a rational response, not a panic-stricken hoarding of toilet paper.

Mental Self-Care for the anxious

If you are reading this as a highly anxious person yourself, here are some practical steps you can take if you are facing a situation that seems to concern only you and in response to which you are being told you are over-reacting.

1. If possible, consult the experts. Nothing is worse in my mind in regards to anxiety than getting riled up by people who have an agenda to push or those who base their ideas on fantasy. Find the scientifically-accurate experts who do not stand to benefit in a substantial way from peoples’ responses, and listen to them. In regards to the pandemic specifically, this is the person to whom I’m listening (as well as reading research as it is published).

2. Share your concerns judiciously. Even if your anxieties are pushing at you, decide whether the person to whom you want to speak is likely, based on past experiences, to listen carefully or to simply dismiss you. If someone acts as though you are completely irrational, consider whether there might be other people in your life that would be more open to hearing what you have to say.

3. Before taking any practical steps, if possible, make a list of items you might acquire or plans you might enact, and then wait at least 24 hours (or a good night of sleep minimum) before you follow through on what you are considering. I have worked myself up in recent days into wanting to buy an oxygen concentrator and a large solar power station. Because I slowed myself down, I realized the oxygen concentrator’s cons outweighed its possible benefits, and that I would face serious security issues with a solar setup as it would have to be placed in front of my house and would therefore be highly tempting for someone to steal if we actually end up in a situation where it would need to be deployed. By slowing myself down, I resisted panic-buying and have been able to better use my resources.

4. At the end of the day, remember that we all die, some of us in unexpected ways. I keep this truth in my mind not to feel depressed but to boost my feelings of acceptance of my life situation. When we run out of practice steps in handling a crisis, coming to terms with the reality of it can, at least for me, open internal space for contemplation and grace, rather than a raging “there has to be a way” as the elements consume.

5. Remember you are likely not as alone as you might feel you are. There is a limit of rational action that I can take at this point, and, as terrifying as it is to me, I find myself coming to a growing knowledge that I might have to *shudder* cooperate with my neighbors if things go really side-ways. In modern Western societies like the one I inhabit, there is a particular sense of individualism where people may literally never speak with or help out their next-door neighbors, not because they hate each other but because they are able to sort their lives in a way that does not necessitate such interactions. I am not so naive to think that my federal government will do anything useful, but I have a bit of trust in my local officials to try to mitigate disaster and in myself to work with others as needed. Scarcity can promote selfishness but it can also promote sharing; I hope that the latter is what rises to the surface in the areas where people are struggling right now.

In conclusion, a person’s level of anxiety is not the best marker of their capacity for acting in a rational way. People can under-react just as much as they over-react and can respond too slowly to a crisis as well as too early or without justification. If you are highly anxious as I am, my advice is to reserve your time and energy for acting with as much objective reason as you can, with the support of people who know what they are talking about because of their education and experience, as well as those in your life who offer a caring, gentle presence when your anxiety gets the best of you. Please share how you care for yourself as an anxious person!

Observing a Number (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

For today’s simple pleasure, I chose the number twelve and will be attending to when that number shows up in my daily life for the next few days. I expect the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also called the frequency illusion, to occur. This is when something stands out to you and it suddenly seems like it is everywhere.

I’ve met people at various stages of my life who operate from superstition, believing that the cognitive biases of their brains were in fact signs from a higher being telling them what to do. Now that I know why my mind is drawn in a particular direction, it takes most of the “fun” out of it, but it is still fascinating to observe how easily I can feel persuaded that maybe there is something to the pattern. I’ve already spotted a sushi dinner that I might purchase for a friend and I that just so happens to include twelve pieces of sashimi! Have you ever looked for a particular number to appear? Where was the most interesting place it showed up?

Adventures in Perspective-Taking

If there is one skill set my system has perfected, it is to eviscerate the incompetent. Any delay, any error of a practical nature, any inconsistency, and my eye is hawk to mouse. It took a very weird trip on some strong drugs (oral surgery) to flush out the true rustle of grass from wind-shift meanderings. My conclusion is that I need to make a crucial adjustment to my perspective-taking.

The Starting Point

I am not kind to strangers. My patience is razor-thin and I show no mercy to those who do not apologize immediately for their oversights or mistakes. “Do better and do it now” is the north star of guidance for my inner compass. I’m the person for which dating sites offer warnings—the rude one who exhibits distain for those who are merely trying to provide a warm meal or bag some groceries. I justify my behavior through my own diligence and sense of duty: If I can show up and give my full effort and/or acknowledge my flaws directly, why can’t others? Does character count for nothing?

It feels like war, to go out in public and rely on other humans to get my needs met. I’m a general more concerned with arriving home, spoils intact, than anyone or anything else. I dehumanize instantly and profoundly whenever someone cannot or will not march at my break-neck pace. I’m not sure when and where others were conscripted into my army of efficiency, duty and thoroughness, nor do I think most would stay enlisted were they given the chance to leave. I have insta-rage always at the ready as my chosen weapon should anyone disappoint me.

Climbing

On my recent very long and strange trip, after getting IV sedation for oral surgery along with narcotic pain medication, I discovered a sliver of tooth in my mouth. Not from the extraction site, but from another nearby tooth. I contacted the oral surgeon, who tried to tell me my tooth sliver wasn’t a tooth sliver. Fury erupted and I vowed to never go back to him again. I ranted to my friends about his obvious incompetence. Something less than perfection and/or immediate prostrate confession of inadequacies had occurred. Unacceptable.

My mind, however, saw an opportunity in my drug-induced haziness to challenge me to examine the landscape I’ve simply scampered by every other time I’ve climbed to the pinnacle of “once again, humans suck and I’m mad” mountain. What if not everyone saw him (the oral surgeon) in the same light as I did? What if he was good at some tasks or roles, just not in relation to me? What if my experience with him, flawed through it was, was an outlier? All my life I’ve searched for the three stones I deem necessary to prove someone is an idiot (once is an accident, twice is pushing it, three times and it’s on). What if I was missing the many-hued scrub and sunset of beautiful humanness in my quest to be right and smart and less shitty than others?

A Panoramic Vantage Point

The lightbulb moment for me on my journey of perspective-taking is the realization that I have spent much of my life overgeneralizing my personal interactions with an individual into a representation of their entire being. I feel shame at the arrogance and haughtiness behind my assumptions, but I also glimpse self-protection under the crevasse. If someone treats me in a way that evokes my contempt, what is it easier to do? Respond with derision and decide that’s simply who they are as a person, or wonder about the individual and societal forces leading to the person’s actions? If someone makes repeated mistakes (like ringing up an item incorrectly), what role does my insta-rage have in leading them to additional fumbles? What if I’m missing joy and authenticity in my desire to punish others for the “unfairness” of having to wait or explain or contend with flippancy?

Descending into Complexity

Something in me recoils at the idea of tossing the small stones of poor performance to the side. They threaten to find entrance to my shoes and, though tiny, blister and boil their way back into my experience. I simply cannot consistently overlook someone failing to do the basic requirements of their job in a professional manner. I get to say “that wasn’t what I deserved.” I do much more than this, though. I throw stones. I demean and demand my path be cleared of all debris, lest I stub my precious toes.

I aim to choose now to weigh the pebbles, note their characteristics and place them down, rather than to continue to turn them into weapons. It is okay to name an encounter as disappointing or sub-par. I have to remember, though, at every turn, that what I hold in my hand only one grain of sand among millions. That I believe that my dust particle—the proof of how much someone sucks at something based on one encounter I had with them—stands a true testament to the collective amalgamation of water and blood and stone they are as an entire person behooves me. The literal grit in my teeth after my surgery represents to me the cost of chewing on and absorbing other’s failures. Why not dig out each bit, label it and then return it to the earth? Why not free up my breath and my hands and my toes and all of me to encounter beauty and connection, rather than dwell on the insignificant proofs of concept to which I am steadfast?

There are, of course, more than pebbles and grit. There are boulders of abuse and neglect that have sought to crush out my soul. Some people have done me great harm in my life and my being struggles to weigh the offense accurately, finding all injustice equally threatening. Even so, choosing to carry other’s shame and failure as my own is self-made torture. They’ve callused and wounded me, but they do not decide my path nor do I owe them gratitude for the jagged ridges they’ve carved. Those stones are relics to what was in my life, not shrines before which I must prostrate myself. The liquid of my tears erodes their surface. I am not crushed and I am not fully encumbered by what has been.

Having scoped out new land, I can walk steadily towards it without each new obstacle categorized instantly on the side of threat. I can choose, wide-open scene in mind, to counter each shard of incompetence with a reminder that the people I encounter who fail to perform to my standards are in fact dazzling kaleidoscopes, shimmering, gleaming and transforming far beyond what my minute sampling can ever afford. Where I see flaw, others see crack in stone revealing gem. I can hold my sand and proclaim their inadequacy, but I must also acknowledge the sparkle of the divine we each contain.

How do you respond to people who seem to not put in effort at what they are “supposed” to be doing? How do you balance your desire for order and performance with grace for the mistakes we all make? How do you process disappointment and failure while remaining connected to a shared sense of humanity?