Use 3 concepts that can help us stay smart, active and hopeful in these trying times.
No matter what our values and opinions are, the past six months have left us exhausted. As we look towards the coming autumn, we worry that not only won’t things change, but they will get worse. We are losing out confidence, as we are hit with serious assaults in the most basic areas — our health, our economic security, our safety, and the erosion of our basic values.
We no longer trust the heavy hitters who historically have kept us fairly safe. We, who put a lot of stock in exerting control over our lives, are left confused and distrustful. There is the sense that this country has lost its moorings and we have can’t even find our own personal North Stars to guide us.
If information is power, we feel have been robbed, and sapped of control over our destinies, leaving us demoralized and hopeless.
Taking a Fall
If the summer wasn’t bad enough, the fall promises to be a whopper. Things haven’t gone well and we have hard times ahead of us. And I’m concerned that this exhaustion is being taken advantage of by a new onslaught of escalation. Real and dangerous escalation. There are so many threats. Many of us feel ourselves shrinking.
So What Do We Do?
As a psychologist, I offer three concepts:
When we’re in the midst of so much happening around us, we can feel powerless in the face of it, and even afraid. Our identity is under fire. In easy times, we know who we are, what we believe, what we do, who we care about, what is right and wrong.
We all have our insecurities and confusion about parts of our lives, but 75% of the time, we know ourselves and our values. We are generally optimistic.
Then the sh*t hits the fan, and our confidence is threatened. So much is going on. It’s like we have 3 widescreen TV’s screaming at us.
Rather than feeling the solid core that keeps us anchored in the midst of chaos, we find ourselves reactive to the amount of fearful, confusing input (or the lack of it).We become brittle.
Brittle doesn’t do well in a storm. With enough wind, things snap. Weaker looking plants that curve and even droop actually do better. They sway and bend. They move with the dreaded storm, and emerge unscathed.
We can stand rigidly solid with our hands folded over our chests straight, immovable and brittle. Or we can loosen up, move, bend, duck, sway and survive.
We have to recover our “selves.”
I know that can sound like stupid psychology language, but we cannot be the main actor in our own story if we’ve forgotten our character. We need to get back in touch with who we are. We need to know that before we’re able to figure out what to do. Reflect on these questions. Your responses will provide a personal “manifesto” of sorts.
What we can think about:
- What matters to me? Right now?
- Who do I care about? What do I want for them?
- What am I worrying about?
- What makes me mad?
- Where do I go for guidance?
- Where do I feel strong?
- Are there aspects in my life where I feel like I’ve lost ground?
- What are the three things I most value about myself?
- Do they translate into the way I’m living my life right now?
- What are my lines in the sand? What is non-negotiable?
2. Learned helplessness
In situations in which we are deprived of any control, we become so used to it, that even when the situation changes so that even when we have control, we continue to be resigned and passive. We learn how to give up, we don’t unlearn our passivity. Psychologist Martin Seligman first studied rats, and quickly demonstrated how well it applied to people.
A 10-year-old I saw in therapy was tormented by an 11-year old bully. It was so bad that my patient added 25 minutes to his walk to and from school to avoid certain abuse.
The bully moved to another state, but my patient’s avoidance of the direct route to school continued. Even when he was absolutely safe and in control, he had “learned” to be helpless. He continued his old protective behavior, even when he no longer needed it.
He had “learned” helplessness, and, believe me, it was a lot of work to help him “unlearn” it.
Our sense of control over our health, our voice in what happens in our communities, whom we trust, uncertainties about what is going to happen, has conspired to flatten many of us like pancakes. We are tempted to “roll over, ” bemoan our fates, and give up.
There are things over which we, as individuals, have little control, like getting exposed to Covid, or losing our jobs. Getting reliable information about what is being done to protect us, our families, our economic well-being is becoming harder, because it is often distorted or withheld.
What is the truth? How do we know how to act when we don’t know what to believe?
What we can do:
- Differentiate when we are truly “helpless” (like picking up a virus) vs. where we can take action to demand more information.
- Inform ourselves about the virus or the economic outlook and protest the worrisome status quo.
- Unlearn the helplessness we feel. Make even small increments in feeling powerless. Start with small stuff, like whipping off e-mails to your representatives.
- Share feelings and concerns with co-workers, loved ones or friends. When we give up, often we distance from other people at the very time we should be connecting. Alienation is the enemy of change.
In my work with the helpless boy, it took practicing block by block, to his old route to school. He loved it when I termed our project, “taking back the streets.” He finally did it, too. But his helplessness went on for so long, that it was deeply ingrained. It had generalized to fearfulness in other situations that he began to consider threatening. It took quite awhile for him to embrace his own strength and change his vision of what he could and couldn’t manage.
Address helplessness quickly, but systematically. Block by block. We’re playing the long game. Learned helplessness increases our levels of stress, the quality of our relationships and even our health. It’s important to challenge,
Remember that there is such a thing as “learned optimism,” where we assume we have power, maybe more optimistically than a situation warrants. But think about the people who have succeeded in making change in our history. They had more than rage, or brilliance, or strong values. They had optimism and a belief that they, themselves were responsible for turning that optimism into action.
I used to teach the idea of self efficacy to my graduate students by reminding them of the classic story, ‘The little engine that could,’ Chugging up the mountain, the engine repeats the refrain, “I think I can. I think I can!” until it reaches its destination. “Thinking we can” isn’t just a hopeful fantasy. If we have the belief that we can, it is no accident that we can move towards success.
Stanford psychologist, Albert Bandura, demonstrated that there is enormous variation when people are confronted with the same challenge. Those who believe in their ability to confront the challenge are more effective than those who are less certain. And this is true when their abilities and resources are almost exactly the same.
Our thinking drives our behavior
Whether it’s Covid, or the economic disasters, racial issues and protests for true equality, there are specific behaviors that we can adopt, develop and strengthen.
What we can do:
- We can get a flu shot. And a pneumonia shot if indicated.
- Register to vote.
- Actually vote.
- Get people we know to vote.
- Educate ourselves about information that is painful, but necessary to take in.
- We can get tested when we need to.
- We can extend ourselves in the thirst for racial understanding and change.
- We can share our opinions and orient them towards action, rather than only commiseration.
- Summon the strength for uncomfortable conversations with people with whom we really disagree.
- We have to take very good care of ourselves and the people we love. We will be more energized, active and hopeful, even in the midst of the many daunting challenges we face.
We don’t know how things are going to turn out. It is such an uncomfortable place to be. But it is certain, that if we lose a sense of our own personal efficacy and that of our community, our outcomes are going to be terrible.
To increase that sense of power, even in hard times, we need to get on the train, and repeat at the top of our lungs:
“I think we can! I think we can!”