The pandemic presents particular psychological challenges for people who are compulsive, Type A, and driven. Not being able to plan, control, and perfect makes it especially difficult to stay calm.
So I’m going to share some information that has been helpful to me in situations like this, because, even accounting for the seriousness of the situation, it doesn’t have to be so nerve-wracking.
We’re Bad at Predicting How We Will Feel In The Future
We’re really bad at predicting how we’re going to feel about problems once we encounter them in the future. You might imagine that you wouldn’t be able to tolerate what seem like inevitable disasters, but–and I’m saying this based on research—we usually handle crises much better than we think we will.
One of my favorite books is Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert pounds it into his readers’ heads that we’re very bad at foreseeing what will make us happy—or unhappy—in the future.
Here’s a quote from Gilbert to help you stay calm:
“We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.”
Is Control a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?
That word steering is another way of saying controlling. Many people, especially compulsives, obsessives and Type A’s, tend to be very good at planning and controlling, but it doesn’t make them happy–much less provide help to stay calm.
In fact, in unhealthy compulsives these tendencies often push other people away, consume a huge amount of energy, make them forget what was most important to them, and actually make it less likely they will get any place better–practically or emotionally.
A much better strategy than hyper-control is knowing that you can deal with whatever comes up. And this is where Gilbert’s research comes in handy. We’ll get to that in a moment.
You might object that it’s pretty obvious right now that people do sometimes under-predict how bad things will get. True enough, but that usually isn’t true of people who are compulsive. Obsessives also tend not to dismiss potential problems. But both compulsives and obsessives can miss the most important issues because they’re obsessing about the unimportant issues.
Scanning for What Could Go Wrong
Compulsives tend to focus on how bad their life could get without control. I’ve written here before about the high level of negativity bias among us. We tend to scan the horizon for what could go wrong. It’s adaptive in terms of physical survival when we’re in dangerous territory (including pandemics), but not so great for emotional well-being.
While looking ahead for what could go wrong may help you survive, it will only make you less anxious momentarily. If you’re scanning, listing and planning on a continual basis it’s doomed to emotional failure because you never really get to a resting place with this strategy. Compulsives tend to imagine that once they get their list done or reach their destination they’ll feel fine. My observation is that that lasts about a nano-second before they have to come up with a new plan or create a new list.
There are exceptions to this. If you use the control and planning rather than allowing them to use you, it may lower anxiety. Imagining worst case scenarios so that you can come to terms with them can be adaptive. And if you look ahead and plan in discreet, controlled sessions it can be helpful, practically and emotionally. Even setting aside Saturday morning from 10-10:30 to deal with immediate decisions may be helpful to put aside your worrying for the rest of the week.
But this “skill” of being vigilant won’t help you if it runs roughshod over you with catastrophic thinking the entire week.
Easier said than done. I know. But, here’s some ammunition to use against perpetual planning and obsessing to help you stay calm.
The Future Isn’t What You Think It Is
When imagining the future, we tend to focus on that one bad thing that we fear will happen. We don’t imagine everything else that will be happening that will actually take up most of our time and thought, rather than the disaster we focus on.
Another common misapprehension is that we expect terrible feelings to go on forever. But they usually don’t. In an article in the journal Psychological Science; Gilbert describes his research which shows that despite what we imagine, painful states resolve or diminish much more quickly than we thought they would.
Things look much different from a distance than they do up close. You can’t see what’s right in front of you by using a telescope. We tend to think in the abstract when looking ahead, but when living in the actual concrete details of the present, it’s a different world and we feel differently about it than we imagined we would.
And, perhaps more importantly, when we imagine the future we imagine ourselves being the same as we are now, as if we wouldn’t be changed by events in the intervening time. We mistakenly fill in the unknowns of the future with data from the present.
But our world is changing abruptly and we will change with it–unless we try stubbornly to cling to a world that we feel we need or deserve.
You May Even Become Stronger
One of the things that compulsives and Type A’s can take away from Gilbert’s research is that we will handle the disaster we are facing; we’re more resilient than we’ve been led to believe, and we usually survive emotionally much better than we thought we would.
Sometimes we even come out on the other side better off than we were before. Gilbert cites research which indicates that most people recover from even the worst trauma without developing post-traumatic pathology or needing professional assistance.
In fact we often experience post-traumatic growth instead, the phenomenon of positive change through the experience of trauma and adversity.
So What Now?
Changing these unhealthy tendencies is not easy, but even adopting a mindset to engage in positive change itself provides some relief as you begin the path to deeper change.
If we shift our priorities to achieving better psychological states like the ability to stay calm, rather than on achieving things like better financial states, we are more in accord with a deeper inclination to achieve emotional growth. Even if your financial situation is dire, this shift of emphasis will help you practically.
Here are some suggestions:
- Try not to predict your emotional future.
- Strive to tolerate not knowing.
- If you must, schedule limited times to worry. Quarantine your obsessions.
- Let go of your expectations of how you need your life to be or how it should be.
- Use this time to learn and grow. Let no good crisis go to waste.
- Appreciate what you have, here, in the moment.
For more on making the best of a driven personality, check out my book, The Healthy Compulsive: Healing Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and Taking the Wheel of the Driven Personality.