The New COVID-19 Coping: Balancing “Toxic Positivity” with “Adaptive Coping”
This week (April 13, 2020), as we enter further into global “stay at home orders”, I’m noticing several mental health providers do some push-back to the more positive messages about coping with the current COVID-19 crisis and working from home. My last three blog articles took this positive tone, with Gay Men and Coronavirus/COVID-19: A Special Kind of Coping; Gay Men and the Mental Health Aspects of Working from Home; and Mental Health During COVID-19: Next to Normal. And we’re not done, yet!
Because coping with the COVID-19 global stay-at-home, “lockdown”, quarantine – whatever you want to call it – demands revisiting our collective and individual coping strategies repeatedly. Why? Because the stressors come at us repeatedly, demanding a response.
Perhaps because my recent articles took a positive tone, along with many others, other providers of mental health services wanted to address the “other side” of that. “Too much” positivity, they basically say, means “hiding what we really feel,” “dismissing our emotions,” “feeling guilty for the negative emotions we feel,” or “shaming other people for having negative feelings.” They argue that taking a positive tone can have the effect of invalidating, minimizing, or dismissing the very real experience of another, which just adds insult to injury: in addition to feeling bad, they are made to feel bad for feeling bad.
That misses the point of the materials that take a more positive tone. The feeling bad part is obvious: this is a terrible time. It’s a time of “social distancing” that means the loss of human interaction and even human touch as we knew it (I did an interview with the Daily Beast yesterday about how the lack of touch is affecting the LGBT community.) And it’s not just physical touch: it’s also the loss of how others “touch” us in non-physical ways, such as hearing their voices reach our ears “live” in conversation, not over a still-rather-tinny-sounding computer speaker or smartphone speaker. It’s the loss of hearing an audience laugh or gasp at the same time in a movie theatre or live theatre. It’s the loss of hearing our fellow fans cheer or groan in a sporting stadium. It’s the loss of singing along, dancing, and lighting an auditorium with cell phone lights (formerly cigarette lighters) at a concert. For both gay and straight, it’s the loss of hooking up to get our basic sexual needs met. It’s the loss of going on that first dinner-date. It’s the loss of going shopping and getting the slightly-naughty feeling when we buy something we can only barely afford but it gives us so much delight, we can’t seem to resist it. It’s missing our favorite co-worker drop by our desk at work and hearing his/her dumb jokes, or seeing our secret crush as he walks by the break room. (Man, you gotta love Derek from Accounting.)
Taking a positive tone doesn’t mean that we dismiss or negate the painful pangs of these losses. Rather, all of this presents us with a choice: We can be victims, or we can be survivors. I use these terms a lot when I’m providing therapy for gay male survivors of incest, sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, workplace bullying, discrimination, or other social or violent crimes. I think it’s important to recognize both words; it’s not either/or. We have to acknowledge the victim part because it is the perpetrator’s fault. We didn’t “do” anything to be the subject of another person’s narcissistic or sociopathic self-indulgence, pathology, aggressive impulses, bigoted actions, impulse control problems, or violent tendencies. We were just being who we are, minding our own business, doing our jobs, walking down the street, going to school, going to a party, living in our neighborhoods. And still these crimes against us – particularly for any minority, but I focus my career’s work on gay men – happen.
But we are also survivors. Because while the perpetrators can do their best to try to diminish us, it’s only a proposal. We can reject their proposal and refuse to be diminished by another’s negative actions. Their negative actions are their responsibility, not ours. We refuse to negotiate with terrorists. Living well is the best revenge. We reclaim our right to a safe and happy life in the name of our right to exist, and our dignity. And gay men have to do this almost constantly.
In the case of COVID-19, the perpetrator is not a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder, or Borderline Personality Disorder, or Impulse Control Disorder. It’s a disease, a virus. We are being persecuted by an organism that is microscopic in its size, and yet has the power to affect the whole world. Talk about big things coming in small packages. And the losses have been staggering – especially the ultimate, the loss of life. It’s a loss not only for the person who has been deprived of a reasonable expectation of a long and “regular” (which changes over time) full human life expectancy, but the losses of everyone that person’s life touched, which is the lesson many of us see every holiday season with re-runs of the classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” One life touches so many others. We can’t really “do without” anybody, and sometimes even the most modestly-led lives – not famous, not rich, not beautiful, no thousands of followers on Instagram – are the ones who have a profound impact simply by the humanity they represent during their time on Earth.
And that’s the lives. We also have losses about jobs, and income, and the fuel of the machinery of a capitalist society; everyone helps everyone else in a big system that has to keep moving, like fish, in order to stay alive. The loss of group and family social rituals, like birthdays, weddings, graduations, and funerals. Anywhere where people simply gather has been taken from us. One of the most profound American freedoms, freedom of assembly, has been temporarily suspended. And that goes against the grain of our nation’s character from its very founding.
I get it. These losses are significant. Even when all of this is over – however we define “over” – we won’t be exactly the same. Gay men (and certainly others) know this well from the AIDS crisis. More recent generations know about it from 9/11. We will emerge – we have that hope – but we will emerge changed, and it’s up to us to reflect and acknowledge changed how: for the better, for the worse, maybe a combination of the two.
And it’s that combination I talk about when we talk about the balance of not getting into a “toxic positivity” where we minimize or shame others for their feelings. Those feelings are normal, natural, to be expected in times of stress or hardship, and are nothing to feel ashamed about. When we’re going through bad times, the answer is right there: through. Surviving. Adaptive coping. The only way out, is through. It’s a balance between acknowledging our negative feelings, in order to psychologically, mentally, and emotionally process them, while also not letting negative feelings have the last word. It’s a paradox: the more we can recognize and validate our negative feelings, ironically, the less impact they will have in their intensity and duration of pain. Along with our obvious individual, family, community, national, and global losses, we can also apply good old-fashioned Cognitive Therapy to reframe the cognitions and change the narrative from a story of pure misery to one of both painful losses and important – if perhaps not quite joyful – growth.
Someone said in a meme that if you don’t emerge from this crisis having a new skill or accomplishing something new, you never lacked time, you lacked discipline. It’s a little snarky, and it has been called out for being so, but I don’t think the author’s intent was to indulge in a shaming Superiority Complex. Nor have my materials on encouraging adaptive coping, as opposed to maladaptive coping like drinking too much, eating too much, or falling into despair. I think it was meant to be encouraging.
One of my favorite New-Age, self-help authors, the late Louise Hay, encouraged people to ask themselves, no matter what, “How can I take a positive approach to this?” And taking a positive approach means knowing enough about self-care to realize that acknowledging and validating our bad feelings of sadness, or frustration, or anger, but also to try to reframe all changes as merely opportunities to adapt.
Many of us have the resource of extra time dropped into our lap. Without having to commute to an office, although it could mean a loss of a job and income, also means the opportunity to have an abundance of the resource of time. To plan a new career strategy. To network online. To learn a new language. To read. To study. To somehow improve ourselves, or our spirits, or our professional skills, or our artistic expression.
How many times did we all say, before COVID-19, oh, how I’d love to do whatever, if I only had the time. For many of us, we have the time now. If it’s not indulging in “toxic positivity”, we can say our wish has been granted. Think back to the days before COVID-19 – really, interestingly, not that long ago, though it can feel like it – think of what you used to say that you would do if you only had the time – especially at home. Well, now’s the time to do it. Ask yourself, is the best use of the extra time I have on your hands now really best spent on watching “Tiger King”? Maybe. If it amuses you. If it educates you. If it means you want to get involved in animal rights and care, and that becomes a new passion. Or maybe it means you volunteer where the people do it right for animal sanctuary, not the for-profit cruelty that Tiger King represents, and there are plenty more like him.
What about reading? What about writing? What about the countless YouTube instructional videos, TED Talks, or books you can order online? What about trying a handicraft? If we wanted to, we could all knit hand-made bedspreads. Or maybe it’s about jogging. Or communicating with your partner. Writing your novel or screenplay. Watching the complete films of Alfred Hitchcock. Challenging yourself to “master the art of French cooking” by Julia Child.
Cognitively reframing this extraordinary time in human history is not a crime. But neither is sitting and having a good cry about the losses that have affected you. It’s all your feelings, and it’s all OK.
Just for this week, see if you can reflect on your own need for balance. And if you need extra support for how to achieve that, on an individualized basis, my colleagues and I at GayTherapyLA are available for phone or webcam online sessions. For more information on that, visit GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text 310-339-5778. We would be happy to help.