We’re here to guide you through the coronavirus lockdown.
Uncertainty Is A Hard Feeling To Sit With. Here’s How To Lighten The Load
We need to stop making assumptions
“We as individuals are very good at jumping through all sorts of cognitive hoops to justify our own behaviour,” says Dr Stuart. “But there’s a massive body of evidence that says we do that for ourselves, but for others we’re much less forgiving. We’ll justify our own behaviour but cut somebody else much less slack and basically assume the worst in other people.”
It’s important to have the full facts about others before we cast judgment but we rarely do. “Shaming and blaming are never very useful,” says Pam Custers, who runs online therapy sessions at The Relationship Practice. “We may see someone sitting on the grass but actually they’ve been for a walk and have a sore back, and then their picture is all over Facebook. We don’t have the full facts of any situation. People have been unfairly castigated when others have the wrong information – it’s a dangerous one.”
On top of this, the society we live in is a punitive one, generally. This can be seen in some of the press, says Dr Stuart, which can be quick to stigmatise.
“We live in this very atomised society where the constant message is: be suspicious, don’t trust other people. That’s not to say there aren’t people out there right now doing things that are unhelpful and dangerous, but they will be using all their own biases and shortcuts to justify what they’re doing, too.
“A lot of the people who are doing these things probably won’t realise that what they’re doing could be problematic. They’re not really being given enough of a clear message about what is acceptable and what isn’t.”
The problem with lack of clarity
Both Dr Stuart and Custers suggest that the lack of clarity in messaging from the government around responses and precautions during the pandemic may also be fuelling judgment.
“The clarity of the information has been typical of the messages that politicians give,” says Custers. “What we need is very clear instructions, but we haven’t [had them].”
The messages we’re sent, or instructions we’ve been given, have often been hidden among a lot of other words during daily press conferences, she says. And there have been noticeable mistakes made along the way too – take for instance Michael Gove’s swift U-turn on whether children can travel between separated or divorced parents during lockdown.
Focus on those who follow the rules
Rather than punishing, shaming or attacking people – which doesn’t work and just brings resentment at what people already feel are discriminatory rules, suggests Dr Stuart – we should focus as a society on the majority of people who are doing their very best in challenging circumstances.
The problem with attacking and shaming is that it further divides people into camps – them and us. “It’s very understandable that people are going to want to go out. If they’re then attacked and blamed and judged for doing that, we get back into that problem of groups,” says the psychologist. “People are going to think: ‘well, where is my group?’ They’re going to look at the people judging and attacking, and say: ‘you’re not like me, why should I listen to you?’”
Socially, the key thing is to reinforce and reward the kind of behaviours we do want to see, he suggests. “It creates a new wider in-group that people can be part of and people feel good to be part of,” he says. “It also normalises that behaviour if you’re promoting the positive message that says this is the kind of behaviour we want to see.
“If we can promote a message that by maintaining physical distance you are helping the NHS, you are helping the vulnerable, you are helping older people whose immune systems are compromised – that’s really important.
“You’re giving a rationale for it, you’re making people feel part of something bigger – and that’s infinitely more useful and more likely to work than simply shouting at people.”
Be kind, always
On an individual level, kindness is key – not just to others, but to ourselves.
“My default is to be very critical, very judgmental,” admits Dr Stuart. “What I do as a psychologist isn’t to beat myself up for that, but I try to slow down and recognise that there’s my judgmental mind kicking in again. Ok, the thoughts are perfectly normal, I have no control over what thoughts show up, I have no control over the anger that shows up alongside that, but what I do have control over is what I do in response.”
If you can notice the thoughts you’re having and take a moment to sit with them – so not rushing to post on social media or embark on a rant to your housemates or Whatsapp thread – then you can slow down, recognise you’re only human, and reflect on why you feel the way you do.
Ask yourself: do I know enough about what other people are going through before I start accusing them? Can I put myself in their shoes?
“If we can notice our own biases, then it helps us be a bit kinder to other people,” says Dr Stuar, who also suggests thinking about what we learn about ourselves from our reactions. What’s it telling us about what really matters?
“It tells us some interesting stuff, it tells us that we care. It tells us that we care about society and we care about our health, the health of our loved ones. If we can slow down, notice that and can allow the difficult thoughts to be there. We can then ask: what can I do to pursue that value of caring?
Getting cross, shaming people, joining in a social media pile-on – none of these are helpful. Instead, reflect. What can you do to try to model the behaviour you would want to see? While we might get a quick boost from posting something scathing to social media about someone who flouts the rules, ultimately it won’t leave you feeling any better about the situation. In fact it’s very likely that you’ll just sit stewing in the negativity of it all. It will eat you up.
“We have to be kind on ourselves; we’re not bad people to make judgments,” adds Custers. “Do what you can with your own life. You can’t condone other people’s behaviour but at the same time you can make sure your behaviour is in alignment with your own inner values.”
She adds: “We need to look at things with compassion. I think we have to call out behaviour that is directly dangerous but need to have compassion for those who are trying to do the best they can with what they have available.”
So, while it’s hard not to judge harshly the actions of others, it can be done.
Dr Stuart concludes: “I’m optimistic that what we’re learning through this is if we want to look after ourselves, and we want what’s best for ourselves and our families, we will realise being altruistic and thinking about the bigger picture is absolutely essential.”