If you’re amazed that people are still shaking hands, waltzing around mask-free in public, and rushing off to hair salons and beaches in some states, learn to think like a therapist. Understanding the underlying motivations of people who ignore and defy COVID-19 precautions will help you relate more effectively to those in your own life.
Recently, I was pushing my shopping cart down the supermarket aisle in the direction that the floor arrow pointed, and a similarly aged older woman came straight at me with her cart. Thinking I was providing her with new information, I pointed to the arrow and said, “You’re going the wrong way.” Instead of apologizing, she smiled as she passed by and said, “I know.” An ignorer, obviously.
Then there’s this example from my local newspaper describing Phillip Davis from Plant City, Florida saying he was “‘kind of looking forward to gridlock’ in Sarasota because he wanted to push back against what he described as heavy-handed government regulation.” He added that “he doesn’t mind greeting strangers who extend a handshake, ‘although I may not touch my face afterwards.’” Clearly, a defier.
I have empathy and compassion for folks desperately wanting to get their lives back on track, especially those who are prevented from working and earning an income by the pandemic. It makes complete sense that they would want to return to their jobs and collect a paycheck as soon as possible. Fortunately, most people support COVID-19 safeguards. “The Yahoo News/YouGov survey found that 71 percent of Americans are more concerned about lifting restrictions too quickly than too slowly . . .” They’re compliant because they believe that being otherwise would endanger themselves, their loved ones, and society at large.
Here are eight psychological, likely unconscious, reasons that people ignore or defy COVID-19 precautions:
1. Low frustration tolerance. Through temperament, upbringing, or both, some people get frustrated more easily than others. Not everyone has learned how to ease frustration by practicing optimism, pacing themselves, and self-soothing when life gets tough. This pandemic is a perfect storm for massive frustration: Skyrocketing multiple stresses accompanied by severe restrictions on habitual stress relievers.
2. Confusing care and control. Children raised by controlling, critical, demanding, and domineering parents often cannot tell the very real difference between being cared for and being controlled. As adults, they’re convinced that others want to wrest power and autonomy from them, even when people are offering heartfelt concern and care. With their guard constantly up, they may interpret being asked to wear a protective mask in public not as a caring reminder to stay safe, but as an attack on their independence and decision-making prowess.
3. Growing up with authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway parents, children must squelch their own anger to survive and often vow that in adulthood, they’ll never let anyone tell them what to do. Later in life, still fighting childhood authority demons, they may react without considering whether their actions are helpful or hurtful to themselves or others. The fact that an authority figure wants them to do something is enough to make them take an opposing stance.
4. Children who had their rights trampled on by parents, teachers, community, or our culture may carry around wounds of victimhood as adults and see slights, insults, and unfairness where none are intended. When adults keep shouting, “I have rights,” it often comes from having had too few growing up. Now that they have the right to say what they want, they’re still fighting to be heard and validated.
5. Sadly, many people were reared by parents who shamed and humiliated them for showing fear. As adults, they continue to hide feeling vulnerable and scared, masking it with a persona of fearlessness. Taking dangerous risks and denying their fear to others and themselves makes them feel strong and invincible. Afraid to be afraid, they instead deny the potential threat of illness or death via pandemic.
6. People who suffer early powerlessness run the risk of frequent bouts of depression and despair, which is helplessness on steroids. A built-in antidote to despair is a rage which makes people feel strong and mighty instead of weak and puny. As long as they are enraged and defiant about restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, they feel powerful, triumphant, and alive. Without it, they surrender to a slow death by despair.
7. Poor self-care. Neglect and abuse in childhood may lead people to believe that they deserved poor treatment and aren’t worthy of health and happiness. Their major and minor personal choices are often self-destructive, repeatedly boomeranging back to convince them of their worthlessness. They believe it doesn’t matter if they take care of themselves, so they don’t.
8. If children are regularly allowed to break rules without suffering consequences, they grow up believing there aren’t any and that they can do whatever they want, and nothing bad will ever befall them. They live in a fantasy world, assuring themselves that what happens to others will never happen to them and that no matter what they do, they and theirs are so special and unique that they will survive COVID-19 unscathed.
Next time you run across someone who’s ignoring or defying COVID-19 safeguards, rather than shake your head in amazement or tut-tut in disgust, think like a therapist and wonder what misfortune befell them growing up that robbed them of rationality, self-worth, a healthy fear of danger, and the innate power we all have to keep ourselves as safe from harm as we possibly can. And, while you’re thinking, make sure to keep your distance.
Karen R. Koenig is an eating disorder therapist. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Karen R. Koenig.
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