Self-reflection during COVID-19: tackling the beliefs of fear

Let’s start off with the big one, shall we? Fear is one of the easiest ones to talk about when it comes to beliefs, because in some ways it’s quite straight-forward.

Identify what beliefs are giving rise to the emotion.

#1

When we are afraid, we believe something is going to or could harm us. And we need to identify that harm, to be able to move past it or deal with it.

For this situation, I think there are several potential harms that can make us feel afraid. A). Physical harm due to complications with contracting COVID-19. B). Physical harm due to lack of food or resources (toilet paperrrrrr). C). Physical harm to those under our protection (children, elderly parents), which would hurt us by extension because we have tied our wellbeing to theirs (a good part of love!). D). Harm to our future wellbeing through loss of security or opportunity (job, home, 401k, etc.). E). Harm to our social adn relational selves through loss of relationships or loss of intimacy due to social distancing.

I thought through each of these in turn, and realized my fear is focused on the harm from lack of food or resources. I believe that we, in Hawaii, are particularly vulnerable to supply chain disruptions, and our island doesn’t have a lot of resources for long-term isolation. If the shipping industry is impacted, we would be facing real threats to our wellbeing and that is what occupies my fear-focused mind.

But I think there is more to fear than just the acknowledgement of potential or future harm, because it is possible to believe something will harm us and to have emotions other than fear. Emotions like anger. Calm acceptance (I will NEVER be this zen). Surprise. There is clearly more at work with fear than just a belief that something will harm us. So what makes us feel the negative valence of fear?

Identify what is making those beliefs “feel” good or bad.

#2

I think the second belief, the one giving rise to fear, is the belief that we are powerless to stop the harm. All other emotional reactions to potential harm (anger, acceptance, surprise) have embedded within them a certain conviction of personal agency and power. But the belief of our own powerlessness is what makes us run, hide, freeze, fight. Those are all reactions to a sense or feeling, thus a belief, of our own powerlessness to prevent ourselves from being hurt.

As such, I think the belief structure of fear goes something like this:

  1. I believe this thing will harm me.
  2. I believe I am powerless to stop the harm.
  3. My powerlessness is bad.
  4. I need to do something to make me feel less powerless.

Evaluate whether or not those beliefs are rational.

#3

Looking at this belief structure, I think the first two beliefs are (mostly) rational. There’s nothing I can do to ensure that Chris and I are not impacted or harmed by a supply chain disruption, if it happens. All the forces that would go into or prevent such a shipping disruption are waaaaay beyond my pay grade, expertise, and influence.

But where I see some potential for revision is in #3, the belief that “My powerlessness is bad.” This is a belief that I can change. It is a belief that leads to a lot of pain and anguish in my own life, as I’ve been thinking about in my workings through perfectionism. Weakness and powerlessness are not bad, they are simply part and parcel of being human and of being a human with other humans in our big, beautiful, complex world.

I actually think #4 can be healthy and productive, if I am able to change my belief about powerlessness being bad. If I can shift my thinking to be more accepting of my limitations and the unpredictability and vagaries of life, then I can counteract my feelings of powerlessness in a healthy way. In addition, depending on how I take action under the auspices of belief #4, I can actually help change my belief in #3.

So if my fear is about my powerlessness and the belief that powerless is bad, then I need to confront and change my beliefs about both. I need to reframe what I think about powerlessness, as well as remind myself of those things I do have control over. Because I am not absolutely powerless.

Create and speak out loud new, additional or replacement but still truer, beliefs.

#4

I think there are a lot of beliefs I can add and speak aloud to diffuse some of my fear. It really comes out when evaluating how rational they are. Here is what I plan to be speaking out loud to myself when I feel the fear rising:

  1. Being powerless is part of being human and part of a good, healthy, honest engagement with the world around us. If I am not putting myself in situations where I am vulnerable, then I am not really living.
  2. While I cannot control the outcome, I have the ability and power to do a lot to help our situation.
  3. We have plenty of food — I have done a good job of providing for our little family for a good amount of time and I will be able to continue doing so.
  4. Our elected officials in Hawaii are (generally… often…) principled people who care about the well-being of residents. I have helped elect good people who will do all they can to keep Hawaii fed.
  5. “Going without” the exact things we want at any moment is not a bad thing. We have what we need to survive and be healthy even if we won’t be able to get everything we want.
  6. I have a network of friends-who-are-family that I can rely on and who can rely on me. I have a community here. We can depend on each other and can help provide for each other when things get bad for any of us. We’ve done it in other ways, and we will do it no matter what the circumstances. I have people here who love me and want good things for me.

COVID-19 and the situation surrounding it is scary. It does me no good to pretend like I might not be harmed, that others around me won’t be harmed. But understanding and adjusting my beliefs about those harms to reflect something more real will help me acknowledge but not be overwhelmed by that fear.

Nothing makes me feel as powerless and as calmly thrilled as the sea.

On your own: Dealing with beliefs of fear

  • Think about what harms you are most afraid of coming out of your experience with COVID-19.
  • Acknowledge your belief and feeling of powerlessness to fully prevent those harms.
  • Write down the statement “Powerlessness is not bad, but is part and parcel of being human.”
  • Write down a list of all the things you do have power over and have already done (and can do) to protect yourself, your family, and your community from the specific harm(s) you’re afraid of.
  • Speak these new beliefs out loud (“powerlessness is not bad” “I have control to do [insert here] to prevent harm in my life”) when you feel fear starting to overwhelm you.

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