Over the past two weeks, many people around the world have been ordered to “shelter-in-place” to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Those that adhere to these orders are sometimes pressured to violate them by family, friends, and even their employer; when they resist, they may find that they have suddenly become the ‘scapegoat’ because they challenged someone’s denial…
Denial as Part of a Social Epidemic Response Pattern
Lately I’ve encountered many people who appear to be in denial about the seriousness of the current Coronavirus pandemic; these same people invariably challenge the need to remain in their homes, as directed by their local governments. My psychotherapy and scapegoat recovery life coaching clients have also been sharing their concerns that people they know are not following “shelter-in-place” orders and are encouraging them to do the same. This has me very concerned.
I should disclose that my life partner is a scientist / chemist who specializes in developing antivirals (i.e., he is on the patent for Tamiflu, which is a prescription antiviral medication that can be used to treat an influenza infection). Needless to say, both he and I are deeply disturbed by the level of denial we are seeing from some people when it comes to taking the personal and collective threat that coronavirus presents seriously (including our own U.S. President, who hopes that we will all be back in church for Easter).
As a psychotherapist, I am of course sensitive to the fact that denial is an expected, understandable response to the sudden changes, fears, and uncertainty we all are facing due to the current global health crisis. Denial can in fact be a psychological defense mechanism associated with ‘epidemic grief’, as explained by Karl Taro Greenfeld in his article, The Pattern That Epidemics Always Follow. In this article, the author shares that he has “noticed a pattern in how the media, governments, and public-health systems respond to infectious-disease outbreaks”; he goes on to postulate that “there are four stages to epidemic grief: denial, panic, fear, and if all goes well, rational response” (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/four-things-you-need-know-about-virus/607495/).
When Other People’s Denial Threatens Your Personal Safety
Other people’s denial is now affecting residents of my coastal community – something I don’t appreciate. For example, last weekend (before our Governor ordered the closure of state beaches and parks) the small Oregon coastal town I live in that is mostly populated by retirees (a population that is highly vulnerable to the coronavirus) was overrun by tourists and inlanders. The picnic benches in the small park near the beach entrance were inhabited by groups sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, with large clusters of people “hanging out” to enjoy some sun and recreation. They all seemed completely oblivious to the current “shelter-in-place” order or the threat that their carefree socialization might pose to our community. This happened in many beach communities along the West Coast this past weekend, not just in mine.
I’ve also been concerned that some of my clients are being pressured to go in to work to attend meetings at their “essential” businesses when these particular in-person meetings are completely unnecessary as (per my clients, most of whom are at the director level and above) they could all occur remotely. I’m relieved that all of my clients are notifying their respective employers that they will not put themselves, their families, or the staff reporting to them at risk and are refusing to attend these meetings on-site, offering to attend remotely instead.
Another client was upset because their partner wants to do an interstate road trip right now to see friends and family (not to help with anything – simply to socialize) and was angry with her for refusing to come along. Yet another client was told by a roommate who refuses to shelter-in-place that the coronavirus was being “over-hyped” and “if we all stay out of the fear, we will be fine.”(!)
You Can’t Fix Someone Else’s Denial
As noted philosopher and Scotch drinker Ron White suggests: “You can’t fix stupid.” Nor can you “fix” someone else’s denial.
Recently a reader of this blog shared that some friends “who are like family” won’t speak to her right now because she won’t violate the shelter-in-place order and go over to visit them with her children. She was especially shocked by their being upset with her because these friends work in the health-care (medical) profession. Below is an excerpt from my response to her comment:
“You can’t fix denial. You did your best to educate your friends by setting a good example; best thing you can do now is let it go and continue to protect yourself and your family. No different than what we have to do when we are the victims of scapegoating (stand in our truth and let go of anyone who shames, derides, or abuses us for holding firm to our reality, our values, and our integrity).”
Last week The Atlantic published an article on how to convince people to take the coronavirus seriously entitled, What Do You Tell Someone Who Still Won’t Stay Home? In this article the author offers several wise suggestions, including the following:
- Don’t try to change people’s worldview
- Consider your relationship with the listener
- Know when to give up
Tips for Dealing With People Who Are in Denial and Scapegoating You
The above three (excerpted) suggestions are also good suggestions to follow if you are currently being scapegoated by family, friends, or your employer for following “shelter-in-place” orders. I have therefore expanded upon them here:
- Don’t try to change people’s worldview: As anyone who has been scapegoated by another will tell you, “explaining” your position is usually an exercise in futility, no matter how factual your account of events / reality may be. Remember that some people are in denial about the realities of COVID-19. Given that denial is a protective intra-psychic defense mechanism, there is little you can do to ‘make’ someone see the truth of something if they simply are not psychologically ready to accept difficult truths and facts, and you will likely be attacked, dismissed, belittled, shamed, or derided in your attempts to “make them see the light.”
- Consider your relationship with the listener: If you have a good relationship with the person who is violating their local “shelter-in-place” order and/or is encouraging you to violate the order yourself, you might try to educate them about why this order has been issued and see if they are receptive to the facts that you present. However, if they are quick to challenge you or minimize your appropriate concerns, be prepared to end the conversation by affirming your own decision to follow local “shelter-in-place” orders.
- Know when to give up: The sad fact is, I’ve had to tell more than one client this past week that they have done all they can do. As concerning as it may be, they simply can’t make people see what they are not ready to see or hear what they are not ready to hear. In such situations they can only make their boundaries crystal clear and ‘lead by example’. I also suggest they read the article, What Do You Tell Someone Who Still Won’t Stay Home? (A guide to convincing your loved ones to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously) and if they have tried everything mentioned, they are best off accepting the other person’s decision and let go.
Are you or someone you know experiencing scapegoating dynamics due to following local orders to shelter-in-place? How have you been handling it? By sharing what you’ve learned here in a comment, you may be helping to educate others!
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