Updated: May 29, 2020
Why don’t we like the unknown? Why is the uncertainty of “how long will COVID last” the hardest part for some folks? We are habit-seeking creatures. We like patterns, predictability, and security. The unknown gives us anxiety and fear. We start to feel threatened and unsafe. This can manifest in many ways. Your current coping skills and triggers will be dependent on your developed coping skills and triggers before COVID. In addition, the unknown leads to ambiguity, which leads to discomfort. This is why so many folks claim to be “black and white” thinkers. During COVID-19 quarantine, you might notice a lot of negotiating in your head, making blanketed statements about how you're doing or making up truths about the future. We feel as though if we can write the story so that we know the ending, then we will be okay. The truth is though that story is only in our head and holds us back from being in the present moment.
There are two ideas I want to write about in this piece. The first is the exploration of how we deal with the unknown or what seems to be a temporary mindset. The second is how we can use the discomfort we have during COVID to help us understand our use of stereotypes in everyday life. I hope that by the end of this piece, those two ideas seem connected and useful for both now and later.
So, we’ve been hearing this a lot: “This is only temporary”. How do you approach something when it is temporary? Maybe you feel less invested in it. Maybe you don’t put much effort into resolving it because it will just resolve itself. Overall, you might feel less attached to the experience. You might notice that you’re really not that thoughtful of a person if you think something isn’t going to last.
Now, let’s look at the flip side. How do you approach something more permanent? You might slow down and take the time to explore it. You’ll find meaning. You will be thoughtful. There might be a part of you that is more willing to get to know it. In the current time of COVID, I slowed down. I noticed how my discomfort in the unknown has actually been really insightful! I can see how my temporary mindset also relates to my tendency to stereotype.
What an opportunity! When uncertainty gives us anxiety, we make assumptions to soothe that anxiety. We fill in the blank, create shortcuts, and write a story so that the unknown feels known. Sometimes experiences and people are unknown and unpredictable to us because they are different from us. Even as I write this now, I am uncertain how it will be perceived. I feel anxious writing about stereotypes and am uncertain about how I may be interpreted about this topic when I am a white person. I assume that no one will read this and that I should stop writing. This makes me feel calmer. But I am invested in this and am viewing a more permanent resolution to my anxiety. Having fun yet?
Since our brain will find shortcuts in unfamiliar situations to make sense of them, we accidentally make assumptions about people and experiences. Now, this wouldn’t be so damaging if as a society we did not also assign status, value, and exercise power with these assumptions. However, we do. I suppose that is a different topic, but the severity of the impact of stereotypes always deserves a moment of reflection and recognition.
In moments of the unknown, we make overgeneralizations about someone based on a few things we know. So, if we can see someone’s sex, gender, skin, religion, and/or age, we use it to write a story. We are taught to view people who are different from us as unknown and threatening. Our brain uses stereotypes to soothe the anxiety as a shortcut. As a result, we approach the situation, or person, with a temporary mindset. Instead of slowing down, being thoughtful and resolving it, we bypass it and make stereotypes.
Circling back to COVID (the real reason why you started reading this), we can see how a temporary mindset can be a damaging approach. If we don’t slow down and have a more thoughtful approach to both COVID and stereotyping, then we will miss this opportunity to grow. We will write an inaccurate story and rob us from being in the present moment. We will not resolve anxieties. We will only reinforce them with the narratives we create.
So, while we exist in this space that is feeling less temporary try to find ways to resolve and sit in the unknown of other things that feel different. The effects of stereotyping and using assumptions to hold others down to soothe our own discomfort is not going away anytime soon. Unless we stop writing everyone else's stories, we will never be better. The temporary pandemic might settle, but discrimination will still rise from the dust. The discrimination pandemic is sadly robust. So, before we start rushing through this moment to “get back to normal”, let’s see how we can come out of this better and on the right side of history.
(note: I recognize the racial discrepancy experienced due to limited access to comprehensive healthcare and resources in Latinx and Black communities. I appreciate that stress of everyday life is greater for some than others and that simply shifting a mindset is not going to have a huge impact when systemic functioning is a real big problem..)