Throughout the pandemic, while you have been busy practicing social distancing, wearing a mask and following guidelines, you may have noticed that some family, friends and strangers weren’t doing the same.
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Whether it was attending barbecues, going on vacations or showing a general lack of concern about the pandemic, it seems like some people have been going about their lives as if everything was normal. And at some point, you may have asked yourself, “Wait, am I overreacting? Am I wrong about this?”
The good news is, you’re not wrong and you’re not alone for continuing to follow the safety guidelines. But it’s understandable that you’re feeling confused and honestly, a bit annoyed, says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. “It’s a really tough dilemma,” he says.
We talked with Dr. Bea about what causes these feelings and what you can do to reinforce your own boundaries and feelings of confidence when you get caught up in self-doubt.
One reason why you may question your own behavior after witnessing the way others act, Dr. Bea says, is that it’s something that comes naturally to us. “As humans, we’re predisposed to social comparison,” he says. “When we see groups of people that are doing things that we aren’t, we start to have that feeling of ‘Am I in the out-group? Am I doing something wrong?’”
One example: face masks. The act of simply wearing a mask to protect against the spread of coronavirus has become a divisive cultural issue and some people who don’t believe in masks can be quite vocal about their opinions. “This sort of shaming behavior can shake people up and make them question themselves,” says Dr. Bea.
He adds, “Humans have a need to feel right and that they are doing the right thing. When we see people engaging in a wide variety of behaviors – particularly when it comes to physical safety, well-being and health – it can cause self-questioning for people, even when, according to their values and science, they’re already doing the right thing.”
Shifting mask guidelines caused by the vaccine rollout and the delta variant create additional confusion. “We certainly have confusing messages that are being offered in our culture,” Dr. Bea notes.
Yet more coronavirus fatigue
As the pandemic drags on, despite cautions from medical experts that it could be a while before we reach herd immunity and for things to return to normal, fatigue can set in. This can create a desire to take on certain behaviors (or ease up on our precautions), even if they conflict with how we actually view the virus and its impact.
“People will behave in accordance with whatever concerns them the most,” Dr. Bea says. “If health and safety concern you the most, you’re likely to maintain healthy behaviors.”
That can be difficult, especially given the drastic ways life has changed during the pandemic. Economic pressure from a change in employment might force more people to take risks despite health advisories, Dr. Bea notes.
But fatigue and changes in routine also affect other aspects of life for many. “If they are feeling fatigued, pinched, deprived of things that they have either enjoyed or valued, some people may take greater risks because the virus is invisible and sometimes the consequences of the virus can be downplayed, meaning more people might ignore it,” Dr. Bea says.
“I think we’re in a spot where we have to find a way to adjust our habits, to create habits and stay with them,” he adds. “It’s not easy. It takes about 66 days of consecutive performance before the brain stops resisting, before something really becomes a habit.”
“At this point, it looks like our culture is going to stop and start,” Dr. Bea continues. “People are going to take on greater risks, maybe figure out that the virus doesn’t change very much in terms of what it does and then have to withdraw a little bit. Or, someone might take a risk and find out that there are consequences.”
Despite all of these factors – social comparisons, mixed messages and pandemic fatigue – there are still ways to reinforce your feelings for yourself, allowing you to accept and stand firm in your beliefs and set boundaries with others.
Maintaining confidence despite doubts
Dr. Bea says it begins with behaving with confidence in your beliefs. “Behave with confidence that this is the right way. You don’t have to be arrogant and shout it loudly. If you can behave with confidence, it starts to instill the feelings of confidence.”
As for doubts, that’s not out of the ordinary, he says. “There will be moments of doubt. It’s ordinary when people are on any path that they value that they’ll have moments of doubt,” he notes.
But, he adds, stick with it and focus on yourself and not others. “Stay with the behaviors that you have adopted. And don’t expect others to necessarily do the same thing. You’re going to have to protect yourself even in the face of groups or other individuals who don’t agree with you.”
Dealing with disagreements
For many of us, those feelings of doubt can be particularly strong when our beliefs find opposition in friends or family. But it’s especially important, Dr. Bea says, to stand firm in these situations, to hold on to that confidence.
“Don’t sacrifice your integrity or your safety behaviors,” he says, even if it comes at a price. “It may create some challenges in relationships that you value or there may be some dissonance that you have inside. But have a willingness to pay that price. It creates a sturdiness if you live by your values.”
And Dr. Bea says that you can communicate your concerns and set your boundaries with others in a way that reinforces your respect for them while staying true to your beliefs.
For instance, if a friend or family member invites you over to their house for a party, and this goes against your social distancing practices (or you’ll be around someone who is high risk or not vaccinated), it’s okay to say no. Tell them that you appreciate and value them, but you’re simply concerned about safety behaviors and it has no connotations for your feelings about them.
“That’s probably the best one can do: To clarify that this is your decision, that you’re making it in accordance with personal values and safety advisements and that is has nothing to do with your regard or concern for other individuals,” says Dr. Bea.
“It may rub somebody the wrong way,” he adds. “And that’s certainly not ideal. But you’re also not responsible for the sentiments of others. In an adult world, we’re all responsible for our own sentiments.”
It’s a complex situation, according to Dr. Bea, especially with such a wide range of boundaries people may set for themselves. “There are so many variables that are interacting. You might be a very agreeable person by nature and not want conflict or it may be hard for you to establish different boundaries,” he says.
“You’re trying to have boundaries but you’re trying not to injure other people,” he adds. “These are particular challenges that maybe you haven’t faced before. You’re developing this new set of skills a bit on the fly.”
Reinforcing your beliefs
One way to prepare yourself for such situations, says Dr. Bea, is to practice. “It’s helpful to rehearse some strategies for describing your attitudes and without defending them. Our nature is to defend ourselves and that actually activates our insecurities. If we can say it as simply as possible without defense, that keeps us as sturdy as we can be.”
He also suggests talking with friends and family who share your feelings. “Seek support from like-minded individuals so you feel a little less alone,” he says. “You can create and solidify bonds that way and that reinforces that sense of confidence.”
And reinforcing that sense of confidence and security about your personal behavior won’t just make you feel more at ease, but it’ll help keep you safe during a difficult time.