Many articles have been written about how to improve one’s self during quarantine. For some, highlighting aspirational growth is motivating and provides a sense of meaning and positive focus during these uncertain times. But for some people, these same messages are not only uninspiring, but result in increased anxiety, depression and self-loathing.

I would like to give voice to this alternative experience, in an effort to validate the segment of the population who may feel uncomfortable or ashamed/guilty to express their reality. Based upon my work as a psychologist, I hope to offer an understanding of these individuals’ emotional reactions, as insight may serve to buffer the impact of these messages for this population and also help to normalize and destigmatize this experience.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

A mirror reflects the image of that which is in front of it. When some look in a mirror, however, they do not see a physical image of themselves. Rather, they see a distorted version viewed through a lens of self-esteem that is uniquely personal. The categories which comprise this lens are, to a large degree, a function of the implicit or explicit messages that a person is exposed to throughout their life (particularly while growing up). As one’s identity develops, he tends to internalize the importance of certain categories which then combine to create the formula used for self-evaluation. Significant life-experiences tend to solidify, consciously or subconsciously, the external categories upon which one stakes his self-esteem. Perceived success or failure in these specific areas influence the person’s sense of self-worth and the lens through which they see themselves.

Through the Looking Glass

There are those for whom self-esteem issues do not register on their conscious radar. They simply go about their daily business without expending much thought on their worth. While they certainly have lenses through which they view themselves, these go largely unnoticed by the individual.

Others, however, spend their days keenly aware of the lenses they wear. They scrutinize every decision, evaluate every interpersonal interaction, reflect (and possibly ruminate) on every choice, using the categories upon which they base their self-esteem as a personal looking-glass. An individual’s appraisal of themselves in these areas becomes the measuring stick of their value as a person. Understandably, this often results in typical daily experiences becoming emotionally laden adventures. After all, the outcomes are not restricted to the experience at hand, but rather become representative of one’s entire being. Small objective choices become large and overwhelming subjective decisions. While the individual hesitatingly drives along the roads of life using her looking-glass as a GPS, anxiety, depression and self-loathing often sit in the passenger seat, simply along for the ride.

The Poisoned Apple

For some, the best way they know to manage situations that trigger emotional upheaval is to avoid. They often go to great lengths to avoid getting emotionally triggered by life events. This is accomplished by avoiding situations that may highlight performance in perceived significant areas, staying away from those people/articles/books who regularly discuss these categories, distracting themselves by focusing on efforts in areas that hold less emotional significance, or in cases where natural avoidance does not prove successful, using drugs and/or alcohol to create an alternative reality devoid of painful emotional reflection. They know the apple is poisoned and make every effort to, not only not eat it, but to prevent it from coming close to their lips.

The extent of their emotional protection is commensurate with their ability to avoid. For some, this avoidance is so strong that it fuels the creation of a fantastical life that protects the individual from having to look in the mirror, at all.

When the Clock Strikes Midnight

Avoidance as a life management skill has its shortcomings. Practically, it serves to shrink one’s world. While an individual is free to experience a vast array of life experiences, avoidance blocks the path to many opportunities. Also, one can only avoid that which they can anticipate and control. Others’ actions, environmental incidents, haphazard incidents, therefore, leave one emotionally vulnerable and exposed. During such times (which, one might argue, makes up a large portion of life’s experiences) one is forced to face their personal reality. At such moments their chariot transforms into a pumpkin, their white horses revert into mice, and their sparkling ballgown transforms into rags. In short, when avoidance fails, the fairytale ends.

For many, this is their experience when hearing or reading articles and shared messages during quarantine. Imagine the anguish of a person, who is already skeptical about their abilities as a parent, being reminded how important parenting is during this challenging time. Picture, for a moment, a husband who is already self-critical about his degree of productivity in life, receiving ongoing messages of “now is a great time to complete x, y and z.” And envision, if you can, an individual who has lifelong struggles with feelings of inadequacy in their religious observance and level of faith being flooded with messages of “now is your opportunity to learn more Torah, be more attentive to your observance of mitzvahs.” Finally, picture the reaction of an individual who is struggling to just survive the day, viewing social media post about all the others who are not only taking care of themselves, but able to “go the extra mile” to help others.

For some, these messages result in increased depression, anxiety, and emotional pain. They result in an overall decrease of feelings of worth, rather than motivating change. They have the person ask themselves, for maybe the umpteenth time of the day, “what’s wrong with me that I can’t do X, Y or Z?”

Happily Ever After

While the negative impact of messages of “inspiration” or “motivation for self-improvement” on this segment of the population are certainly not intentional, I believe with awareness comes potential for sensitivity. Recognition of the diverse population consuming disseminated materials and taking care to, at the very least, acknowledge that some may not view the current situations through an identical lens, will undoubtedly go a long way toward helping to provide validation for and understanding of these individual’s experiences. This can serve to facilitate greater closeness amongst family members, friends, and community members, and potentially ease any emotional sequelae of the intended message. Doing so can facilitate the ultimate goal of everyone living more happily ever after.