Q: I get so angry and infuriated with people not wearing masks.Why do people refuse to do something so simple to protect themselves, it makes no sense?Should I be less angry?It’s starting to wind me up every time I leave the house.
A: Masks aren’t fun, but then again neither is applying sunscreen, wearing seatbelts or motorbike helmets.But there are people who object to these too.In the US, for example,only 18 of 50 states have compulsory motorbike helmet laws for over 18s.
Personally, I hate sunscreen.Having had more than one relative develop skin cancer, it’s hard to ignore the need for it.But I don’t like it, and still sometimes forget to apply it – only to be reminded as that familiar warmth starts to sting late in the day.
The difference with sunscreen is if I forget to apply it I’m only risking my own skin, not anyone else’s.
So I get your anger.Many of the things we’ve been required to do during this pandemic aren’t just about our own needs or rights.It’s about all working to protect each other, as well as ourselves.
But masks, in particular, have become a symbol of something else for some – fortunately, less so here in Aotearoa than in the US where it has become a ridiculously heated symbol of individual rights.
Much like the 32 states where you don’t have to wear a helmet on a motorbike, to some the freedom to make an individual choice is more important than life itself.
Masks are – emotionally speaking – an uncomfortable reminder of the existence of Covid, and as this pandemic drags on, and on, and on, we’d all rather it was over and we could go back to a normal life.
Much like the desire in some politicians – here and abroad – the need to simply declare the pandemic over is understandable, albeit dangerous and unhelpful.The human capacity for denial should never be underestimated and whether it be declaring the pandemic over, or refusing to wear a mask, denying reality enables the illusion of control over the feelings that this pandemic can provoke in all of us.
Fear, anger, vulnerability a lack of control – the reality is, reality ain’t much fun at the moment.
Psychological defences – as we call them in my trade – like denial are natural ways to try to manage or diminish painful and difficult emotions.But they need to be challenged when the actions we take to manage the feelings actually put us at risk of other harms.
That’s not to say it’s you who should necessarily be challenging non-mask wearers, no matter how angry or frustrated you feel.And while the anger is understandable, even justified, it sounds like it’s causing problems for you.
So we come back to something I’ve said time and time again over the past two years – to paraphrase Alcoholics Anonymous – keep your own side of the street clean.
Concentrate on what you can control, and what you have influence over.So wear a mask whenever and wherever you want.Wear it knowing that you’re doing one of the most effective things (alongside vaccination) to protect yourself from infection.
Do it knowing you have tons of science on your side.And do it knowing you’re also protecting others, not just yourself.
Because when we push people to do something they’re heavily emotionally invested in not doing we tend to only get increased resistance in response.But if we keep creating a culture of mask-wearing, then over time the new and strange, even the mildly uncomfortable, becomes normalised.
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