If you’ve ever seen the show Desperate Housewives, you probably remember Bree Van de Kamp. She’s the “perfect housewife”–a gourmet cook, master gardener, flawless entertainer, and keeper of an immaculate house. In one of the early episodes, she is in marriage counseling with her husband, Rex. He accuses her of using housework to mask and disconnect from her emotions. During the session, Bree is unable to be present in the discussion (proving Rex’s point) because she is distracted by a loose button on the therapist’s jacket. It takes all her self-control not to compulsively reach inside her purse for her sewing kit.
The other day as I was watching re-runs I thought, what would Bree Van de Kamp do during this lockdown? Probably make macarons, knit a cashmere sweater and start writing her memoirs. Every day she would wake up at 6 a.m. to do pilates, then help her children with e-learning. Promptly at 11:30, she would make them a delicious lunch of grilled cheese made from local gouda and homemade brioche. Her house would look perfect and ready for guests even though no guests were to come.
There are a lot of Brees in the world.
Brees make us feel like shit. They’re always doing something, bless their hearts, and usually doing it better than any of us could. They know how to make the most out of every spare minute. They don’t waste time. They aren’t lazy. These are the characteristics we, as a society, praise as aspirational. Then we punish ourselves when we don’t live up to it. But what no one ever tells us is that Brees aren’t Brees because they are inherently better or more productive people. They are Brees because activity and productivity is how they deal with stress.
Bree’s compulsion to be productive isn’t indicative of some moral achievement—in fact, it’s actually holding her back from intimacy and self-actualization. It’s simply her coping strategy. Your coping strategy may be to lay in bed and watch movies. We may be programmed to believe one is “good” and one is “bad”, and sure, one might make life a little easier for you, but both are fundamentally the same thing. (And, as Bree demonstrates, both can become maladaptive in their extremes.)
There are a lot of articles going around right now about how to “live your best quarantine life”. Everyone has a recommendation for what you should be doing during lockdown. Now, they say, you have no excuse not to do the things you didn’t have time for before! You have to make sure you’re not “wasting” all this “time” we all have (despite the fact this isn’t a vacation and most people have compounded responsibilities and stressors right now.) Influencers want us to come out of quarantine with a “glow up.” Fitness apps are telling us it’s a great time to get in shape.
Yesterday, I saw a meme reminding us that Mary Shelley wrote her seminal work, Frankenstein during the years-long winter caused by the Mount Tambora volcanic eruption of 1815. If Shelley, a teenager at the time, could write her literary masterwork during forced seclusion during a global crisis, why are you sitting on your ass watching Ozark?
Right now, most people are grieving.
They are grieving a loss of normalcy, a loss of income, maybe even a loss of someone they loved to COVID-19. People are also afraid. And not just afraid, they are uncertain. The uncertainty, for many, is the worst part, because no one knows exactly how this will end, and it’s impossible to plan when you don’t know what the consequences will be. Science tells us that uncertainty requires an enormous amount of cognitive energy. When humans are faced with uncertainties, we have create new cognitive systems to resolve that uncertainty. Biologically, it’s stressful, and it’s exhausting.
So what do you tend to do when you’re feeling stressed? Do you eat? Cry? Paint your kitchen cabinets? Go for a run? Crawl under the covers? Binge on a TV show? Pour a glass of wine? Deal with the problem immediately or ignore it completely? Every person has different coping behaviors. Some of those behaviors are, yes, slightly more healthy and helpful. We all know if your electricity is going to be shut off, stuffing the bill under your couch and hoping the problem disappears is a maladaptive behavior. But that also doesn’t mean there’s something inherently wrong with you if your first reaction isn’t to itemize all of your expenses and hop on the phone and assertively negotiate a payment plan with the utility company. We’re all human beings. We all have egos, and despite our best efforts, we are all, to some degree, reactive to our emotions. I mean, come on. Life is hard. It’s hard for you, it’s hard for me, it’s hard for the Bree Van de Kamps of the world. Add on top of it a global pandemic and economic crisis, it’s really hard.
Whether or not your “coping activity” is the same as someone else’s doesn’t matter.
We are all just trying to find a way to self-soothe and lose ourselves in something distracting. It’s okay if you’re doing yoga, it’s okay if you’re making homemade croissants. It’s okay if you’re watching all the Harry Potter movies in a row, if you’re crying yourself to sleep, if you’re drinking straight out of the bottle. Sure, we could all use some work on building healthier coping mechanisms, but it’s my personal belief that a collective crisis is not the time to start that process. You have all the time in the world, once this is over, to reflect on what behaviors have been constructive and what behaviors you’d like to change. Right now, what really matters is this:
Is it helping?
Honestly I haven’t been for a run in two weeks. I haven’t meditated or done yoga or picked up my gratitude journal. Right now, my yoga mat is languishing under a pile of dirty laundry I don’t feel like doing. But yesterday while I was buying groceries at Trader Joe’s, I bought three bouquets of flowers. To my delight, they had my favorite: orange roses. Do they fix anything? No. Do they make me feel better? Yes.
I say screw trying to be “productive.” Productivity right now is just another way society can sell you something by telling you how you’re failing. Beyond the basics of keeping yourself alive (and employed if you still are), it does not need to be your purpose. Your purpose is to feel okay. Your purpose is to take care of yourself, physically, mentally, and emotionally in a way that works for you. Ask yourself honestly, is your coping mechanism making you feel a little reprieve from all the heaviness around you? If the answer is yes, then congratulations, you’re living your best lockdown life! You’re succeeding! You’re accomplishing! You’re going to walk out of this crisis with a “glow up”–not because you learned the secrets of self-tanner and bleaching your own butthole, but because you are treating yourself right.
If your coping strategy isn’t helping, ask yourself why you’re doing it.
Are you forcing yourself to do ten downward dogs every morning because it’s actually helping you, or is it just a catalyst to more negative self-talk: “I hate this, I don’t want to do this, but if I don’t finish this yoga sequence it means I’m just lazy, I can’t just sit around all day, I’m a bum.”
There’s literally no point in doing things that seem healthy and productive if the consequence is causing you more stress and more anxiety. Not only does stress negate the healthy benefits of both diet and exercise, it also makes an already bad situation worse. Don’t torture yourself with what you’re “supposed to be doing.”
Be kind to yourself right now.
This doesn’t have to be the month you “get your best body” or write your master work. It can just be the month you survived a global catastrophe and a really hard time in your life, and that alone is an accomplishment.
Incidentally, after the volcanic eruption, Mary Shelley spent an extended period of time in “lockdown” at a country home with friends who were also writers. The weather was terrible, affected by all the ash that had entered the atmosphere, and they couldn’t go outside. As a means of passing time productively, they challenged each other to a competition to write the best horror story. Shelley was the only one to not come up with a suitable idea. Each morning, the other guests asked her if she had written anything, and each morning she had to give the “mortifying” answer that she had not. It wasn’t until later that she would have the idea for Frankenstein and begin to write the book.
Whether you’re a Mary or a Bree, remember that productivity and inspiration aren’t things you owe to a crisis. But you do owe yourself compassion.