A Perspective on Intrusive Thoughts and Social Isolation

Current Affairs Features

The recent outbreak of Covid-19 and subsequent need for social distancing has left many of us feeling isolated (both literally and metaphorically). With reduced access to welfare services and without the support networks provided through jobs, education and social interactions, these are troubling times for mental health. Though few things are certain, what I do know is that this is a temporary state of affairs and things will get better; the path ahead may not be clear, but I promise there is one. In the meantime, we must find ways to provide suitable welfare services whilst also maintaining social distance.

Without the normal distractions of everyday life, isolation can be especially difficult for people who suffer from intrusive and negative thoughts. In particular, prolonged time alone with our thoughts can be challenging for those of us with an all-or-nothing perfectionist mindset and a negative self-image. Given that the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 has left many without coping mechanisms, it is vital to develop alternate frameworks of thinking which maintain a more positive view of the self. To this end, I wish to share my own perspective on the subject both to provoke further discussion, and in the hope that what helps me may potentially help others.

Prolonged time alone with our thoughts can be challenging for those of us with an all-or-nothing perfectionist mindset and a negative self-image

Negative self-image can originate from a perfectionist mindset where the standards you set for yourself are much higher than those you set for others. Internalising these asymmetric standards leads to a paradox in which, to be a good person, you must be perfect – whereas others do not have to achieve perfection to be good people. However, of course, perfection is an impossibility: everyone makes mistakes and bad choices. This mentality can lead to the conclusion that, since you are not perfect, you must be a terrible person. Furthermore, because others do not conform to the same logic, they can remain good people despite their flaws – further accentuating your own negative self-image.

Escaping this mindset means developing a healthier mental framework for self-evaluation. To do this, it is helpful to first look at morality in absolute terms. Absolute morality entails that an act is either good or bad, with no in-between, and that all acts are equal in magnitude – this is to say that no single bad or good act can be deemed worse than any other ‘bad’ or ‘good’ act. Based on these criteria, everyone is equal in that we all do some good and some bad. Though the world does not deal in absolute morals, the conclusions raised by such an analysis retain their significance. No one can be fully devoid of good or bad behaviour. Just as certainly as you cannot be perfect, you also cannot be completely terrible.

However, even if one accepts this point, negative self-image can still stem from the belief that they are a bad person in balance. This is to say that if, in a world of relative morality and throughout their lifetime, someone’s good acts are weighed up against their bad acts, the scales tip in favour of the latter. Whether or not this is the case for any given individual, or if, instead, they are just being too harsh on themselves, is not necessarily important.

Internalising these asymmetric standards leads to a paradox in which, to be a good person, you must be perfect – whereas others do not have to achieve perfection to be good people

Since we live in the present, not the past or future, we can only be defined by who we are in a specific moment. What this means is that the scales upon which we determine our self-value are constantly in flux. When you do something bad, your scales might, in that moment, go into the negative. But given time, this weight is removed, and your scales swing back into the positive. At some point, everyone has had their scales in the negative – we are all the same in this respect. Though I do not know how many times or how far a person’s scales have gone into the negative, by the law of averages, that person’s scales are probably in the positive. This is all that really matters.

While this might only be my perspective, and holds no guarantees of helping others change their negative-thinking patterns, from my experience, learning about how different people cope with a common problem can be a highly productive way to improve personal wellbeing. At the very least I hope to have highlighted one of the many areas in which work must be conducted to ensure mental health and social distancing can be assimilated, and thus the impacts of Covid-19 be mitigated.

Image credit: Michael Driver, Creative Commons