It’s a terrible feeling to feel helpless when we’re supposed to be helping others. Anyone who has dealt with a sick kid knows the feeling all too well. It’s uniquely tough in our professional lives too, when something we can’t control is impacting things we’re in charge of taking care of.
I look at the businesses being shut down as Covid-19 continues to rattle the world and think of the decisions to let employees go or try to hang on as revenue temporarily dries up. I think of the empty shelves in stores and the clerks telling customers, “we’re all out and not sure when we’re getting more.” I think of the advisors, accountants, attorneys who are helping navigate clients to plan B, C, D, etc. It’s tough out there right now. It’s hard not to be stressed.
The more uncertain the world seems to get, the more hectic and confused each passing headline appears, the more we need to help each other to stay calm and not take steps backward. To quote Josh Brown describing how freaked out society was after 9/11, “Uncertainty doesn’t get any more uncertain than that.” It feels different yet almost parallel to now. People need confidence to take steps forward, and that confidence is starting to feel in short supply.
Psychologically, there are a few key elements to help us understand where confidence comes from. In order to feel confident, we want to feel like we have autonomy, control, and relatedness. In regular English, we all want to feel like we are A. Our own person (I am different from you and you are different from me), B. That we get to make our own choices (the ability to say “yes” and especially “no”), and C. That we are connected to others (we’re not alone or isolated).
When people panic, they look for anywhere they can grab some sense of certainty. Toilet paper is disappearing from shelves because “I need that and I know where to get it and everybody else is doing it and I don’t want to miss out so I better go buy the last one.” The fear of the flu is uncertain, but the personal decision to go buy your own toilet paper, have a war chest of a supply, and the proof we see others doing it is actually pretty (weirdly) calming. The flu is still uncertain, but the bathroom is certainly stocked. Whew. High fives all around family. Humans are amazing creatures.
In these uncertain times, we have to differentiate between the uncertainty that is extremal and the uncertainty that is internal. Whether we are looking for confidence personally or to professionally help instill it in others, it can help to remember the three sources of autonomy, control, and relatedness. People are going to want to freak out. We can do our part by keeping it safe and productive. They don’t have to be, and often won’t be, perfectly rational. But, they all will be human. If we understand why people feel the need to do things, we can at least try to help with what to do in each category.
It’s a crazy world out there right now. Externally there’s a lot that’s out of most of our hands, but internally we can all make a difference. Think about control and focus on what we can do with where we have it. When others are struggling, help them reclaim control with a healthy substitution. We have to take care of each other.