There are germs everywhere; but most of the time, you don’t get sick because of your physical immune system, consisting of everything from the tough hide of your skin, to the snotty mucus of your nose; the white cells of your blood, to your ability to sneeze and vomit all the bad stuff out of town. Fever, too, is part of an immune response, as your body cooks the germs out of existence.
The body’s immune response is as wonderful and useful as it is disgusting and often uncomfortable. Thank God you have it. But you should also thank God, or whatever you choose to thank, that you have an emotional immune system, as well. For, while there is stress everywhere, most of the time you don’t go mad.
A key part of the emotional immune system is your personality, your preferred way of coping. There are all kinds of methods of coping. You can get funny or serious, aggressive or compliant, quiet or talkative, bold or shy, take risks or be careful. No one way works in every event, so that’s why it’s best to be flexible, so you can tailor your coping strategy to suit any situation. Just as an immune system designs an antibody for every virus, be adaptable and employ whatever helps you manage your feelings.
Trouble arises when your personality is inflexible, when you acquire a desirable trait in one setting that doesn’t work in another but persist in using it. The jokester who cracks up at funerals or the somber one who’s a downer at a wedding. In the time before the Coronavirus pandemic, friendly, outgoing, affectionate people, who were always on the run had all the advantages. Now, not so much. Now, those people are especially miserable unless they can adjust. The introverts, who practiced social distancing before it was cool, are having a heyday.
If you’re having a hard time adjusting, join the crowd. Of course, it’s hard. The world is turned upside down. Grieve your loss. Don’t blame yourself for having trouble but get on with learning to find the joy of quiet contemplation and the freedom of not having an answer to everything. Explore the unknown by never leaving your house.
We shrinks have a name for the pathological state of not being flexible. We call it a personality disorder. There are various subcategories of this kind of madness: narcissistic, sociopathic, borderline, dependent, avoidant, and so on; but, basically, if you take any single personality trait and stubbornly persist with it, you have yourself a personality disorder. Take self-confidence, for instance. Believing in yourself can be a good thing until your need to do so turns you into an arrogant, self-centered egoist who exploits others for his self-aggrandizement and goes off on anyone who doesn’t worship him. Taken to this extreme, your therapist would say you have a narcissistic personality disorder.
You may not realize that you have a personality disorder. Your way of thinking and behaving seems right to you. You’ll blame others for the challenges you face. People with personality disorders drive everyone else crazy long before they start to get troubled by it. Because they won’t adapt, everyone else must adapt to them. Eventually, they will succumb to stress because their rigid personality alienates everyone and fails to immunize them from the stressors of life.
This concept of the psychological immune system, first described by Theodore Millon, is simple, yet profound and illuminating. But, there’s more. I don’t want to make it sound like if you get healthy and flexible as an individual, everything’s going to be OK. Both the physical and the emotional immune systems are bigger than just you. There’s such a thing as social immunity.
Social immunity from germs occurs when individuals sacrifice some of their well-being for the group; when sick people quarantine and well people take care of the sick; when workers stay home and those who don’t need to work take care of the workers; when other objectives are set aside in favor of seeking a cure or acquiring supplies.
Social immunity from emotional stress occurs when there is cooperation, solidarity, conviviality, compassion, mutual respect, and shared values. In other words, when everyone is pitching in and you don’t feel like you are dealing with your feelings alone.
This is what has been lacking. We have splintered into tribes at war with one another. We have denied our dependence on each other. If nothing else, the whole coronavirus pandemic should prove that we are in this together. The physical pandemic happens when someone eats a bat and the whole world gets sick. A few people have a party, and they spread the disease to hundreds. Some selfishly withhold supplies and people die. The emotional stress gets to us when some spread lurid gossip that undermines trust. When leaders deflect blame rather than take responsibility. When we are too enamored with dissention, want to have our own way, and gain at the cost of others. Our social immune system has flaws, so it doesn’t matter how personally emotionally healthy you are; you’re in the middle of a shit show like everyone else.
It may be just as well that we are stuck in our homes with our families, for maybe then we can begin to rebuild, on a smaller scale, a healthy social immune system. The place to start, of course, is with yourself. Take a look at your personality. Are you whining for what you can’t do or are you looking for what you can? Do you insist on having things your way or can you try some other way? Do you listen to warnings or do you think you know it all? Any inflexibility you find is not only putting yourself at risk, it is burdening the people around you.