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Exit from powerlessness – between desires for authority and denial

Most of us have never experienced such radical cuts in our lives. It is now about coping: we have to cope with our fears, but also with the serious consequences that the measures to contain the Covid-19 virus have on our everyday life and our freedom of movement.

The disappearance of normality

Most of us have probably not encountered the feeling of powerlessness very often. All the more reason we seem at its mercy at the moment. It is the powerlessness in the face of the virus and the changes in our everyday lives that the pandemic means for us. It seems impossible to assess the situation really well. And we are subject to restrictions that we have never experienced before, here in Germany, since the end of the Second World War. In contrast to many other areas of the world, we have grown up with an expectation that we are socially and medically protected to the greatest possible extent and that we are largely able to shape our own lives and those of our children in a self-determined manner. Powerlessness on such a scale can be experienced by people as traumatic and few of us have adequate coping strategies. As a matter of fact, we do not yet know how the situation will develop, how long it will last, how many deaths there will be, whether we will find our way back to our old life afterwards and what will have changed then. But it becomes clear how difficult it is for most people to endure or even accept lack of knowledge and powerlessness as a mental state. Acting out en displacement activity are direct causes. Reports by the media come in thick and fast, opinions collide, conspiracy theories pop up, attitudes of denial are seen alongside doomsday scenarios and headlines. Above all, they show one thing: people’s fear and consternation.

Falling back as a person during the crisis

As a psychologist and psychotherapist I observe many people and their coping strategies in the current crisis. Again and again it becomes clear to me that in times of crisis people seem to become even more what they have always been concerned with in depth. Or in other words, the experience of powerlessness, fear or isolation seems to throw us, in a way, back into a childlike experience. We usually recover the same coping strategies as we did as a child, it is like slipping back into early strategies or fixations.

The desire for authority

One example would be the internal and actual handling of the new rules and announcements of the federal government to contain the virus. Anyone who listens carefully will notice that there is an increasing tendency among Germans to want an authoritarian hand that takes hold and takes more responsibility. There are longing glances at the Austrian Chancellor Kurz with the projection that with paternal strictness he is protecting his country better than Mama Merkel in her rather wait-and-see attitude. Such desires are often seen in people who have always secretly wished for some form of authority, who have perhaps always found the burden of responsibility arising from democratic approaches a little too heavy. 40% of Germans could imagine an authoritarian government even before Corona (according to the ZEIT, study by the University of Leipzig). Now seems to be the chance to express this wish without being seen as a traitor to democracy or raising suspicions of populist sentiments.

The desire for evidence

Such a desire for authority can also manifest itself in the postponed desire for “finally unambiguous scientific evidence”. We wish for doctors, scientists and quantitative studies, clear scientific findings. But even in science, excessive demands and helplessness are currently becoming apparent. Medicine and our health system are also reaching their limits today. As well as our wish to orientate ourselves towards renowned doctors. Those who have been given a little security by the podcast of Prof. Dr. Ch. Drosten of the Charité in Berlin will read shortly afterwards about the completely opposite views of Dr. W. Wodarg. Also findings from studies are so complex and, as a result, only presented in isolated and selective fashion, that they often contradict each other completely. Does the virus now stay on a doorknob for 72 hours or does it only leave a trace that is no longer infectious? The truth is again: most of us have no idea. There doesn’t seem to be one, the simple truth.

Denial of wealth

Another strategy for coping with feelings of powerlessness that is also learned early on in life is denial. And this is a broad field – I don’t just mean the carefree celebrating high school graduates. There is also the feeling of prosperity that the journalist Jacobsen described as the feeling of invulnerability of a generation that has never experienced deprivation and crises. Our medical system has limits, but we seem unable to anticipate or realize them. Denial of death plays a part in this and narcissistic fantasies of greatness that help us to experience ourselves as inviolable.

Conspiracy theories are the most radical inner solution

But denial can also be more serious and in this sense can become dangerous. That is how conspiracy theories evolve, which in the current case are based on control strategies of the government, raised from a purely economic interest in exaggerating the importance of the virus and from fascistic wishes to suspend the constitution. Fantasies like these are also about experiencing and dealing with power and one’s own powerlessness, but the way forward is the escalation, the division of the world into good and evil and one’s own rebellion for good. Such a kind of denial becomes dangerous above all because of the massive potential for aggression of those affected, who however experience themselves as “freedom fighters” and in this sense reflect little on their own aggression potential. And at this point I am not talking about individual fanatical fellow human being. Conspiracy theories, and extreme attitudes, which find a simple solution to the threat and which divide the world for this solution very quickly into good and evil, exist across all social educational levels.

Democracy needs adults

Whoever deals with this jungle of attitudes in the media and in private life will notice that for all views, there is evidence, like-minded people and doctors who are recognised as authorities. In view of the German history with authorities, such diversity is important and part of the basic democratic understanding. In the end, everyone can only do one thing; he can form his own picture of the current situation. Everyone of us will make decisions to take responsibility in our own way. We can and we must make our own thoughts about restrictive measures and about the danger posed by the virus.

The problem is – in times of fear and powerlessness, most people are at least partly trapped in regressive, i.e. childlike experiences. This can be seen in extreme black-and-white thinking, in hyper rigid or denying rules and in the way we deal with our fears and loneliness. It also shows itself in moments when we start to put values like solidarity and humanity behind our personal needs. We hoard toilet paper (which is symbolic of the anal issue of control and shows how much our shopping is about experiencing the semblance of control) and weapons are bought in America. The paranoid part has always been inside of us, now it is breaking through. Democracy has always demanded a great deal of us, namely the regulation of self-related fears: the fear of being left behind, the fear of distracting from ourselves and perceiving others in their need. Democracy has demanded that we think for ourselves, that we make decisions and form our own opinions. All this costs a lot of strength within the inner psychic and it requires a stable inner psychic defence system of aggressive and paranoid impulses. In times of corona this defense system seems to be overstrained in some places.

Adults need solidarity

But others, and this is really touching to see, manage to keep the fear and the experience of powerlessness better within themselves. They see how solidarity is possible with people who are old, who live alone or with people who have no home. Keeping the contact ban is important to contain the virus. But it is also important, especially when the virus should keep us busy for two years, that we do not react socially traumatized or depressed. I think that in the current crisis values such as solidarity and cohesion are central to psychologically surviving the situation and without them we cannot bear our powerlessness. In Berlin this can be seen in many small and big moments. People smile at each other when they pass each other on the street at a distance of 1.5 metres, bags for the homeless are packed and hung on fences. There are solidarity actions on balconies and some buy cinema vouchers for the small local cinema in their neighbourhood.

But we are not sure if that is enough. Whether it is enough against the isolation of the elderly, the loneliness of singles, the excessive demands of parents and the fears of the self-employed. We do not know. We simply do not know that yet.

Andrea Wurst, Coach at DynaMind