- Planning is a critical and necessary part of life, but the pandemic has taught us how much of an illusion it is that we can control the future. Tweet This
- One reason kids today have soaring rates of anxiety is due to a focus on outcome rather than the process of getting there, and an obsessive need to plan for and control the future. Tweet This
Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans, or so the saying goes. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that planning for the future is overrated. Uncertainty is an adversity we have to live with even in the best of times, and it can be painful even for those who are well adjusted. As a psychoanalyst in New York City, I know that my patients often plan their vacations a year or two in advance, start to tutor their kids for the college entrance exams two years in advance, and schedule their social events months before they occur. Planning is a critical and necessary part of life, but the pandemic has taught us how much of an illusion it is that we can control our future. A silver lining of the pandemic is that it is teaching us to humble ourselves in the face of our need for control over the future and how to have resilience in the face of that uncertainty.
Resilience, or the ability to cope with the unknown, is not something we are born with, rather it is something we learn from being given a foundation of emotional security through the consistent presence of our caregivers throughout our childhood—particularly in the critical windows of development, between 0 to age 3 and 9 to age 25. If we have that requisite of emotional security or secure attachment, and we are exposed to incremental amounts of frustration as we grow, when we have our parents to help us to process that frustration, we develop resilience to disappointment, rejection, and uncertainty.
Unfortunately, many kids and adults lacked a foundation of emotional security and were forced to experience too much stress or adversity too early. They do not feel secure, safe, or certain about the source of their emotional and physical security, often compensating with an unhealthy obsessional need for control. Other children are raised in a controlled bubble with too much protection and buffering from frustration and disappointment, like an emotional immune system which is never challenged with exposure to germs, resulting in emotional fragility and susceptibility to breakdown.
Back in October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health. One reason kids today have soaring rates of anxiety is due to a focus on outcome rather than the process of getting there, and an obsessive need to plan for and control the future. A great body of evidence shows that mindfulness or being grateful and present in the here and now is good for us emotionally and physically. Numerous studies have found that journaling about gratitude results in increased feelings of happiness and optimism. As a clinician, I often prescribe mindfulness training and mediation as an antidote to anxiety over an obsessional need to know the future.
It is important to plan for the future; however, an obsessive and rigid need for control over the outcome makes you fragile and susceptible to breakdown. One of my patients, a 17-year-old girl who suffered from anxiety prior to the pandemic due to her preoccupation over being successful in school and in her future career, was positively impacted by COVID-19. From the time she started middle school, she had been indoctrinated by her school and her parents that she needed to worry over detail and precisely plan for the future. Every decision she made, and every activity she engaged in was part of a grand scheme to control the outcome of getting into a good college and then a medical school. Then, came the pandemic. Many of the activities she engaged in were cancelled, school went online, and her impressive summer internships disappeared. She needed to redesign how she thought about and lived her life. She had to learn to live in the present with uncertainty about the future, to be mindful of her life and her pleasure in the here and now. She started to speak to me regularly as something she could rely on. She took up the guitar just because she liked it rather than it being part of a grand scheme of getting into a good college, and she created routines around schoolwork and friends that were less rigid and more about the process rather than the outcome. The disappointments, which were challenging for her, became doors that opened a potential in her for resilience and a chance to become more emotionally flexible.
Uncertainty is not the enemy. In fact, it can be the antidote to our need to control every aspect of life. We can learn a great deal from the adversity of this pandemic, but one of the greatest lessons is feeling grateful for the moments of health, happiness, and connection in the present rather than focusing on the loss of canceled plans. As parents, we model our attitudes, our mental flexibility, and our resilience to our kids. We need to teach them that the pandemic is not the end of the world and, in fact, may be the beginning of learning to live with the unknown.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters and Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety. Ms. Komisar is a Contributing Editor to the Institute For Family Studies.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.