Why is it so hard to face the reality of the pandemic?

I remember seeing a story in the news some time in the recent past where a couple was trying to get into a restaurant in New York and were not allowed in because they would not, or could not, produce a proof of vaccination card. The couple became enraged and started quite a scene in front of the restaurant. What was that all about? Why such a scene? I think there is something going on here that psychoanalysis can help us understand. I want to take a few minutes of your time today and talk about an unconscious process and what can happen if it gets too close to our conscious awareness. Too close for comfort so to speak.

Let’s look at this from a different angle. A psychoanalyst I know who works with kids and I were having a conversation one day about identification with patients and making interpretations. We were talking about how we can sometimes feel that we are seeing something in a patient but that they themselves are not really seeing what we see. At times, we might make an interpretation based on what we think we are seeing, and the patient will sometimes look at us like we just stepped out of a spacecraft from Mars. He told me that his kids will sometimes say “you’re stupid” to his face. I think our adult patients sometimes think “you’re stupid” without saying it out loud too. We can sometimes just feel that we are wrong in our interpretation, but another possibility exists, I think. The other possibility is that we are seeing something and identifying with an unconscious part of the patient’s mind, but they are not able to see it. Moreover, when we point it out it causes stress and anger in the patient, and they will often react to it aggressively.

This brings me back to the restaurant. Way back at the beginning of the pandemic, there were those among us who firmly believed that a pandemic could not happen in the United States. Many held fast to that belief. I think pointing out to them that there is a pandemic raging in this country and that it is dangerous causes a great deal of anxiety because it is bringing them close to something that is going on in their own unconscious minds. Fear and anxiety, vulnerability and exposure are all uncomfortable feelings and feelings for many that should be avoided. Asking someone if they have been vaccinated or asking them to put on a mask brings them too close to that vulnerability and causes a reaction of anger and rage. One of the early writers about psychoanalytic practice warned analysts against making interpretations before patients were ready to hear them for this very reason. I am not sure what we can do for those who are not ready to accept the reality of the pandemic. Maybe the boat has already sailed. It does however, help me understand the anger and rage a little better, and just maybe, helps me with my own empathy.

Stephen M. Taylor, M. D.

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