A Psychologist Explains How Masks Transform Our Social Relationships

Check out this new article by Frank Faranda author of “The Fear Paradox”

If it feels weirdly shameful to make eye contact in a mask, you’re not alone

The first time I wore a mask out in public felt strange. And I’m not just referring to the odd physical sensations — the constriction, the foggy glasses. Rather, a surprising emotion surfaced as I passed a man on the street.

I knew him by sight from the neighborhood, someone I might casually say “hey” to or just give a nod. We do that in my suburban neighborhood; we say “hi,” and we nod. I like that about us. But as he approached, I found myself averting my eyes and lowering my head. We passed each other without saying a word, and as I continued down the road, I realized how uneasy I felt. It was more than the heightened vigilance, more than the subtle measuring of distance or the tightening of my muscles — something else seemed wrong to me. It took me a while to realize what I was feeling: It was shame.

Many of my patients in psychotherapy struggle with feelings of shame, a sense that there is something bad within them or about them. I have my own share of this as well; many of us do. When we are exposed to strong feelings of disapproval from those we depend on, particularly when we are young and vulnerable, shame is often the result. And, quite understandably, shame is also an outgrowth of abuse. Contemporary western culture has come to pathologize shame because of these toxic sources and its use as a tool of power. This is a malignant and unhealthy shame.

Like all emotions, however, shame evolved because of its value to us as a species. Shame can help us recognize that we have let down our community and ourselves. In this way, shame can be an instructive force. To me, there is something potentially healthy in this form of shame, something akin to a conscience, a “hitting bottom,” or a call to redemption.

This is what I felt that day on the street when I passed that man — a recognition that in wearing my mask, I was doing more than slowing the arc of a virus. I was also opening the door to a new world where we value survival more than trust.

Beyond the instinctual bonds of species or the loyalty of “clan” and “tribe,” trust is our willingness to place our lives in the hands of another, to give our weight to someone, to surrender to them. We do this knowing that we are all capable of being hurt deeply by people we know and by those we don’t. Trust transcends survival, and it is a vital part of what makes us human.

Asa psychologist, I have spent years studying the unusual movements of fear in our lives. But it wasn’t until Covid-19 that my understanding of certain aspects of fear came to life. Every day with my patients, I am witnessing a whole new reality, one where we are all being conditioned to distrust.

We are avoiding social contact. Our vital efforts to flatten the curve are working. Covid-19 is not going away, but its spread is — in many cities — slowing. But what will all this mean in terms of the future of social relationships? Will this fear-based education irrevocably alter something important within us?

Fear has a strange capacity to work its way unseen into our lives. It seems to find every crack of vulnerability within us and grow there. That moment on the street made me acutely aware of one of those cracks: our vulnerability in relation to each other.

Covid-19 is an invisible enemy, and fear thrives on what cannot be seen.

The movements of fear are often paradoxical. The history of our attempts to ensure our security reveals that no matter how well-intentioned our efforts are, they often leave us more afraid than before. The atomic bomb did not make the world safer and walls built to protect only make us weaker. The internet failed in its promise to unite the world and Facebook only reveals to us how fragile our relational security actually is.

Social trust provides the foundation of human security. From the earliest moments of our lives, interpersonal connection is what makes us human and keeps us safe. The vulnerability of this connection is not to be avoided, but rather to be celebrated.

We need to be mindful that we don’t get confused about who or what the real enemy is. The enemy is not you and me and not even the virus; the real enemy is fear. And we had better figure out how to deal with it.

Truly trusting another person—believing they will “do right” as Harper Lee expressed it—is more than just the fulfillment of a contract or the exercise of fairness; it is a gesture of our willingness to suspend suspicion and lay down our arms. The shame I felt that day was healthy. It was a recognition that even though my precautions were indisputably necessary, they were also unconsciously laying the groundwork for our social undoing. Collectively, we must take care not to lose the fragile human connections that make life worth living.

The Fear Paradox

How Our Obsession with Feeling Secure Imprisons Our Minds and Shapes Our Lives (For Readers of Culture of Fear)

A history and culture of fear. Over the last five hundred years, life for the average human being has changed dramatically—plagues no longer wipe out entire families, and no longer do we empty our chamber pots into the street. But, progress in the West has shown that no matter how many dangers we neutralize, new ones emerge. Why? Because our level of fear remains constant.

Fear in contemporary society. For years, Dr. Frank Faranda studied a state of fearfulness in his patients—an evolutionary state that relentlessly drove them toward avoidance, alienation, hypercriticism, hyper-control, and eventually, depression and anxiety. He began to wonder what they were afraid of, and how embedded these fears might be in contemporary society. This book aims to break us free from what he found.

Fear not. Faranda’s Fear Paradox is simple—even though fear has a prime directive to keep us safe and comfortable, it has grown into the single greatest threat to humanity and collective survival. As a consequence, fear is embedded in our culture, creating new dangers and inciting isolation. With global pandemic disruptions and rising anxiety levels, now is the time to shine a light on our deepest fears and examine the society that fear is creating.

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