Almost everyone agrees that being prepared for the worst while hoping for the best is the ideal way to get through life. It's balancing optimism with action, which makes perfect sense right? On one hand, optimism without action is just being blindly oblivious to reality. On the other hand, being laser focused on inevitable trauma robs you of a fulfilling life.
In theory, we all agree on this. But where are the lines drawn? How can you tell when you've slipped from Boy Scout to Doomsday Prepper? How do you know if you're teaching your kids to be thoughtful and self-reliant, or creating mini-balls of crippling neuroses?
The world – especially right now – isn't exactly helping matters. Coronavirus is public enemy number one. But then there's also the fact that climate change has nature erupting into fits of destructive insanity, healthcare is still a privilege rather than a right in far too many places, and school shootings are a bi-weekly occurrence. It is not a time to be even mildly anxious, so it's understandable if the state of things has you teetering on the edge of a full-on panic room scenario.
We all want to protect our families and ourselves, so let's try and find the happy medium that allows us to consider stepping outside once in a while.
The Healthy Way to Prepare for the Worst
"Preparedness not only makes sense from a practical standpoint, it is, I believe, a responsibility that every parent has," says Dr. George Everly, Jr., a professor at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and author of When Disaster Strikes: Inside Disaster Psychology.
In his work, Everly often uses a different term when discussing the concept of being prepared: Resilience. Not only does this choice of word carry with it significant connotations – it makes you think of someone who is resourceful and strong, not worried – it also sits at the core of a very important psychological trait.
"Preparation does bring not only reassurance but a sense of self-efficacy," says Everly. "Self-efficacy lies at the root of self esteem."
"Self-efficacy," Everly points out, was coined by Canadian-American psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura, the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. In the 60s and 70s, Dr. Bandura conducted a number of studies on this concept, which essentially boil down to a person's belief in their ability to alleviate their own phobias. It's not so much a belief that you can avoid problems by being prepared, it's that you are confident that you can overcome them when they plop on your doorstep.
This is an important distinction. One is having an almost talisman-like belief that your emergency kit will ward off danger; the other combines action with self-reliance and a form of optimism. In a Psychology Today essay "Preparing for Bad Things," Everly calls this "Active Optimism," which he defines as the belief "that life events will turn out well, largely because one believes she/he possesses the ability to assist in making things turn out well." That's the sweet spot.
In addition to a strong sense of self-efficacy, Everly believes that confidence in previous success is vital (locking the doors and avoiding all dangers won't actually prepare anyone for anything), as are encouragement and self-control. Learning to keep stress levels down and emotions in check can do a lot to help you overcome problems or handle unexpected emergencies. After all, panic leads to doubt and confusion and, ultimately, a much worse situation.
The Unhealthy Way to Prepare For the Worst
There's a big difference between preparation — and Everly's idea of Active Optimism — and pure paranoia.
"Can one worry and prepare to an excessive degree? Of course, as one can eat too much chocolate cake or exercise too much or even drink too much water," says Everly. "The bottom line, I believe, is prepare as best one can for the highest probability 'worst case scenarios' then leave it alone. Move on."
However, Everly is more concerned about the other end of the spectrum, where parents lean too much into optimism to the point where they seem to actively deny the existence of real world concerns.
"Repression and denial can be effective ego defense mechanisms and are certainly the prerogative of any given individual," he says. "But I believe that prerogative must yield to a higher responsibility one has to one's children."
To Everly's early point about action being a necessary component of preparedness and resilience, Dr. Clifford Lazarus offers a succinct distillation of the idea in his essay "Why Optimism Can Be Bad For Your Mental Health." In it, Dr. Lazarus explains the difference between types of optimism that echo Everly's beliefs.
"The difference between false optimism and rational optimism can be captured by two different statements," he writes. "'There's nothing to be concerned about, everything will be just grand.' That's false optimism. The second statement reflects realistic optimism: 'We've got a real mess on our hands, things don't look too good, but if we tackle it step by step, we can probably do something about it'."
While both Everly and Lazarus preach the perfectly reasonable idea of action along with resilience and optimism, even those concepts can go too far. All you have to do is see the deeply unnerving lack of Purell at the store in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak, or the mad, panicky rush to stock up on water and essentials when a severe storm is on the horizon. This is action, for sure, but it is action robbed of realistic optimism and, in many cases, credible information.
A lot of the psychological problems that fester alongside attempts to prepare for disaster come from a lack of information mixed with speculation, imagination, and outright lies. Being able to sift through the social media Chicken Littles who declare the end of the world with every sneeze is vital for not only true preparedness, but for passing on a sense of resilience and emotional strength to your children. A constant barrage of misinformation can make any form of action seem pointless, which is counterproductive.
"People who exhibit pessimism with limited self-efficacy may perceive psychosocial stressors as unmanageable," says Everly. "And are more likely to dwell on perceived deficiencies, which generates increased stress and diminishes potential problem-solving energy, lowers aspirations, weakens commitments, and lowers resilience."
So where does that leave us?
There's the simple truth that we're never going to be prepared for everything. The world is a Whack-a-Mole game of problems and tragedies, and something will catch you off-guard at some point. Locking yourself in a well-stocked bunker also isn't a viable option for anything remotely resembling a life. What is, is to cultivate a sense of self-efficacy in yourself and your children. The optimism of "I didn't see this coming, but I can overcome it." So, prepare. Have contingency plans in place. Be ready for the worst. Practice resilience. And help yourself — and your family — understand that things will be under control. And maybe buy a 30-pack of batteries.
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