You Might Have Been Right About COVID-19, But Your Partner Might Find Themselves In The Wrong
Some of my patients in my online therapy sessions have been aware of the massive ramifications of the coronavirus long before even our government. They anticipated the layoffs, the lack of PPE, the “staying inside” directives, and the shortage of access to food. Initially, many of these folks were sent a message that they were “crazy,” overreacting, or some version of hysterical (which of course, has a ton of misogynistic resonances). Turns out, they have been right about most things that have happened and want validation.
Even before COVID-19, many of these patients had the experience of always being one (or twelve) steps ahead of everyone else. However, always being right, even about the coronavirus, can come at a cost in relationships. Partners of these folks often find themselves on the “wrong” side. They feel inadequate, shortsighted, and sometimes judged for opinions or perspectives that indicate anything less than a 360-degree analysis of the subject at hand. This dynamic puts loved ones on opposing teams rather than make room for closeness or curiosity. Both partners are left feeling bad–about themselves, the way their partners are feeling, and the future of the relationship.
Most folks recently are finding that things they have “worked through” are rearing their heads again–old coping skills are often the first things to appear in crisis. Seeing individuals and couples struggling with this relationship dynamic in my remote therapy practice, I created a three-part series on hypervigilance. In part one, I’ll explore how this trait develops in the first place and how it’s not only useful, but at times, a vital protective tool for individuals, couples, and families:
Why Are Some People Always Right?: Trauma That Leads To Hypervigilance
When children grow up in homes with trauma, a trait called hypervigilance develops as kids learn quickly that in order to avoid pain themselves or protect others from pain, they have to be alert so they can notice what might elicit harm. Associating a parent’s certain facial expression or tone of voice with the onset of explosive anger, or noticing an almost imperceptible shift in mood can send a child out of the house or into a bedroom. This can save him or her from being in the middle of explosive anger or comforting a fit of tears too intense for a kid to tolerate.
Growing up in a household in which one or both parents cannot tolerate emotional distress can also prime a kid to develop hypervigilance. Parents might signal their inability to tolerate sadness or anger by the way they [don’t] cope with their own emotions, or the way they shut down emotional exploration with their kids. A parent’s inability to tolerate unpleasant feelings frequently creates a sense of unease or unsafety in their kids. Children are extraordinarily savvy when it comes to survival; often, they intuitively know they must minimize distress at all costs in order to keep their parent regulated, so that their parent can actually be a parent to them.
Hypervigilance Can Also Develop When There’s A Void Where Parent Should Be In The Family
Hypervigilance develops in the absence of acute physical or emotional threats as well. In some homes, there exists a void in the space where a parent should be in a family system. This might occur if one or both parents have particular trouble dealing with the logistical responsibilities of parenting and family managing, like paying bills, providing meals, and managing organizational needs of kids (e.g. tracking when field trip permission slips are due and when it’s their turn for carpool). Many parents, particularly parents in lower income families who work more jobs during “graveyard” hours, simply don’t have the bandwidth to contend with all the parenting responsibilities their families demand of them.
Furthermore, the ability to use executive functioning skills, like juggling multiple demands and managing scheduling, is compromised by stress; we know that just existing as a lower income member of society, especially if you are a person of color in America, exponentially increases stress. Given these obstacles, kids often have to fill the parent void in family systems, without the fully developed brains and cognitive skills to do so. More things are threatening to a kid than an adult, and so they begin to formulate their basis of self-protection around an abundance of perceived threats.
Hypervigilance Can Be Very Useful For Kids And Adults
Often along with this heightened emotional alertness comes a meticulous ability to see potential loopholes, obstacles, or other threats down the road. Not unlike survivalists who stockpile water bottles in the basement for the apocalypse or citizens who anticipated the disastrous effect of COVID-19 long before anyone else, kids who grow up with trauma learn to prepare for the worst by anticipating every single thing that could threaten their safety. It also helps them feel more in control, which is a potent tool against the ways in which the threat of harm unravels bodily and psychic autonomy. And as these kids eventually become adults, they take this hypervigilance with them into their lives and relationships.
The hypervigilant patients I see have gotten a lot out of this trait. They’ve countlessly mitigated threat for themselves and others by anticipating all of the ways a decision might be risky. They’ve assumed leadership positions and are relied upon because of their strong convictions. Also, people really like you when you are alert to others’ moods and subtly shift to accommodate for them. They really like you for knowing what they need, sometimes even before they know they need it. They really like you for anticipating all the ways a trip could go wrong and preparing for it by packing extra sunscreen, switching the phone plans to international roaming, stockpiling Purell before it runs out, etc.
This is especially attractive for hypervigilant individuals because when people really, really, really like you, they are much less likely to harm you.