It’s been at least two weeks for most people who have been asked to practice social distancing by staying home as world leaders and healthcare professionals work to better understand and treat the novel coronavirus COVID-19. In what felt like the blink of an eye, Americans were asked to rush to their local markets to prepare for a quarantine that would last at least 14 days. At the same time, parents were discovering their new roles as homeschool teachers to children preparing for virtual learning amid indefinite school closures. Corporate offices are working remotely and many businesses have closed their doors, leaving employees unsure about their financial futures. An invisible virus has struck the core of our human vulnerabilities. Fear of safety and well-being has consumed the American mind, body and soul. As panic and fear have settled over the country, it’s the human response to these emotions that have triggered further fears.
We’ve all seen the peculiar photos and videos of people swarming the aisles of grocery stores, fighting over toilet paper and leaving nothing but empty shelves in their wake. Toilet paper has never been in such high demand. But why is everyone hogging the toilet paper? On a practical level, one might argue, no one wants to run out of toilet paper at a time like this. However, in spite of assurances that our country is in no shortage of goods and that the essential markets and pharmacies will not be closing, people have continued to panic, resulting in ransacked toilet paper aisles across the nation. In order to better understand the “panic buyer” response to this crisis, we must look back at the formative years, specifically the stage in which when we were first introduced to toilet paper: potty training. It’s a stage that many of us do not remember, but it’s one that reveals a lot about our personality and how we respond to panic.
According to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, there are five major stages of psychological development that inform our personalities in adulthood. For the purposes of better understanding the current state, we will look at the second stage: the anal stage. The major conflict during this stage (roughly ages 1-3) is toilet training, in which the child must learn to control his or her bodily needs. Toilet training marks the first time that a child realizes he or she has control over the body–over keeping it safe, clean, and contained. Achieving this control leads to a sense of accomplishment and independence for the child. How a parent ushers a child through this phase greatly informs how the child’s personality will later develop.
Inappropriate parental support during potty training can result in one of two anal-retentive dispositions. If parents take an approach that is too lax, Freud posited that an anal-expulsive personality could develop in which the individual has a messy, wasteful, or destructive personality. On the other hand, Freud theorized that beginning toilet training too early or approaching the process with rigidity and punishment could lead to an anal-retentive personality, in which the individual is stringent, controlling, orderly, and obsessive. When looking through this lens, we are able to make sense of the aggressive shopper in aisle 4, arguing incessantly with an elderly lady over a roll of toilet paper, or the individual who is first in line, hauling shopping carts full of toilet paper to the check-out counter, obsessed with ensuring that they have an abundance of supplies.
To be sure, these uncertain times have impacted each and every one of us. We have all been triggered differently; loss of control, fear of safety, and an inability to meet our needs has shaken us to the core. But I want to encourage each of us to pause. Take a moment to really consider the following:
- What does this fear mean to you?
- What underlying trauma has been triggered at the sight of a teacher’s email, telling you that your child will now need you to take a more hands-on approach to his or her learning?
- What has been triggered by the new development of your partner now working from home, where the two of you will have to remain intentional about supporting one another–while still carving out time for yourselves within the same space?
- What has been triggered by the realization that you cannot control the safety and well-being of your elderly parents?
Now pause. Take a breath. Remember the serenity prayer and the wisdom in knowing what we can and cannot change. Remember that we are all more alike than we are different. Remember once all of the noise has quieted down, when we are brought to our knees, human to human, we all have the same inherent desire: safety. Remember to show kindness and patience to your fellow human beings: we are all moving through this unexpected, unprecedented experience together. And remember: there is enough toilet paper for everyone!