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Self-Worth and the Pandemic

OK, so we’re not all astrophysicists.

Astrophysics is all over the news. Venus’ atmosphere may contain life! Front-page story in the New York Times. Closer to home, three astrophysicists published extraordinary books: The Smallest Lights in the Universe, The Sirens of Mars, and The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). All are by female academics, and all received great reviews. My patient April, who is home on furlough from her job, went out and read them. This was, she said, a mistake.

The mistake, apparently, is that they made her feel useless.

April works at an interior design firm, and specializes in antique textiles. She knows a lot about rugs and tapestries. It’s nothing she actually studied, but after years of working with clients—who initially knew more than she did—she picked up the language and developed her taste. “You want an 18th century French Verdure Aubusson for your office?” she asked one day. “Oh, just kidding. I see you more as the Italian cut velvet type.” Oh, dear. Don’t ask.

April likes to show off (even though she pretended the display of erudition was really a joke on her). It’s part of our relationship that I play along.

I’ve been treating April for a few years, mostly for feelings of rivalry with her older sister Marilyn, who runs a logistics firm that serves truckers in the South and Midwest. “We couldn’t be more different,” she told me. “And Marilyn never lets me forget it.” Since they were children, in fact, Marilyn has made light of April’s interests and suggested that she wasn’t good for much of anything. When they were growing up, Marilyn said “Someday, you’ll furnish dollhouses,” and the taunt still troubles April. “I guess I do really play with dolls, except now they’re grown up and live in big houses.”

I’ve tried to help April see that helping wealthy people furnish their homes is not useless. It’s not going to save the world, but neither is it anything to make fun of. “You’re adding beauty to people’s lives, you’re probably alleviating stress,” I told her. But we go round and round on this idea, with April claiming that the only stress on these people is when their friends have even more beautiful furnishings. She sees life in terms of competition. So, she sees herself as laughably insignificant—a loser who can toss around some museum-quality terms.

When April read the books by these astrophysicists, she felt devastated. Here were three brilliant women (one actually was a MacArthur Genius) who were doing amazing work. When the news came out about Venus, one had been on the research team and was quoted in the Times. “I feel utterly frivolous by comparison,” she said.

It was that “by comparison” that struck me. April has a hard time thinking of herself except in relative terms—if it’s not her sister, then it’s some idea of a terrific woman whom she’ll never be. During the pandemic, when she’s stuck at home and her clients are hunkered down, she feels this sense of relative pointlessness even more acutely.

“You know,” April told me, “it’s not as bad when I’m busy. My clients seem to appreciate me, even if I think it’s all such a joke.” The pandemic has pried her away from her usual sources of ego enhancement, and from most sources of support beyond her friends (who are largely in the same line of work, and would be insulted if she revealed what was really on her mind). It created a perfect storm to undermine April: lots more time, no reinforcement, so lots more self-doubt. It allowed her to discover even more people of whom to be envious. “I don’t even know why I read those books,” she said. “They sounded so interesting, and I thought I’d learn something.” They were, in fact, fantastically interesting—but so were the authors, and that was her problem. “I could have predicted I’d feel bad, and I did.”

So how was I going to help her when she had no work, her friends couldn’t be any help, and there weren’t a lot of obvious opportunities to go out and be of use? (I suppose I could have bought that Aubusson, but I wasn’t going there).

I thought to encourage April by suggesting that, first of all, the mere fact that she plowed through those books showed real intellectual curiosity. “They’re great books, and I’m sure they’re not beach reading. You have a mind.” I pointed out how much she’d learned about textiles, even though she was dismissive of how she’d used her knowledge. “Maybe while you’re waiting to get back to work, you could write something for one of those professional journals—interior design is in vogue.” I wanted her to realize that the circle of people who valued what she did was wider than she thought. But even apart from any outside validation—which she craved—I wanted April to realize that intrinsically, apart from what people said, she had value.

A lot of people who are stuck at home during the pandemic, not doing much of anything, feel as though their paltry value has finally been exposed (“Look at all those essential workers—now they’re doing something!”). If you’re stuck at home, what do you do all day except eat, exercise (if you can), and try to stay sane? If your ego is fragile, you suffer, and question what you’re doing with your life. You turn inward; you mine all your old anxieties. Boredom doesn’t help. Even some innocuous activity, like reading a book by an astrophysicist, can set you off. It reminds you of what you haven’t done, and of whom you’ll never be.

April told me that she never feels any competition with men. “I don’t care what they do,” she said. “It’s the women who make me feel bad.” She was, by her own admission, still fighting a rear-guard battle with her sister. In fact, during the pandemic, it was going full blast, since Marilyn was still doing logistics for truckers, much of whose work was critical during this period. “Marilyn said that she designed some route to get PPE from hospitals in the Upper Midwest to ones in the South. She felt she was really helping.” And she was. But should that diminish April? We spoke about what she could do.

In fact, April was very smart. We talked about how, as the schools on Long Island opened up online, she could offer to tutor kids. She could even offer classes on textiles—the kids could use something besides the usual fare to keep them interested. The point was not to sit home and sulk. “You need to feel productive, and do things that you respect yourself for without anyone’s reassurance.” She said that maybe she could start her own YouTube channel, and teach people how to beautify their homes. Wow! If she could acknowledge the idea that beauty was not some frivolous pursuit—if she could put that idea into practice—then that was progress. “Do you realize what you just said?” I asked. “You just identified your own value.”

April thought about that for a while, and then wondered whether anyone would want to learn. “Maybe they’ll get bored,” she said. I suggested that, more likely, they’re bored already, and that she could add something to their lives. It was at least worth a try.

During this pandemic, as we try to hold things together, we have to start with ourselves. We have to begin to see how we matter, and how we can recognize for ourselves that we do. Even if we’re not astrophysicists.