Hi, are you being an absolute dick for almost no reason? Irrationally furious all the time? Continually on the verge of hissing at strangers in the street? Unable to stop flaunting your smugsolation life while at the same time judging everyone else’s? It’s okay. Come, join us in the Circle of Dicks! It isn’t as fun as it sounds.
These are times, we know, of stark contrasts. On the one hand, a crisis brings out the best of humanity. We’re being presented, daily, with reasons to clap, cheer and cry at the sheer goodness of people. And yet, on a personal level, some of us are feeling like the worst versions of ourselves. Pompous, pedantic. Judgmental. Defensive. Likely to snap at the tiniest thing. I spent a crotchety fortnight this month wondering why my period was coming on early, before realising it wasn’t at all. PMS is just my permanent state. Pandemic Mardiness Syndrome.
"I've noticed myself being much more snarky towards my partner about household stuff," admits Refinery29’s Lifestyle Director Jess Commons. "Pointing out cleaning bits he's missed in an eye-rolly way, and loudly complaining as a 'joke' to my friends on Zoom about how messy he is."
My inbox confirms she’s not alone. While our public output is all sunshine and rainbows, our WhatsApp groups have become little pockets of pent-up frustration and seething discontent. I’ve vented to friends about stupid people in the supermarket, smug people on Twitter and the disappointing traybake I cooked last night. They’ve raged back about overfamiliar emails, oversensitive neighbours, overbearing family members and whatever their housemate did or didn’t do in the bathroom. And then we feel bad about the venting and the raging. "I hoped that going through an experience like this would help me become more generous and tolerant," admits one friend, "but nope. I’m tutting at people for sitting down on a bench."
Online, the potential for endless 'whataboutery' is sending us back and forth like a furious pinball machine. You’re a dick if you’re having too nice a time in lockdown, posting your vases of peonies and elaborate gourmet dinners – but you’re also a dick if you mock people who are simply looking for comfort to cling to. You’re a dick if you complain when there are people worse off than you, apparently, but you’re also a dick if you shame the complainer. It’s Newton’s third law of motion: for every dickish action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The people flouting rules and risking lives are being dicks. But those gleefully policing other people’s behaviour are also being dicks. The people who barrel down the middle of the pavements without respecting the two-metre rule are dicks – but then so am I for muttering obscenities at them as I make a big show of stepping into the road. The supermarket stockpilers are selfish dicks but so are the people who haven’t stopped to consider what the poor anxious stockpilers might be going through.
"Maybe," I announced to a friend the other day in a revelatory tone, "everyone is just 30% more of a dick right now. And we have to allow each other that margin."
According to Sarah Lewis, principal psychologist at psychological consultancy Appreciating Change, an increase in fractious behaviour is to be expected for evolutionary reasons. "The current situation presents a very real threat," she explains. "When we feel threatened, our thought-action repertoire diminishes. Our ability to be flexible, to be open, to be interested in novelty, to be social; all of those things diminish, and we're only concerned with our own survival. We revert to 'fight, flight or freeze'. But of course, you can't fight a virus, and you can't run away from it – so those difficult emotions are finding other outlets."
Other outlets, such as picking a completely needless fight with your partner about which of you is better at painting walls (me, because I am "more aesthetically minded"). I know what you’re thinking. That I’m a dick for mentioning I have walls, and paint, and a partner, when others do not.
While some of us pick fights, others choose flight. "This means you discount the threat," says Lewis. "Thinking, It’s not that serious, I’m not old, I don’t have underlying conditions etc – it’s simply another coping mechanism. But you can see how the two might irritate each other." So perhaps the person bumbling into your personal space on the pavement isn’t a selfish monster after all. They’re just in flight mode.
Jess has had a similar epiphany about her domestic dickery. "I've realised it comes down to anxiety and me wanting to keep control over my space, which is feasibly all I can control right now, so I see every shoe left in the middle of the floor like an attack," she says. "I think realising why you're doing the dickishness kind of helps."
Once we realise why we’re being dicks, the next stage is appreciating why other people might be – what the grown-ups call empathy. Instead of being affronted by the idea, as Lewis puts it, that "other people are trespassing against us by having it better," let’s remember Newton’s law and take a minute to think about our equal but opposite dick.
For every person clawing the walls with boredom, there will be another who thinks your furlough sounds like an all-expenses-paid spa break. For every person locked down with young kids who can’t bear to see one more photo of a perfect sourdough, there will be a person trying to fill quiet days after cancelled IVF or postponed baby-making plans. For every person dealing with Too Much Life just now, there will be someone else who feels as though theirs is on indefinite hold. And both situations are hard. Both deserve sympathy and understanding. Both, yes, might make us temporarily a little bit more of a dick.
"Find ways of changing your mood. Count your blessings. Work out what you can still be grateful for. Gratitude is a very useful emotion for moving us from an angry state to something a bit more productive," says Lewis. Unsurprisingly, she recommends rationing your news and social media exposure, and suggests getting absorbed in something else as a way of safely releasing steam. "It’s often difficult to start because you’re agitated and antsy, but try to find an activity that takes you out of yourself," she says. "Something sufficiently challenging that it becomes all-encompassing."
Like those inconsiderate runners taking up half the pavement? "That’s what they’re doing. One step just follows another."
But if exercise is too irritating a prescription just now, you’ll be glad to know that Lewis also recommends the best kind of medicine. "Humour is really important for managing mood. You’re not being disrespectful by finding ways to laugh," she says. "It’s a restorative process. We need it, it allows us to get back to a functioning place quicker."
So let’s work on maintaining our sense of humour and cut everyone some slack, whatever their particular brand of dickheadery might be. The more I think about it, the more I decide this is the best idea I have had all lockdown: a 30% margin of mild obnoxiousness, to be used however we choose. You’re not allowed to slam me for being a dick, nor am I allowed to be a dick to you about your own dickishness. I hope that makes sense.
And if it doesn’t, feel free to keep the thought to yourself.