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Spring 2023 · Vol. 52 No. 1 · pp. 21–27 

The Misguided Promise of Relational Defenses and the Courage to Hope

Autumn Lindberg

The first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted our world in ways we are still coming to understand. We have been confronted with parts of ourselves and our communities that surprised, and sometimes disappointed, us. From the vantage point of a practicing, clinical therapist who is in community with church leaders, I offer this reflection on some of the pain points we experienced. I will also address the relational defenses many used in this challenging time to protect themselves and the striking awareness that they did not deliver the quick and simple fix they promised. Instead, hope in the midst of long suffering seems to yield a more abundant harvest than might be expected. I have come to know hope as it has been conveyed through the personal stories of my clients. My clients’ troubles were amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was surprised to witness that this very amplification made possible psychological and relational breakthroughs that helped them heal. 1 This essay will examine the less-than-noble reactions that overtook {22} us during this painful time, which, when paired with compassionate understanding, allowed hope to find a new way forward.

Even when we are faced with trauma, our brains are hardwired for hope.


American popular culture often mistakes fear for anxiety, and loss for depression. For those who were already experiencing clinical depression or anxiety disorders when the pandemic hit, many of them experienced an escalation of symptoms because old wounds and negative patterns were amplified. 2 However, far more pervasive were the experiences of fear and loss, which have since become chronic. Discerning and naming them as such can be a first step to healing. There is resistance to naming fear and loss because unlike clinical depression and anxiety disorders, the suffering is situational and often less responsive to medication. 3 It was scary when our familiar reality suddenly crumbled. Grocery stores had empty shelves for the first time in this generation, medications to treat respiratory issues or fevers were in short supply, and people were overwhelmed by the flood of misinformation and disinformation (for example, masking vs. not masking; toilet paper and water scarcity; when and how to disinfect our groceries). The panic mounted as we believed that the safety of our loved ones hung in the balance, and we had no time to sift through the flood of information or confirm the reliability of sources. 4 Once masking became the norm, strangers assumed the worst in each other. Even the “good” people we thought we knew started behaving harshly and selfishly. After all (we thought), if we can pin our neighbor or the grocery clerk as the enemy out to get us, it might justify our unexplained fear and limit it to that awful person, without whom, I would not be experiencing this distress. That justification felt more manageable than our feeling of helplessness in the face of an invisible and unpredictable disease. However, as much as we unconsciously wanted it to, no amount of vilifying was going to distance us from the impossible-to-control devastation and wildfire spread of this pandemic. 5

“I thought you were better than that,” a woman sneered as she leaned into the church welcome booth on a Sunday morning, just inches away from the masked church leader behind the table. Her disapproval was steeped in disgust. Stunned, the church leader was speechless. Later, in therapy, the leader reflected on the years the two women had known each other, that their children had gone to school together and that they had brought each other meals after various surgeries and baby deliveries. “It was the betrayal behind her eyes that stuck with me. It was like she didn’t even see me in that moment, like she was so worked up that I was wearing a mask that I couldn’t connect with her at all. That was how it was with COVID-19: people you knew for years suddenly changed and {23} retreated to one side or the other . . . you were either with them or against them.” This is a poignant therapeutic example of what it feels like to be projected upon. “On the surface,” she went on to say, “it looked like an issue of whether or not I chose to wear a mask, but now I can see that there was so much more going on.”


Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck used the term “polarized thinking” to describe a phenomenon where people oversimplify situations to cope with them. 6 Polarized thinking makes things “all good” or “all bad.” It drives complex phenomena into simple categories that leave no room for nuance. It helps to understand that this can be a reaction to big feelings that do not make sense with the limited categories we have, so we ignore details that do not fit. Or we use what’s known as a confirmation bias 7 to force new facts into our limited categories. This tendency to polarize appears to be stronger when people are in a group. A person in a group can more easily get on board with a particular side of an issue than a person in a one-on-one discussion in which they can be held accountable for their values. This was seen in church congregations when one influential member drove others to a polarized stance on various pandemic-related issues.

The danger with polarized thinking in our congregation became apparent as soon as people began to believe that their stance was superior to those of others. Their sense of superiority soon inspired socially sanctioned cruelty within our church body. As Adrienne Maree Brown notes, “Supremacy is our ongoing pandemic. It partners with every other [sin] to tear us from life or from lives worth living. 8 Lest we flatter ourselves with the thought that we would never do that, we are wise to remember that belief in the supremacy of our ideas is a slippery slope to believing in our own supremacy over others. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment readily demonstrates this: “The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.” 9 Thankfully, Zimbardo assures us that we are not destined to act evil; heroic and moral choices are always possible. 10


As social creatures, we look for our Alphas (someone in authority) to make the call, particularly in times of community danger. In 2020, when our nation was gripped with fear, some news media impugned the trustworthiness of authorities like police officers, political leaders, medical experts, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The alarming facts presented on news feeds might have been accurate or misleading, but many of us were isolated in our homes and unable to {24} discern what was true or false when we discussed “the facts” with our trusted friends on social media.

The posture I assumed in therapy most often early in the pandemic was to ground my clients in what was still the same. I routinely reminded them that they were still the ethical, competent, and accomplished people they were before lockdown. I gave them examples of how those strengths were still present and active, or how those strengths could be activated in this novel situation. Therapy sometimes administers the medicine most needed in a society. In this case, someone had to make the call. I modeled ethical authority and helped clients draw parallels to areas of their own lives where their authority is called for: at home, in their neighborhood, church, work, and elsewhere. Clients were encouraged to challenge their fears around “getting it wrong” because this was less concerning than a complete failure to act. We practiced with narratives that extended grace to their future self. We worked to affirm that they were doing the best they could with what they knew at that time; and as they knew more, they would do better. This therapeutic reframe gave clients the flexibility they needed to function and ultimately promoted the resilience they needed to survive.

During the pandemic, our fears could be whipped up into frenzies that made us doubt our own ability to “make the call.” This seriously compromised our capacity to make decisions. The choice of whether to have our groceries delivered, or get a vaccination, visit relatives, mask with friends, or go to church in-person became overwhelming. Every decision might have life-altering consequences. People became racked with the fear that a wrong choice could cause someone’s death. The repetition of forced daily choices of such magnitude led to decision fatigue. 11 A client I worked with and greatly admire has been reconstructing her identity since retiring. She was just beginning to face her resentment toward the men in her life for rendering her dependent on them for virtually every decision. By the second year of the pandemic, when her family was uncertain about whether to meet for the holidays, her deep feelings of guilt that she couldn’t please everyone transformed into a realistic fear that she could not guarantee everyone’s physical safety. She made the call that they would not gather for the holidays in person that year. That single call and the experience of asserting what she knew to be right had a profound effect on her. Her family’s relief and gratitude that she took that risk set her onto a new path of learning to trust and assert her judgement in other situations.


“I was a pastor, trying to shepherd a flock that was rejecting their identity as sheep.” But who wants to be sheep in a secular world? If we are {25} “sheep” by secular definition, we are being blindly led to the slaughter. The difficulty early in the pandemic was that we didn’t know whether “slaughter” meant a vaccine that would hurt us, a mask that would stifle us, or social distancing rules that would rob us of our right to congregate in a building for worship. One pastor stated,

I knew that there were people in the church that were listening to my sermon with the primary goal of categorizing me into either conservative or liberal, based on what I said that week. Sometimes they would take my plea to love their neighbors and extend charity as a sure sign I was a “masker.” Other times, they would interpret my invitation to reach out to their neighbor who is suffering and offer tangible help as an indication that I was against social distancing. Somehow, I looked to them as wavering from one side to the other. I found the only way through that mess was to band together with other church leaders to stay in the Word and be as unwavering from that as possible. Over the weeks and months that passed, some people left the church because I was not taking clear political sides. Being Bible-led didn’t factor in as a comprehensible third option.

The Bible shows that being covered and cared for by the Good Shepherd is necessary because only he has the higher vantage point. 12 The Lord knew we were amid a pandemic and saw what we couldn’t. There would eventually be a way out of that very dark time. If we refused to submit to his leading—preferring simplified, black and white answers (e.g., all anti-maskers are selfish, or all maskers are paranoid)—we missed opportunities to listen to the fears and losses that led them to those decisions. But God was listening. The pastor went on to say, “This is our hope. It is in the Good Shepherd and his love for us . . . but it is on us to submit to that love and listen for his voice.”

Another client, a man in his sixties, had held onto a resentment against an old friend for something that happened thirty-five years ago. Many in the church had attempted to talk him out of his unforgiveness, which was almost as painful as his self-persecution for not forgiving. He also battled self-talk that told him he should be intimidated by various people, that forgiving his friend would condone his actions, and that his friend wasn’t worthy of forgiveness. In therapy, we discovered that he had an internal dialogue of thoughts about betrayal which served to justify his sense of moral superiority. He was angry that God was not removing this unforgiveness from him. This continued weekly until one day he said that Jesus had come to him offering a trade. In his imagination, Jesus offered to trade him the hostility, fear, and unforgiveness for joy, companionship, and peace—all of which would be restored if he reconciled with the friend. {26} We agreed that this was the Shepherd’s voice he had been waiting for. Childlike, his eyes glimmered with unshed tears as he told me that he was going to take the trade.


The lockdowns were a kind of forced covenant that seemed to contribute to making intimate transformation possible in the lives of some of my clients. Whether their marriage, parenting, job, or church membership was the covenant relationship in distress, keeping the promise to “never leave no matter what” made the circumstance safe enough to challenge and break through to new, more intimate levels of trust and connection. This depth and richness were forfeited when people broke covenants because those relationships got too hard. Sometimes the most important thing we can do when the world is in crisis is stay put and weather the storm. Those who stayed could look back on that hard time with community and have a sense of pride and shared history, which further increases the sense of unity. This realization also speaks assurances of hope to those who are long suffering (Ephesians 4:2), that there is a reward to staying on course.

Each client’s pain points were unique since they were based on past and current fears or losses. People were hurting everywhere, so getting curious about what was most painful to the individual sitting across from me gave me a direction to pursue. As a protective strategy, our psyche recognizes novel situations when they are “similar enough” to former traumas and steers us away from re-experiencing the danger. It was helpful to find the “similar enough” details and carefully craft reflections that validated the overlap. A complex is a concept that Carl Jung used to describe a series of interlocked feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that become seared together as a result of a profound life experience. 13 He theorized that once one part is triggered, the whole series is re-experienced as the psyche attempts to “get it right.” That means that even when we are faced with trauma, our brains are hardwired for hope.

I mobilized my hope by actively seeking signs that God was using pain to catalyze healing in every single Zoom therapy session. Most of us can’t say we expected the pandemic, but the belief that when the unexpected happens we can expect God to show up in a new way cements my hope. May we all seek to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, so that in the face of the next worldwide catastrophe we trade free-falling panic for expectant waiting on the Lord. {27}


  1. All client stories are shared with client permission. Names have been omitted and identifying details have been changed to preserve confidentiality.
  2. Anjana Rao Kavoor, “COVID-19 in People with Mental Illness: Challenges and Vulnerabilities,” Asian Journal of Psychiatry 51 (2020): 102051, doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102051.
  3. C. Sanderson, V. Arunagiri, A. P. Funk et al., “The Nature and Treatment of Pandemic-Related Psychological Distress,” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 50 (2020): 251–63,
  4. F. Tagliabue, L. Galassi, and P. Mariani, “The ‘Pandemic’ of Disinformation in COVID-19,” SN Comprehensive Clinical Medicine 2 (2020): 1287–89,
  5. M. Balmas, T. O. Harel, and E. Halperin, “I Hate You When I Am Anxious: Anxiety during the COVID-19 Epidemic and Ideological Hostility,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 52 (2022): 1081–93,
  6. Aaron T. Beck, Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders (New York: Penguin, 1979).
  7. Raymond S. Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises,” Review of General Psychology 2, no. 2 (1998): 175–220.
  8. Adrienne Maree Brown, We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice (Chicago: AK Press, 2020).
  9. Philip G. Zimbardo et al., The Stanford Prison Experiment (Stanford, CA: Zimbardo, Inc., 1971).
  10. Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (London: Random House, 2008).
  11. Marianna Masiero et al., “From Individual to Social Trauma: Sources of Everyday Trauma in Italy, the US and UK during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Journal of Trauma and Dissociation 21, no. 5 (2020): 513–19.
  12. John 10:14–15, 22–30; Acts 20:17–35.
  13. Carl G. Jung, “The Association Method,” The American Journal of Psychology 21, no. 2 (1910): 219–69.
Autumn Lindberg, PhD, LMFT, is an adjunct faculty in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. She maintains a private practice in Visalia, California, specializing in Grief and Loss and is the business development director for Turning Point of Central California, Inc., also located in Visalia.

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