It’s Okay to Be the Annoyingly Overcautious One

Scrubbing your doorknobs may not be the best defense against the virus, but don’t let that stop you

Photo: Justin Paget/Getty Images

Safety guidelines seem to morph by the hour. Some measures, like masks, have taken on new urgency, but others that once seemed essential now feel less so. Hand-washing remains vital, but mounting evidence suggests that we probably don’t need to rub our groceries with cleaning wipes anymore.

And yet. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently explained, germ-laden surfaces have emerged as one of the pandemic’s biggest boogeymen. We know now that the virus spreads mainly through respiratory droplets, but many of us are still wiping down doorknobs twice a day and leaving packages outside to decontaminate. Restaurants and other public spaces are still reassuring customers of their regular deep cleans, despite the fact that no amount of scrubbing a tabletop can change the amount of virus emitted by the person eating off of it.

The real danger, Thompson argues, is this sort of “hygiene theater” — performative cleanliness that breeds a false sense of security. “By funneling our anxieties into empty cleaning rituals,” he writes, “we lose focus on the more common modes of Covid-19 transmission and the most crucial policies to stop this plague.”

But how empty are these rituals? Remaining steadfast in your overcautiousness can be a strategy for maintaining boundaries, control, and good public and personal health habits in a time when all of those things feel harder and harder to hold onto. And sometimes hyper-vigilance pays off — as it did for those who wore masks at the beginning of the pandemic, despite government advice that it wasn’t necessary.

“I don’t know that there’s a thing as being too cautious,” says Nicolette Louissaint, PhD, the executive director and president of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit that focuses on strengthening the United States’ health care supply chain. “Taking the appropriate precautions, without creating an undue or unsustainable burden for oneself, is really the goal.” Another person’s unsustainable may be your very doable — and if so, scrub away.

Overcaution inspires empathy

In social situations, we tend to match the behaviors, beliefs, and preferences of the people around us. By putting your own safety preferences on full display, you may influence your friends to follow suit, or at least to be a bit more thoughtful about theirs.

Just as one positive case can lead to a wave of infections, your behavior can have a ripple effect. Watching you deep-clean your countertops during a Zoom catchup may not inspire your friends to do the same, but with that image in the back of their minds, they may be more diligent about washing their hands later that day.

Overcaution clarifies boundaries

There’s also the chance, of course, that being the overcautious one catches you a little bit of flak from the people in your life — that your apprehension about outdoor dining is met with eye rolls, or that your insistence on “outside clothes” and “inside clothes” prompts some teasing.

It’s up to you to decide when that pushback is good-natured ribbing you can live with, and when it reflects a more concerning difference in values.

“I know a lot of individuals who have had to make some very hard decisions about not staying close to people they love dearly because they are concerned about how they are adhering to distancing,” Louissaint says. Other people’s responses to your carefulness, when they believe it’s unwarranted, can be a way of figuring out who you’re comfortable hanging out with during the pandemic.

Overcaution is a salve

While we (unfortunately) can’t control the actions of our neighbors, family, or political leaders, we can monitor our own behavior. And choosing to go overboard on the precautions can be a psychologically healthy way to cope with everything else that’s beyond our power, says Wendy Balliet, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Over-the-top vigilance isn’t necessarily a sign of anxiety gone into overdrive; on the contrary, it can be a psychologically healthy outlet. “Think of it as a rewarding act instead of a punishing act,” Balliet says. “Restructure the way you think about it as gaining control over a controllable situation.”

And as long as you continue to follow the recommended guidelines, who cares if going above and beyond them makes you feel more in charge? When so many people aren’t doing enough to keep themselves and others safe, “too much” is actually just the right amount.

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.

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