Life is hard right now. We all feel it. And yet, for many of us, it can be difficult to express or even recognize what exactly is happening to our inner world. In fact, we may well be trying very hard not to feel what is happening on the inside.
As a psychotherapist, I never expected that I would be counseling people through a global pandemic. Nor did I ever imagine myself living through such a time. This is a unique experience wherein I find myself in the same situation as my clients. (This actually happens more often than folks might think, but the client just doesn’t know it.)
What I’m seeing in my clients and colleagues, and sometimes also in myself, is that our anxiety is higher, and we’re tired, and yet it’s hard to allow ourselves to feel those feelings. Many of us want to keep pushing forward without feeling any of them. But when we cut ourselves off emotionally, we don’t just cut off the negative emotions, we also cut off the positive ones.
Our lives have changed. And this is a hard message to receive. Even when the lockdowns lift, we aren’t going back to the previous status quo. To think that we can somehow put difficult feelings “on hold” until “this all blows over” isn’t really possible. Nor is it fully living.
Slowing Down, Feeling Our Feelings
Lately I’ve been inviting my clients to consider taking this time for introspection.
We’ve been given this gift of time, after all—a very poorly wrapped gift, but a gift nonetheless. I recognize that it may not feel like a gift, but it does provide us with the opportunity to slow down. And with that comes an opportunity to look at ourselves, and how we live, how we think, and how we spend our time. And to grapple with the feelings that this brings up for us.
We may not like what comes up. That makes sense. Busy-ness is often a way to avoid being quiet and being alone with one’s self. But we have to slow down right now, which is both painful and a gift. Both are true.
That said, I realize that we still have a lot happening, even in isolation. Many of us are still working—whether from home, or as an essential worker—or now have increased responsibility within our families and homes. But we also have fewer external distractions. We can’t run off from place to place and engage with a sea of other human beings. That particular type of chatter has been lowered from a screaming cacophony to a dull hum. The result is that the inner chatter of our own minds is now louder.
We may be telling ourselves what we “should” or “should not” be doing with this time, how “successful” or not we are during this global crisis. Something that I practice with my clients, and that I invite you to try, is to allow those thoughts to come, and to notice them without immediately pushing them away. It may sound strange, but let these thoughts know that you see them and ask them to take a step back so that you can focus on the present moment. Sometimes all a thought needs is to know that it’s been noticed in order to relax.
Understanding Our Grief
Aside from challenging thoughts like those above, another feeling that is very present for many of us is grief. Specifically, ambiguous grief (or ambiguous loss). When someone dies, there is something to point to and say, “This is why I’m sad.” When loss is ambiguous, and especially in these times, the grief isn’t about just one thing. There are multiple reasons, many of which feel nebulous and hard to define. And for those who have recently lost a loved one, they will not only grieve the loss of that person, but they may also feel this ambiguous loss on top of the specific pain. Either way, grief is uncomfortable and it isn’t linear. And we are all experiencing it in some way.
Even for those who have been able to keep their jobs and have loved ones close by, there is still a loss of normalcy: those things that help us feel safe. The small things that are in fact big things, such as feeling comfortable strolling the farmers’ market or greeting a cherished friend with a hug. As human beings, it’s important for us to have a general sense of safety in order to comfortably exist. Any person living with trauma will tell you that life is much harder without this safety.
According to the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross grief cycle, grief has five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While this isn’t the only way to conceptualize grief, it’s helpful for this moment. These stages aren’t felt in a linear fashion, where one automatically follows the other. They circle back and spin around in an erratic dance that seemingly has no end. Consider for a moment where you may be in these five stages right now. Again, simply notice, without assigning any judgment to the feeling or to yourself. There is no right or wrong answer, only information. So simply notice what is present.
Now consider where other people may be in this cycle. It can be frustrating for a person in depression or acceptance to understand or tolerate a person in the denial or bargaining stage. This seems, to me at least, to explain much of the intensity around arguments both for and against “reopening” the country. We are having trouble holding space for one another because we’re in different stages of grief. But these stages can’t be forced. People must move through them in their own time and at their own pace.
I invite you to practice mindfulness here as well. Notice both what you are feeling and what your loved ones are feeling, and consider also the feelings of the society at large. Allow these multiple realities to exist without trying to change them.
This poorly wrapped gift of time is a study in multiplicity. It allows us to practice embracing many feelings at once: pain, joy, frustration, freedom, grief, gratitude, and more. These feelings are not mutually exclusive, and they never were—we find ourselves constantly in an experience of both/and. We suddenly have the time and space to tune in without distraction and try to make sense of our inner world.
The question is, now that we have received this extraordinary invitation to mindful awareness, will we accept?
Click for a guided audio practice with Justine.