Much of my practice as a Psychologist and Psychotherapist involves working with my clients to help them find and cultivate sources of support, both within themselves and beyond, so they can manage and even transcend the challenges they encounter.
All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, seek to discover, understand and accept ourselves more fully. To better use our talents and our potential, to expand and deepen our relationships with others, to manage the situations we encounter – and ultimately to find meaning and purpose in our lives.
Most clients come to therapy with these aims in mind.
However, growth and development are only possible when a person experiences the right balance of support and challenge. Too little support and we become anxious, overwhelmed and sometimes even burnt out. Too little challenge and our excitement wane we stagnate and get bored.
Finding this Goldilocks Zone, which allows us to respond to and even grow from our encounters with life’s surprises, is one of the cornerstones of therapeutic work.
And it is difficult work, at the best of times. Finding out who we are, what we want and how we stop ourselves getting what we want can be emotionally taxing, especially when we have to acknowledge and work through the part others have played in our experiences.
And then, along comes COVID!
The pandemic has changed most aspects of our experience and pervaded core levels of our psychological and emotional wellbeing that we’re only just now starting to appreciate.
There are the obvious challenges wrought by lock downs, curfews, social distancing and travel bans: how to get groceries, how to home-school children, how to keep them entertained, how to work from home while home-schooling or entertaining children and how to share a workspace with a partner whom you love dearly but ordinarily wouldn’t dream of working alongside them. Then there is the real threat of sickness and death, the loss of friends, family and colleagues, the loss of jobs, businesses and the ensuing financial hardships. And the painful feeling of guilt that comes with realising that so many others all over the world have it far worse than you do.
Perhaps less acknowledged, but no less significant is the subtle, insidious impact these changes have had on our relationships. Both with ourselves and others, and the loss of the usual mechanisms of support that we rely on to keep us going even in the toughest of times: face-to-face meetings with friends, banter in the office, conversations as we wait outside school to pick up the children. The cry on your therapist’s couch, the weddings, the funerals and all the communal gatherings that keep us safely fastened to the fabric of human experience, to what it means to suffer and be human and then go on living. All seem lost or, at the very least, changed irrevocably.
And then to top it all off after surviving seven long and arduous months of all this, there is still no real end in sight, and we face fatigue, burnout, and hopelessness.
The question many of us now face is this: how do we continue to survive, to move forward, yes even to grow, at a time when our view of life, of ourselves and our world, is radically changing, and when so many of even the most minor sources of support are closed to us?
Life during COVID, as we’re learning, comes with no apparent map, and there is no right or wrong way. Each one of us has a unique set of challenges in addition to those that we face together. These will determine the landscape of our journeys. What we can do, as a first step, is radically reorient our view of how we support ourselves and those in our care.
Take deliberate steps to cultivate a supportive environment for ourselves, no matter what is going on around us, no matter how profound the uncertainty. That can take courage – it isn’t always easy to acknowledge that we need support. Harder still is to set aside time and energy to focus on ourselves when so much depends on us doing the exact opposite. Right now, though, as we sit facing a perpetual state of uncertainty, refilling our empty tanks so that we have the strength to adapt and carry on this may be our best chance of not only surviving but thriving.
What fills our tanks, what supports us, what gives us the foundation to respond to the challenges up ahead, is different for each one of us. It may have changed drastically in light of COVID. Indeed, we may have changed. Our task is to begin in our own back yard focusing on the things we can change, within ourselves and for those in our care and identifying what has helped and nurturing this whilst experimenting with what might.
More than two centuries ago, the French philosopher Voltaire said to live well,; one must tend one’s own garden. His words hold much weight in these troubled times.