We are likely all aware of the seemingly British tendency to answer any question of ‘how are you?’ with a bright and high pitched ‘I’m fine,’ in a way that does not invite any further scrutiny and conveys a (non-arrogant) confidence that we are, indeed, fine. For me, lockdown has provided numerous invitations to engage with this pressure to ‘be fine,’ and also an opportunity to recognise the potential dangers in not acknowledging what the more genuine response may be.
Week one of lockdown felt like something of a ‘novelty.’ I started working from home before a lot of people, and around work my life continued pretty much as normal. I saw friends, I went to the gym, and it was still possible to ‘pop to the shop’ – although all of this at a 2m distance and accompanied by a pump of hand sanitiser. Then things ramped up, and everyone had to adjust to a whole host of changes pretty rapidly.
Throughout this time, I was adamant that I was “fine.” I recognised that I was in the privileged position of having a secure job, I was physically able to go out for my state approved walks, and financially we could afford to buy enough food for two weeks’ isolation if needed. I was able to maintain contact with my friends and family via text, email, and video call – and even used the opportunity to return to hand written letters for my Nan.
I dutifully started to learn a new skill with my unusually free evenings (crochet, which I am actually really enjoying) and reflected on the “silver linings” of the situation.
Then I did a yoga class at home. At the start of a yoga practice, you generally spend some time at the start grounding yourself, slowing your breathing, and setting an intention for the practice. It’s also a time to connect to your mind and your body. As I started to do so, I immediately felt tears welling up.
My initial reaction was to push them away, but instead I allowed myself to feel whatever I needed to. In doing so, I realised how many emotions I had been ignoring over the previous weeks. I connected to feelings of anxiety, anger, uncertainty, fear, sadness, and what has more recently been acknowledged as grief (see this great piece by Scott Berinato).
I realised that I had been expending a lot of energy into being ‘fine.’ This can be really functional at times, when we need to act quickly, or others perhaps are looking to us to ‘be ok.’ However, it’s so important that we find the time, when it’s safe to do so, to allow ourselves the full rainbow of our thoughts and feelings. It’s also helpful to bring some curiosity to why we were pushing away, or trying to deny, some of our experience. Perhaps there was a fear that connecting to it would overwhelm us, and we wouldn’t be able to carry on.
Sometimes we can dismiss and criticise our feelings as ‘silly’ and ‘indulgent,’ or with stronger words such as ‘weak,’ ‘pathetic,’ ‘pointless.’ However, denying our emotions doesn’t actually make them disappear; they can be rather like an insistent toddler, trying out different ways to get our attention.
The more we try to ignore them, the more they can build, and solidify.
In allowing myself to connect to how I had been feeling, and realising how much I had not acknowledged, I was reminded of the importance of ‘checking in.’ I often talk about a CFT group I co-facilitated years ago, and how all group members (facilitators included) would check in at the start of the group.
This gave a brief opportunity to stop, turn inward, and notice any thoughts or feelings that were around. I was frequently surprised by what I found, and realised that ‘self-awareness’ was not something that would happen on its own. It requires a conscious commitment and effort.
Since, I have tried to ensure that I take time to ‘check in’ with myself; to notice my thoughts and feelings, and to allow them to exist without judgement. This can be easier said than done, especially when often they may conflict with each other!
We can be highly skilled at judging our own reactions, whether because someone else ‘has it worse’ or because we ‘should’ be ‘fine.’ It can be particularly helpful to use the word ‘and’ instead of ‘but,’ allowing different things to exist simultaneously. For example;
· I am lucky to have a secure job AND
· I am sad that I had to cancel my holiday AND
· I am grateful to all of the people keeping us safe and supplied AND
· I am anxious for my friends and family who are at higher risk AND
· I am enjoying having extra time to learn to crochet AND
· I am concerned that I may end up inflicting harm on my other half with my crochet hook if isolation continues (don’t worry – he is perfectly safe…I think)
I am working at trying to have more of a balance for myself going forward. Noticing the ‘silver linings’ of the situation can be really helpful, and there are some very genuine ‘up sides’ to what we are all learning through the current situation.
It’s important though that this is not at the expense of our ability to allow and feel less pleasant, but understandable, emotions. I am trying to have a daily ‘check in’ with myself, where I take the time to slow things down and connect to how I am feeling; as well as a gentle curiosity about what I might need.
It’s a work in progress (as ever) AND it’s something I’m willing to work at.
Dr Hannah Wilson
Head of Clinical Governance & Clinical Psychology Lead, XenZone