Emotional Connecting while Social Distancing
I’m often asked if it’s difficult, as a therapist, to listen to people’s problems all day long. Others assume that it must be emotionally draining to take on clients’ hardships and struggles, and I suppose this does weigh on me sometimes, when I’m not compartmentalizing well. Yet there’s an upside to being a professional confidant that far outweighs the burden, and that is the reassurance that whatever I’m feeling, I’m not the only one.
When it’s your job to hear someone’s true thoughts and feelings and to see the world through their eyes, you realize that the human experience is incredibly rich and varied. After a while, nothing surprises you, and the distinction between a normal and abnormal reaction melts away. When you get to this point, and stop judging what others think and feel, they have less reason to hide it, and a truly honest and genuine connection can happen. This type of “emotional connecting” happens between therapists and clients all the time, and thanks to the marvels of telehealth, it continues even as we practice “social distancing.”
Lately, one topic of discussion has been predictably dominant. Due to its ubiquity in our lives right now, the COVID-19 pandemic is providing a real-time Rorschach Test upon which to project our thoughts and feelings. And just as those inkblots have always revealed, our individual reactions run the gamut, though there are some common themes.
I’ve been paying close attention, and here are some things I’ve observed thus far. People are troubled both by the uncertainty of the situation and their lack of control over it. For many of my clients (and for many readers, I assume), this presents a one-two punch of anxiety. The uncertainty makes it impossible to plan for the future, and the lack of control leads to a sense of helplessness. Yet even as many are struggling with these issues, some of my clients are delighting in them. These tend to be folks whose pre-pandemic lifestyles involved a lot of responsibility and constant demands. For them, the current slow-down is providing a forced sabbatical, of sorts, and they can finally rest without guilt. They’ve been on the cusp of burnout for a long time, but would never say, “It’s too much. I need a break.” This pandemic is saying it for them.
Another thing I’ve learned is that most people are worried less about the novel coronavirus than they are about the societal response to it. Some are bemoaning the fact that many people aren’t taking the threat seriously and are thereby putting others at risk, as well as delaying the time when we can begin returning to normalcy. I’ve talked to others who feel the opposite, that “the cure is worse than the disease” and that we’ve been drawn into a mass hysteria. Some worry that anxiety will become the new normal. I’ve also spoken to some reflective observers who are most troubled by the divisiveness in the air (along with the infectious droplets). They had hoped that the animosity of recent political disagreements would give way to unity at a time like this, but they are now rather hopeless about people coming together anytime soon.
Those are some of the more common themes I’ve heard lately. There are many others. “How incredible that the whole world has responded so quickly!” “How easily the gullible masses forfeit their civil liberties!” “How strange to find myself angry at my neighbor for not stepping aside as I walk by!” I’ve heard these sentiments more than once over the past weeks. I’m also hearing a lot of internal negotiating as clients debate within themselves if it’s acceptable not to be productive, if it’s worth it to work so hard when there’s clearly no guarantee your efforts will pay off, and whether their carefully laid plans were actually short-sighted, now that they have time to think about it.
Finally, one common theme in the therapy setting, now and always, is a client’s fear of being the only one who feels this way or thinks that way. They want some reassurance that their reactions make sense; that they’re not “crazy.” I can offer that validation. If you’ve been concerned about being a pariah and you’ve read something here that you’re feeling too, then you’ve got clear evidence that you’re not the only one. And if you still haven’t heard anyone who shares your view, I can assure you that your reactions are valid. If you’re still unsure and feeling isolated, then consider talking to someone. You may choose to talk with a therapist, or perhaps confide in someone already in your circle who will listen without judgment. Life is easier when you find an emotional connection, especially while social distancing.
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