LCSW, LMFT, CST
How to Survive Quarantine
(adapted from How to Survive Quarantine: What 3.5 years of living in relative isolation has taught me by Anne Millheiser)
With the arrival of this recent, global pandemic, we are being asked to step away from many of the things most meaningful to us: our relationships, work, worship services, travel, all kinds of communal gatherings. We don’t often realize how life-affirming these are for us, until something happens to challenge our access to them: enter COVID-19. With social distancing measures in place, we are faced with existential questions such as: how will I cope without the structure of my outside life; how can I work from home when my children are there; how does this impact my mental/physical health, relationships, sense of identity/belonging or productivity? Without the stimulus of the outside world, who am I? How will I stay engaged and not feel bored?
Many people don’t know how they will get their next meal, how they can keep a roof over their heads, how long they will go without income or childcare, how they can survive Covid-19 if they are at high risk. For many, there are both existential and practical concerns. This pandemic is shining a light on the holes in our current system and how we are or are not set up to take care of our people. I hope there will be a degree of enlightenment that will have a positive impact on our society, values, self and other care.
Hope and despair can coexist. Difficult as it may be, finding a silver lining is always helpful. One possible silver lining is learning to cope with being quarantined and all the emotions that go ith it. In the process, we may all begin, if we haven’t done so before, how to practice the best self-care.
Everyone copes differently, so take what resonates with you and leave the rest. Since there is no one way to do it, we can nonetheless be kind to ourselves and acknowledge that we are all doing our best. It's important that we balance work (no matter what type) with self-care and pleasure. Remember to hydrate and eat nourishing meals (with some wiggle room for those less nourishing but fun foods). Exercise in whatever way possible to keep you physically and emotionally supported. Since not everyone has access to clean water and food, consider giving yourself the gift of giving to others in need. This doesn’t have to entail giving money, just give whatever feels right for you.
Maintaining Connections: We humans are wired to connect, and we can find many ways to ontinue doing so. This is an opportunity to get to know the people you love in new ways and perhaps make new relationships. There are so many creative ways to connect-phone, text, video platforms, etc.
Getting Support: It is inevitable that we will experience conflicting and changing thoughts and emotions. Whether it be a trusted friend or a therapist, do not hesitate to reach out if you need to. People often worry they will burden others. Do you feel burdened or does it feel good to be needed and offer help when someone needs it? It works both ways. One good way to find out is to ask first, since we’re all in this same leaky canoe together. If they don’t have the bandwidth to listen, hopefully they will tell you, and you will know it’s not personal. This may be especially hard for people who are caretakers, so that makes it especially important that they allow themselves to ask and receive. You don’t have to be “the strong one” or worry that your needs are “too much.” By leaning on the people we trust we develop that part of us, even if it feels scary.
Practice self-care: This includes rest, something we don’t often do in our busy lives, and might especially want to avoid out of fear of the emergence of our thoughts and feelings about what’s happening now. Rest is restorative and perhaps provides an opportunity to look at what it represents for you, e.g. does it feel selfish, is your self-worth tied to productivity? Have compassion for yourself and allow yourself to engage in behaviors that make you feel safe. It may be limiting the amount of incoming news, social media or how much emotional support you offer. If you haven’t already, add the word “no” to your vocabulary. It’s okay to use screens and phones, but it’s also okay not to or to take breaks. Sometimes we just want to escape, and that’s okay, too. It’s important not to judge the way you are coping, but if it’s causing more distress, it may be time to re-evaluate.
Managing emotions: While some emotions may feel harder to sit with, there is no such thing as a bad emotion. Emotions are “judgment proof ", so don’t judge. But do feel. Fear, anxiety, loss, hopelessness, and loss of control are very common feelings. It’s important to let yourself have your feelings and reactions to them, and not try to distract or dismiss their importance. We get to be frightened, grieve our losses, find outlets for our anger, need reassurance, etc. When you are ready, find a way to channel those feelings into something empowering or positive, without denying reality. Practicing gratitude and remembering to breathe are two things we often neglect to do when we need them the most. Even if you can only come up with a short list for things to be grateful for, it will surely help you feel less despair-at least in that moment. As with all else, there is a balance between feeling our negative feelings and allowing them to be, and moving back toward mores positive feelings so we can still live our lives with times of contentment and even joy. It's possible-I promise!
All Play and No Work?
Yes, I know I’ve got it backwards! I do, however, believe the balance is essential, and I thought it might be interesting to contemplate what the balance would look like if play came before work. Most of us have no difficulty with the work part-it comes with the territory. The play is another matter, however. I definitely have nothing against work-not only is it necessary for creating an income which most of us require, and if it’s something we enjoy and take pride in, it also provides a purpose upon which to focus and a source of potential gratification emotionally, as well as financially. So unless unemployment strikes, we have work. Most of us have work beyond work in that we have children to raise, bills to pay, errands to run, homes and cars to maintain, etc. If you consider all the “side jobs”, it becomes easier to see why play is so often neglected. When I see young people raising families today, I marvel at how they do it. The world is a much busier place than years ago when my kids were growing up. I’m so impressed by how today’s parents juggle it all. For many, however, the difficulty appears to be in making time for “play”. Whether it’s a couple’s “us” time or an individual’s “me” time, there often isn’t time scheduled for play and for relaxation. And for many, it must be scheduled if it’s going to happen. I’m beginning to think relaxation is becoming a lost art-one that I often hear described as being “lazy”. Now lazy is a word I don’t believe in, so I always wonder what’s behind “the cover story”. I often hear people describe themselves as lazy because relaxation and yes, play, have gotten a bad name. So, whatever happened to “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy?” Maybe some of you never even heard that expression. It doesn’t get used much any more. So I say, let’s bring it back! We all need “play” time, and whatever that looks like for each of us, it’s invaluable. It’s really not about being “dull” either. It’s about taking care of yourself and giving to yourself in a way which brings you enjoyment, pleasure and relaxation. Not only do we need that, we deserve it. So if you take a long, hard look at how your life is unfolding, please take note if there’s not enough time for you and time for play and find a way to alter your schedule in order to build it in. In other words, HAVE FUN!!
Let's Talk About S-E-X
That sounds like an easy enough proposal, right? Not so much. I consistently see couples and individuals who have a great deal of difficulty discussing sex-whether with a partner or just with me. Since I’m a sex therapist, it’s a topic I’m very comfortable with, however, I generally have to make it comfortable for my clients before they can begin to open up in a way which feels safe for them. I often joke with couples who are sexually involved: “You can do it; you just can’t talk about it!” For those who aren’t being sexual with each other, it is at least as difficult a topic to broach. Talking about sex often constitutes a level of risk. Will the listener be accepting or judging? Will the person speaking feel a sense of shame just by talking about sex? If they judge themselves, it is all the more likely that they will fear judgment from others. Since our culture doesn’t teach us how to talk about sex, or even how to think about it in a healthy, constructive manner, it’s no small surprise that so many struggle with it, not only verbally, but in all matters sexual. This includes things such as body image, sexual preferences, libido and the most often asked or unasked question: “Am I normal.” To that question my reply is that “normal” is a setting on a washing machine. We are all different, and we are all free from judgment unless we make it so for ourselves. I would be intereabout talking absted in hearing any input people might like to share on this topic. This is why my book has a section with the same title as this post. To learn more out sex, I encourage you to read the section!
Why I’m Still a Therapist after All These Years!
It occurred to me that it might be interesting to talk about why I’m still passionate about the work I do after so many decades of doing it. So here goes. Oftentimes, I’ve been asked how I can work with people who have problems and not find it depressing and/or disheartening. I always say, on the contrary, I find it almost inspirational, since my goal is to help people reach their own goals to feel better, live happier and more fulfilling lives and learn to manage the ups and downs life hands us on their own. I liken it to raising kids. Our job is to nurture and help them grow into well-adjusted, functional adults who are independent and live their own lives. If our children are not hampered or handicapped in some significant way, one important measure of success for parents is the ability of adult children to leave home and create their own lives for themselves. It’s pretty much the same with therapy. Although we all hit points in our life’s journey when help is needed, for the most part, I want my clients to leave with having achieved what they sought, with their growth and achievements now being a part of them, along with the ability to manage on their own. That may seem strange, but the best end to therapy is for the therapy to end! Of course, just like we see our physicians for check-ups, often people may need to come back if they hit a bump in the road or some new situation prompts them to seek help. That doesn’t constitute failure, any more than when our adult children turn to us for guidance or a soft place to land or when we need a friend. It’s just “life happening”.
In short, for me, therapy is as much about receiving than it is about giving. For any of you who have seen me for therapy, I owe you my thanks and gratitude for allowing me the privilege of being trusted to be your partner in growth.
Women who appear to lack desire may do so for many different reasons. As Esther Perel has eloquently stated, "Many women are challenged by the concept of claiming themselves, their autonomy and their worth in the face of a culture which teaches them to focus on the needs of others and not their own." I agree with her belief that "in its most simple form, if a woman can give herself permission not to want, without guilt or obligation, she is most likely to free herself to become truly autonomous and may even discover she does, in fact, want, after all. Often it is an internal struggle and challenge to have that exchange with herself, but necessary to free her from the ties that bind which can eliminate the possibility of desire." Those ties bind tightly. Women are not encouraged to see themselves as sexual beings. Doing so often carries a negative connotation and the shame that comes with it. So the sexuality gets suppressed and that suppression can extend to the point of conscious extinction. Perel further states that "women are socialized for connection and men are socialized for autonomy." I believe this to be true, and for women, it must become a conscious and repetitive process to ask herself what she wants without being restricted by what's expected of her or what others want. The ability to do
this may require time for her to achieve, but is so important in order to attain results. This is especially obvious around sexual desire. Perel speaks to the idea that “women are socialized for connection and men are socialized for autonomy”. As a result, women have a struggle when it comes to separating their own desires from those of their partner and claiming themselves and their autonomy in the process. She further states, this is true not only in the sexual arena, but across the board. While men are free to keep their desire and sexuality as those are part of autonomy, women often disconnect from their own sexuality and desire, so for them it is a challenge. But women can choose to have and keep their own individuality, as well as sexuality, and become both freed and empowered in the process. I so often see women who have divested themselves of their sexuality and given it over to their partner. What follows next makes perfect sense. If her sexuality is not for her, if it no longer belongs to her, she loses any investment in having desire, let alone acting upon it. My recommendation in this instance is that she take her sexuality back, claim it as her own, embrace that experience and then choose what she wants to do with it. In other words, she now has the capacity to feel her own desire and sexuality, as opposed to being a receptacle for someone else’s. Of course this requires time and effort, as well as a banishing of shame while claiming autonomy. Only after that occurs can she consider another’s needs and wants, yet stay true to her own, consistently and in a manner which allows her to truly and deeply value herself and her freedom to choose. For more on this see my posts in goodmenproject.com.
What's All This Fuss about Communication?
The "fuss" is that it's so difficult and challenging to communicate effectively. We think it should be easy, but the fact is it’s far from that. Remember the game you played as a kid where everyone sat it a big circle and the first person whispered in the ear of the one sitting next to them and so on until the last person would repeat what they heard? It was never the same, and usually not even close to what the first person said. What we say is not always what someone hears. What we hear is not always what someone meant us to hear. There are so many possible misinterpretations in what appears to be a simple dialogue. So just take that as a given, and you’ll be on the right track. What you can do to help facilitate good communication includes things such as using “I” messages-talking about yourself instead of the other person, so they are less likely to feel criticized and become defensive and more likely to really hear you; take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings instead of saying “You (or that) made me feel…”, "I only did that because you..."; don't negatively characterize or call names; and use reflective listening when necessary, “What did you hear me say?” or “I heard you say…”. And I don’t care how well you know the other person, you cannot read their mind, nor they yours!
Other tips include asking for permission before offering input or an opinion (I call this “knocking before entering”) and accepting “no” if that’s the answer you get. Perhaps most crucial of all, speak to the other person with respect and truly listen, which also indicates respect. It’s also important to consider boundaries-yours and those of the person you are speaking with, and to make sure those are respected as well, be they verbal, emotional or physical. Good communication requires work and commitment, but the results are so much better when those efforts are made. It also gets easier as we develop the habits of good communication in place of whatever didn’t work so well in the past. Good communication requires a collaborative not a combative exchange!