It seems that more than ever we need to look inside and reach for our inner resources in this time of change. As a clinical psychologist, this is something I have the privilege to be witness to, accompanying people on their inner journey towards change and growth. However, people who enter therapy do so as a result of a choice; they are aware that they are suffering or that something does not feel right and are looking to change for a different way to live. However, what is completely different in this current coronavirus crisis, is that we are being asked to change without choosing to do so.
Change is often connected to fear, grief and loss; there cannot be change without loss, shedding a part of one’s life that for many different reasons cannot be lived anymore. Of course, this may not always be a bad thing. I believe that in this extraordinary time, we are all (consciously or unconsciously) going through some kind of grief, grieving the loss of a way of life, both collectively and individually. Whatever the circumstance, the emotional reactions to loss is similar: anger, irritation, frustration, fear, denial. If we don’t acknowledge this, this could create more suffering as we are hanging on to the idea of what life should look like, instead of looking at what is in our present.
It is very easy to resist this feeling; as the poet WH Auden wrote in the age of anxiety (1947) ‘we would rather be ruined than changed’. Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist, writes in her book “Radical Acceptance” about a tiger called Mohini. For many years her home in the zoo consisted of a small cage with iron bars and a cement floor. Eventually, after many years, the zoo released her into an expansive habitat of trees, ponds and vegetation. Alas, the tiger was so used to her old encaged habitat, she ran back to it, not being able to embrace her capacious new habitat. However, I believe we are remarkable beings and thrive in the face of change, if we are willing to acknowledge, truly accept ourselves and do not resist it by keeping ourselves trapped by our fears and beliefs.
There are two current themes that seem to be pervasive in my (tele)therapy sessions during this period. The first is a tendency to even sharper clarity of past and current issues. The coronavirus has shone a light on those internal demons that were already lurking under the surface. Here, I continue to comfort and contain, seeking to understand and uncover the layers that may have caused the suffering. The second is the realistic fears and emotional pain we are feeling arising from the effects of the virus and the new reality that we are in which looks to be with us for a long time to come. This second theme seems to be felt by everyone now, even if they are not aware of it. There seems to be a sense of collective anxiety. As a therapist, I think it is important to be honest about how emotionally difficult things are now, putting these fears into words and bearing them. The sharing of these feelings may then help people bear their own emotions more, enabling them to open up into deeper feelings and reveal ways of being not yet imagined.
Today’s extraordinary circumstances make it extremely important to also share with each other and acknowledge what we are experiencing. We need to listen and understand and be compassionate not only to others but also to ourselves. I believe that this process may enable us to find the ways to grow and live a life with more meaning and purpose. The unprecedented situation we all find ourselves may facilitate an evaluation of what is truly important to us and maybe, if necessary, change our priorities.
Unlike the tiger, we have the choice to see what traps us and make us feel small. We can love without fear, realize our dreams, and feel more intensely. By having our external distractions diminished, we may become more aware of our internal emotions that dictate much of our external lives. Through this growing awareness, we can grow by recognizing and shedding those behaviors that do not serve us. We can choose to focus on what is important to us, invest in the people we genuinely care about and who genuinely care about us.
We will be transformed by this experience no matter what we do; life will not go back to how it was. How we are going to live depends on us.