I used to have this super power. One of my children could be frightened about something, pretty much anything, and I could wrap my arms around them, look them in the eye, and tell them "It will all be ok. Don't worry. We've got you." And it worked. It was as if I could reach a hand right inside to find their quivering heart and gently hold and calm it.
Parents have this unique ability to cast a cloak of safety around their young children. I think it may be because one of the greatest fears children have is to not be enveloped by that unconditional love and so by reassuring that they are still enveloped means on some deep level that they are safe, not that they will be safe or that the parent will protect them, but that they are in that love and that is the most important thing and safest place - for most children at least.
At some stage we grow up and parents can't do that anymore. We have to learn to manage our own anxiety. Our ability to do so will be affected by those early years of course. As we develop we build up banks of experience, as well as coping mechanisms, that help us deal with the inevitable and myriad anxieties that come our way.
And then something like Covid-19 comes along and we are just not equipped for it. We have encountered nothing like it before. We don't have a road map for it. We are not prepared for it. Only a small percentage of the population looked our leaders in the eye and believed them when they told us it would be OK, they've got us. For most of us the evidence was plain that they hadn't and that they were as scared and unprepared as the rest of us. And the instructions we received for keeping safe served only to isolate us from each other, instil a fear of human interaction and stoke the fires of our own anxiety. Isolated in small bubbles, or alone, we had only the echo chamber of our own heads to replay and amplify those anxieties.
And now we are beginning, however slowly, to unwind the restrictions that have kept us locked up and apart this last year or more. There are any number of new things to worry about as we begin to interact with all the people and places we have been shunning for so long. In the UK we do have a timetable for restrictions to be relaxed, assuming all goes to plan. But that government plan only takes us so far.
When will the office or workplace reopen? How many days will we be required to attend? Will I have my old desk? Is it far enough away from other people? What if someone else sits there when I am not there? Will it get disinfected? I work on the 40th floor - how will we social distance in the lifts? My suits don't fit me anymore. Will we have to wear suits? How will public transport work if we have to still distance from each other? Will we have to wear masks all day? What if I can't manage? Has anyone thought about all this? And so on and so on.
Amidst all this uncertainty, there is one certainty - it is going to be anxious for a lot of us for a while. We will get through it. Just as we adapted to remote working, so we will adapt to whatever pattern for our particular working life emerges. But it will be difficult at times. We will wobble in the face of what we are dealing with, and there is also the stored up legacy of all that we have been through which may flood our emotions as we slowly relax and let some barriers down.
What can we do to help ourselves and each other through all of this?
- The starting point has got to be kindness, to ourselves and each other, and the recognition that it is hard, all of this, and some of us will find it harder, and in different ways at different times, than others.
- Make space for conversations around this, for people just to reflect and give voice to the things they are worried about, not so that their worries can be solved, or worse dismissed, but just heard and acknowledged. This is something we are increasingly being asked to facilitate with clients - and using the time together also to help people think about what they do and don't need to be doing in those conversations, giving them some skills and confidence to be with and to empathise with someone.
- Do the basics - look after ourselves. Keep practising the things that help us build and maintain resilience as individuals. It is not all down to that of course but putting ourselves in the best physical and mental state to cope with whatever comes down the track has got to make sense, and is a helpful thing in its own right as it allows us to take some deliberate and clear steps in the face of the uncertainty.
As with many things, looking at what is coming as one huge change from a state of lockdown to a state of no restriction may be overwhelming and unrealistic. It may be more helpful to see it as a series of small and manageable steps. And then take them one at a time and give ourselves time to take stock after each one if need be, to notice and connect with our feelings, to acknowledge the achievement and build our resolve for the next step.
A final area for thought is all those unknowns - can we do anything to manage them? It is often the uncertainty around change that causes us the most anxiety. Here are three things that might help:
- Try to focus on what we know rather than what we don't know - it may sound simplistic but we do take notice of, and get absorbed by, what we direct our focus upon, and so choosing to direct that focus to knowns rather than unknowns can lessen the latter's impact on us;
- See if we can change some of the unknowns to knowns - ask questions to obtain clarity where appropriate; and
- If we are leaders, communicate with people - tell them what we know and what we are working on and how plans are shaping out and when we hope to provide more information, and be honest with what we don't know. We don't have that parental super power but we can certainly go a long way to reassuring people that we are managing things as best we can, that we have their welfare and concerns in mind, that we are being honest with them and that we will continue to do what we can to reassure them that it will be OK.
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