Are You Thinking This Is Not the Way It Was Supposed to Be?
If you're feeling lost, confused, and out of sync, this can help.
Posted Apr 10, 2020
“I’m so tired of this. I worry that I’m not doing enough, but I’m being careful, and I just can’t wash my hands any more than I’m already doing.” I’ve heard such sentiments repeatedly in the past few days.
Similarly, I’ve heard from numerous people that “this isn’t the way things are supposed to be.”
The two ideas seem somehow linked. Although they might not be obvious companions, psychologically and emotionally both phrases reflect the confusion, sense of uncertainty, and feelings of helplessness that seem to be woven through life in the time of the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19.
A mom of a toddler breaks down in tears as she talks about her fear that her child isn’t going to get a chance to develop in a healthy way. “He’s not learning about social interactions the way he’s supposed to at this age,” she says. “I’m so afraid that means he’s going to be stunted in his development.”
The son of an Alzheimer’s patient in lockdown in a nursing home where families are not allowed in says, “Alzheimer’s is a terrible illness under the best of circumstances. Every time I go to visit my dad, I worry about whether or not he’ll remember me. But now, not seeing him for weeks, I’m terrified he won’t remember who I am when I get back to him. And I’m worried that he’s frightened. He doesn’t understand what’s going on. If I was able to at least sit with him, I could calm him a little. He shouldn’t have to live out his days this way.”
Loss, fear, and uncertainty are key components of the COVID-19 pandemic. The phrases “why bother” and “this isn’t how it’s supposed to be” are perfect expressions of our struggle to find ways to manage those almost unmanageable feelings.
In a recent interview for the Harvard Business Review, David Kessler, who has worked with Elisabeth Kubler Ross to further develop her stages of grief, linked these feelings to grief. He said, “The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
The sense of uncertainty and continued danger makes the grief process more complicated.
The Reverend Dr. Joan Kavanaugh, a psychotherapist who is a minister at the Riverside Church in New York City founded and ran the Riverside Church Counseling Center, beautifully captured the pain of that sense of uncertainty and danger in a meditation for Palm Sunday, but her words are equally applicable to the Jewish holiday of Passover and the upcoming Easter weekend, all of which are being marked not in public religious settings but in privacy. She wrote:
Across much of the whole world we are in a wilderness of unknowns, sheltering in our homes—those of us who have homes—trying to protect ourselves and each other from even greater harm. We have no idea how long this will go on. No idea how many of us will die.
“This isn’t how these holidays are supposed to be,” translated into “why even bother” for many who normally take part in at least some part of the ritual.
But this reaction, according to research done by Cori J. Bussolari and Judith A. Goodell, professors of counseling at the University of San Francisco, is part of the problem with our belief that life is supposed to unfold in a linear, orderly progression. In an article in The Journal of Counseling and Development, they write that one of the difficulties for many of us is that we cling to a belief that we are living in an orderly and well-planned universe. They write this belief can leave us “stuck in a cycle of unrealistic expectations of perfect outcomes and subsequent disappointment.”
Humans, they remind us, are highly adaptable and extremely resilient. In fact, part of our resilience comes from our ability to adapt to change – to things not being the way we thought they were going to be.
Adapting to these uncertain times can be difficult. And living with the pain of uncertainty and loss can be even more difficult. As Kavanaugh reminds us,
People are scared…Even for the privileged, jobs and savings are fast disappearing. The poor, as always, will suffer disproportionately, living with far greater risk, far fewer resources.
Privileged or poor, we all feel stranded. Unmoored. Unprotected. ar from any source of real safety. The virus has invaded all of our lives. The angel of death hovers around, moves in closer and closer. Stealing the lives of people we know at a distance, and people we love up close.
Kessler tells us that the pain of loss and uncertainty can be alleviated to some degree by talking about it with others and by having others acknowledge what we are suffering. Dr. Ghislaine Boulanger, who works with survivors of disaster, and whose book Wounded by Reality talks about therapy with individuals who have experienced trauma in adulthood, says one of the most important components of the healing process is feeling that someone sees what we are experiencing and validates our experience.
As we all suffer in different ways and to different degrees, it is important that we both validate and witness the reality for each of us – no matter that our fear, pain, and suffering might be very different from one to another of us.
But according to Bussolari and Goodell, the next step to adapting and managing this period of unpredictability is to find creative solutions to each problem. Passover seders and Easter celebrations via Zoom are only two examples of the incredible group of spontaneous, creative solutions we have been coming up with.
Caring for others is another way, according to Dr. Adam Blatner, who has written extensively about resilience, to manage both our expectations and our capacity to tolerate the confusion and disorder of the days we’re currently living. COVID-19 has robbed us of one of the most important parts of human existence: connection to other humans. Caring for someone else’s needs can restore that part of ourselves. Calling an elderly neighbor just to chat for a few minutes, offering solace to a young friend who is missing his family, shopping for someone else who cannot shop or cannot pay for food – these are just a few of the creative forms of caring I have heard about during this time. And each person who has offered of themselves has spontaneously told me that doing something for someone else made them feel less frightened themselves.
Psychologically, that statement makes sense because when we do something caring for someone else, we are using our own strengths to do so. And using our own strengths gives us a sense of agency and a sense of power. It makes us feel good about ourselves. And in some ways, it restores a sense that we know who we are. “Oh right. The world is a mess. Things are scary. But I’m still me,” said one young man after he had spent an hour on the phone with his frightened grandma.
Of course, the other side of that coin is being able to accept the gift of someone’s time and energy with grace and goodwill. Recognizing those who are giving to us, both directly and indirectly, is to see what Kavanaugh points to as the goodness and caring in each of our hearts. At the same time, recognizing that you’re still the "you" that you know, even if you are, at least this time, accepting care rather than giving it, is also giving – you give to the person who gives to you by appreciating the gift!
“Development across the life span is marked by cycles of unpredictability, chaos, and stability,” Bussolari and Goodell tell us. Although the idea that we know what’s going to happen, and how it’s supposed to happen, can be comforting, life generally does not unfold in a linear, predictable sequence over a lifetime.
Changing the story we tell ourselves about how things are “supposed to be” changes the meaning we give our lives – and the meaning we will attribute to this painful period in time. And while changing that meaning, providing ourselves with a more open-ended picture of the future, might feel a bit disconcerting, it will also give us the opportunity to use this difficult and challenging time to read a new and higher level of growth and perhaps, in time, a greater sense of satisfaction in our lives – however they unfold in both the near and distant future.
Adam Blatner (2019) Action Explorations: Using Psychodramatic Methods in Non-Therapeutic Settings
Ghislaine Boulanger (2014) Wounded by Reality
Cori J. Bussolari and Judith A. Goodell (2009) Chaos Theory as a Model for Life Transitions Counseling: Nonlinear Dynamics and Life’s Changes. Journal of Counseling & Development Winter 2009 Volume 87
Joan L. Kavanaugh (2012) For the Living of These Days: Prayers for a Troubled World