You probably have certain ideas about what makes you you. Are you a good friend? A productive worker? A health enthusiast? An adventurous traveler? A calm and organized parent? All of these titles require you to interact with the outside world. So, what happens then when the outside world is inaccessible?
During the shelter-in-place orders of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am reminded of my work with hospitalized medical patients who struggle with boredom, anxiety/depression, and maintaining their sense-of-self during a time when so much of their “normal” life is on hold. Maintaining your sense-of-self during this time is one way to combat this distress.
I like to use an analogy to consider the building blocks of who you are. If each quality that makes you you is a pillar holding up your self-building, the more pillars you have the less likely the building is to collapse if one of those pillars breaks. If the entirety of who you are is based on one relationship, for example, and that relationship dissolves, your self-building is in trouble. But if you have multiple pillars holding you up, the more able you’ll be to weather storms.
One way to tap into these different building blocks is with an imaginal exercise. Imagine that you are at your 90th birthday party. Your friends and family are all there to celebrate you and make speeches to commemorate the occasion. What are the qualities that you hope your loved ones mention about you? Write this down. Do they say you were a loving partner or friend, a present parent, a dedicated employee, a curious learner? Being loving, being present or being dedicated, do not depend on an outside outcome or situation. You can be loving, regardless of the relationships in your life. You can practice present-focused awareness or dedication to something that is meaningful to you regardless of your job or health status. These qualities are what we call values. Values are like signposts for the trajectory of your life. They inform the choices you make and the actions you take and are never actually accomplished. You can’t check off being loving from a to-do list. Goals, on the other hand, are actions that you can take in the service of your values. For example, if your value is to be present, a goal may be to practice mindfulness three days a week, or take a walk every other day, etc.
Getting in touch with your values, and then making goals that fit your current circumstances is one way to maintain your sense-of-self. If you are currently not living your life in service of your values, this may lead to distress, feelings of depression, or demoralization.
But, you may ask, how do you create goals or live your values when so much of “normal” life is shut down? This is where a little creativity is needed. When I worked with hospitalized patients who had sometimes been in the hospital for months and months at a time, we would brainstorm strategies for maintaining familiar roles or patterns from their “normal” lives. For example, one patient who was awaiting a heart transplant and had been away from her only child for months would video call him every night (when she felt up for it) and helped him with his homework so she could still feel like a mom. Another patient who was outdoorsy and missed nature more than anything would practice guided meditations of the beach or forests to use his imagination to travel to places outside of his hospital room. Sometimes it was as simple as picking one thing that they were looking forward too once they were out of the hospital to remain hopeful about the future.
What strategies can you use to meet your goals in service of your values? How can you make accommodations for the activities of your everyday life to make sure you still feel like you? And importantly, how can you let go of the anger, fear, or sadness that might be keeping you from making these changes? First, acknowledge that this is a very difficult time, and if your livelihood or life is threatened then this time is even more dire. And in the short term, survival-mode may be necessary. But finding ways to feel like “you” is important for both your physical and mental well-being.