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Welcome to Spiritual Boot Camp

How sheltering in place builds inner strength when there's no place to run.

Source: Kim Schneiderman
Source: Kim Schneiderman

I’m sitting on Zoom, counseling Deborah, a single, 28-year-old client. Tears stream down her face as she anguishes about quarantining by herself in her one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment. A self-described “codependent” and committed ALANON newbie, Deborah has been working on her tendency to cling to unhealthy relationships to avoid being alone.

We were two months into therapy when COVID struck, and our sessions went virtual. Her lack of family support was evoking a familiar sense of loneliness and abandonment, awakening feelings of unlovability that could be traced back to her childhood.

Following one emotionally intense session, I gazed at her through my laptop screen and said, “Well, this is certainly codependency boot camp, isn’t it?” She laughed, acknowledging the irony of how the pandemic aligned with her 12-step goal of focusing on her relationship with herself. After all, she couldn’t hold hands or fool around with a new romantic prospect without putting her life or someone else’s at risk. Sex in the City in the time of COVID was no walk in the park with Manolo Blahniks!

Deborah isn’t alone. In fact, COVID-19 has been a spiritual boot camp of sorts for many people, and not just for codependency. Like the biblical Jonah, for the past seven weeks or so, we’ve been forced to sit in the belly of the whale, digesting our grief, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust about the pandemic that has swallowed our lives. We sit facing our own mortality, the limits of our power, and the excruciating uncertainty around when it will be safe to come up for air.

While living a more sedentary life, the pandemic tests our inner strength and endurance, pushing us to exercise our emotional, mental, and physical muscles to the point of discovering the mettle we’re made of. That includes confronting unresolved issues with relationships, family, career, health, and overall life direction, which become magnified when there’s no place to run, except around the block with a mask. Sooner or later, you’ll have to return to the same four walls to search for more space within the inner expanses of your own heart.

It reminds me of a sermon Rabbi David Ingber gave last September recalling the cult classic Young Frankenstein. In one iconic scene, Gene Wilder locks himself in a room with the monster he created instructing Igor, “no matter how much I scream, don’t let me out!” Rabbi Ingber went on to describe the demanding but spiritually important work of “staying in the room” while confronting one’s demons.

For obvious reasons, his sermon now strikes me as prophetic, especially as I counsel clients whose emotionally tender spots are being triggered by circumstances that replay painful childhood stories, only in a new chapter with a different set of characters.

For example, an even-tempered client was surprised by the intensity of her anger when her housemate neglected to get the grocery items she had requested. This led to a breakthrough when she connected her response to not feeling properly attended to by her parents because they were more focused on her special needs sibling.

Similarly, a successful, career-minded middle-aged client who craves intimacy yet struggles with vulnerability, has tapped into a familiar sense of alienation rooted in his experience as a gay child growing up in a conservative family with an alpha male father.

Certainly, COVID and the isolation it demands is an emotional workout none of us signed up for, nor imagined six months ago. But sometimes the crucibles that find us can be the ones that help us the most. Not only do they help clarify our beliefs and values, but they also expose the tender places inside ourselves that need more love and understanding. Healing these wounds through curiosity, insight, and self-love, especially with the help of a trusted therapist, can deepen our compassion for human suffering, including our own, leaving us feeling more alive and connected to the world.

What if the universe had designed the perfect opportunity for you to become the stronger, wiser, more compassionate, and self-expressed version of yourself so that you might better serve your family, community, or society at large? How much more thoughtfully or creatively would you embrace this unwelcome journey in forced contemplation?

Unfortunately, we can’t choose our personal growth work from drop-down menus in the stratosphere. Even if we could, we might choose the gentler, low-impact routines. I know I would. But if we can lean into the experience, sweat through the pain, and stretch inside ourselves when we can’t go outside, we may emerge fit and flexible for life in ways we never imagined.

More from Kim Schneiderman L.C.S.W., M.S.W
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