Fear, Shame, and COVID-19

woman in green and white stripe shirt covering her face with white mask
Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Pexels.com

Heading towards the fourth month in Canada of social distancing, the seriousness of COVID-19 has not diminished and the mental health impacts of being socially isolated are starting to become more apparent.  My neighbours, and even myself, have started to take more risks when it comes to the regulations: more “driveway” and social distance visits, more justifications to expand the circle, and more attempts to inject some normal into our lives.

The conversations around this disease are starting to shift as people are making large efforts to be sensitive to everyone else’s needs, comfort level, and risk factors while balancing their own need to get back into more natural social packs.  Historically I would describe myself as more of a “lone wolf”, favouring small and intimate connections over large packs, but this experience has taught me that my need for human connection is stronger than I imagined. I’ve found myself lingering longer with friendly frontline workers, talking about the weather or any other non-COVID topic they are willing to engage in through plexiglass on my supply runs.. and after seeing a few friends for a backyard social distance visit for the first time since this all started last week, I am more aware than ever that I need good people around me to feel balanced.

Something interesting that I am noticing is that most people seem very hesitant to admit that they feel any fear over infection.  Most cite a loved one, roommate, or contact as the reason for their lack of contact: “I’m okay, but so-and-so is so uncomfortable so I stay away”.

I’m not saying that we should lift any restrictions, the threat of this horrible disease is still very real with no cure or vaccine close on the horizon.  It is still important to do our part to ensure the safety of the population and no one should feel more uncomfortable than needed or be placed at unnecessary risk. But – what I find interesting about these ongoing discussions is they indicate a very real problem: there is shame associated with being afraid, and shame keeps people from talking about fear.  I say this because in some of my conversations the same people are blaming each other for being afraid. I suspect this is not always miscommunication, but more likely a reluctance to admit their own fear.

I find this especially sad, because I believe most people genuinely want to do their best for others.  If there is something I can do (or not do) in order to make you more comfortable and at ease in your interactions with me, I would be happy to do my best to accommodate. But – if those conversations don’t happen, I don’t know how you’re feeling and I can’t do my part to help you feel better.

I also understand that admitting fear is not an easy thing to do. I grew up in an environment where it was not okay to feel negative things. It was wrong to be scared, to require reassurance or accommodation. To this day, admitting I need something is still peppered with shame… but, I will say, that “normal and healthy” people do not make you feel worse for having a negative feeling. It is okay and normal to be scared, and it is worth pushing through the discomfort of shame to have better quality connections, especially in this time where connection is more challenging than it has ever been before.

W.A.I.T.

cheerful sisters with cup of drink using laptop on floor
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Something I struggle with constantly is when and how to approach conversation mindfully.  I work in a sales role which requires me to be engaging and communicative so this is a careful balancing act. If you’ve ever encountered one of those natural sales guys you know that we like (or at least choose) to talk.. constantly. We use speak to engage, to stall, to charm, to manipulate, to be successful in our roles. It’s not unusual for people to leave a conversation with a salesperson in awe of all the talking they did with not a lot of substance.

My background complicates this a bit. I’ve experienced a lot of dysfunctional communication and don’t always understand the value of keeping some of my well-intentioned (but destructive) thoughts and judgements to myself. I’ve harped on this idea a lot in past posts, but it’s taken a lot of years for me to understand that I can’t save or alter everyone’s path and that sometimes you gotta STFU and let someone find their way.

If you’ve ever made it to an “Anonymous” meeting, you’ve probably been exposed to the acronym “W.A.I.T.” This stands for “Wait, why am I talking?” and is a valuable conversation technique reminding us to halt our lizard brain and automatic babble and be mindful about what we are saying. It reminds us that we don’t need to speak in the heat of the moment, and it is also useful in hindsight – you know that thing we all do when we overthink the conversation afterword, in my case often with regret and criticism.

Why am I talking?

  1. Because everyone else is talking.
  2. I have an urge to talk.
  3. I want attention.
  4. In order to communicate with a purpose
  5. I don’t know.

Loren Ekroth, ConversationMatters.com

The old adage, “less is more”, is often true when it comes to conversation. The most memorable conversations are usually with great listeners who know what to say and when to say it. However, like everything else, this is very much a progress not perfection kind of thing.

So what do you do when you’re W.A.I.T.’ing?

First, establish that you are actually trying to add something of value to the conversation. That your intent is to be meaningful, compassionate, and truly constructive.

Next, listen. Really listen to what the other person is saying. An alarming number of people don’t do this. At some point in human evolution it seems we all got fixated on our own sense of importance, and many of us (including myself at times) get caught up in the excitement of our own words – we don’t register what the other person is contributing, we are just waiting for our turn to speak. Stop, and really take in what they are saying – ask sensitive questions to ensure that you know where they are coming from, and make sure you are really making an effort to address their point or question.

Listen first, think second, and talk last (if at all).

And finally, remember that you always have the choice of taking a pause. There are very few occasions where it is not appropriate to ask for a break to mull it over. It is okay, and I can’t stress this enough, to take a step away and give the conversation some thought before you respond, even in business.  Acknowledge the other person’s view and ask for a respite, it’s okay to not know what to say and ask to get back to them when you’ve had a chance to look into or ponder their point more closely.

Taking a break is a valuable way to reduce any regret you may feel from speech. If I’ve made sure that my intent is good and my message is meaningful I am less inclined to wish I’d said nothing if the other person does not respond positively to my words. In those cases where emotions are running high, it gives me a chance to calm down and approach things rationally instead of impulsively.

But really, all this boils down to something that many of us struggle with: taking responsibility for our words. I think we forget, or have been mislead, into thinking that falls on the listener: “they’re just too sensitive”, etc. But that’s a load of crap, we are all responsible for what we say, write, put into the world.  Sure, not everyone is going to like what you say, but we all have a duty of care to be aware of others and ourselves and have a reasonable appreciation for how what we do and say affects and is perceived by others.

We are all entitled to our own experience and have had different experiences that would lead us to respond in different ways to a message. There are times where we will do our best, but our message will still not be received in the way we hope.  That’s okay, the important thing is to try to be mindful, compassionate, and to aware so we can learn from the outcomes and continue to grow as a person.

Black Lives Matter

Just when we thought 2020 couldn’t get any more challenging, the tragic and avoidable death of George Floyd happened.

It’s so hard for me to articulate how reading about George’s final moments have impacted me.  The image of police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on his victim’s neck for painful and bottomless minutes is beyond words. Reading that the catalyst that lead to this mistreatment was suspicion of a counterfeit bill used to purchase a pack of cigarettes makes me furious.. and sad… and other things that, again, seem beyond my ability to articulate.

Something I haven’t shared on this blog is that there was a long period of my life that I dreamed to be a police officer. I wanted to make the world a better, safer place.  I wanted to be part of the solution that would reduce violence, oppression, and suffering.

I even took a police foundations preparatory diploma at a community college.  As a part of that program we learned the principles of use of force. This is the model by which officers are supposed to base their action and choose the appropriate amount of force required to compel compliance by an unwilling subject. Basically, it is a doctrine that helps an officer assess the minimum amount of force to use to ensure that people, including themselves, don’t get hurt.

In that program they stressed that judgement is not an officer’s role, it is the restoration of peace and subsequent empowerment of the courts to deliver appropriate sentencing for interruptions to that peace.

Reading about George Floyd is personally upsetting to me for a boatload of reasons.  The officer did not keep to his oath of protecting the peace and, even worse, he underlined a fundamental and sad reality about society: not all life is considered equal. His actions suggest that he saw George’s life as less valuable than the pack of cigarettes he suspected him of stealing.

And this is unbearably upsetting to me.

Like many people worldwide I can’t help but wonder if the officer would have acted differently if George had looked different.  And sadly, I think he would have.  If George had not been black, but made the same choices he had that day, I suspect he would still be alive.

I recently saw a post on Instagram that said “privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally”.

I think we are seeing that rejection of privilege expressed today in protests and social media blackouts from people of all colours. Although it’s unfortunate property is being damaged, killing innocent black people has to stop.  I am encouraged that the loudest voice right now is insisting that all life should have equal and irreplaceable value. No one should have to spend their last moments as George Floyd did, and no officer should forget their oath to restore peace but not impose judgement.

Acts of hatred and violence happening in our communities are unacceptable and heartbreaking. I condemn all acts of bigotry and stand with the black community with all my feelings of pain and fear that come from those acts.

Life matters.

The Worst Part

young troubled woman using laptop at home
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I’ve read a few articles on the ongoing psychological impact of social isolation resulting from COVID. While the long term and actual effects of the unprecedented civil order to maintain distance from strangers and loved ones outside the household are still under investigation, I personally don’t know a single person who isn’t impacted and off balance.

Recently, like some kind of competition that no one wins, my connections have started speculating more and more on the “worst part” of COVID-life.  These reasons stem from the mundane and shallow to the seriously sad.  What I will say, before sharing my own “worst thing”, is that whatever challenges you are facing are valid and real. I understand the daily struggle that comes from being committed to doing the right thing, even if it is painful. And – regardless of your level of comfort with the idea of catching and surviving this disease, most of us understand the big picture of why we are taking this measure… we don’t want to hurt others.

My partner and I live in a century home in a small town in Southern Ontario which we moved into weeks before the world shut down.  Like most old houses, there have been challenges with foundation deterioration and one of our first actions on moving in was locating a contractor who could help reinforce the 100-year old joists in the basement. Unfortunately, due to this settling, the ceiling in a few of the older untouched rooms have sagged and adjusted with the home. Busy with other more critical tasks, we’ve been putting off addressing this damage.

Yesterday, we were sitting inside.  It was raining, a National holiday, and we’d exhausted all the low-hanging Netflix fruit (#fuckcarolebaskin).  Our couch time has increased steadily over the last few months as we’ve tackled all the house projects we can complete without assistance, are unable to easily acquire materials, and struggle with the tumultuous Canadian spring weather.

Mid-afternoon, after a few quiet hours of mucking around on the Internet, he turned to me and asked if I would like to demolish the ceiling in one of these rooms. I agreed and he quickly started collecting crow bars, masks, garbage bags, and other materials to complete the task.

For the first time in days we laughed easily, conversation flowed, and we enjoyed each other with a lot less effort than we have since the stress of pandemic entered our lives. It occurred to me that the worst part of this situation for our relationship is not the lack of services, restaurants, the financial strain, or the anti-aphrodisiac effect of wearing the same track pants for weeks on end.  It is the lack of spontaneity. Without personal choice and options, it is like the volume is turned way down and a grey fog has settled. Every day is almost exactly the same and while that same is much better than it has been in the past, without the ups, downs, and outside influence, it lacks perspective. I have trouble appreciating how amazing my life is compared to how it was when this blog started.

With that in mind, I remind myself to be grateful, humble, and compassionate. I remind myself to widen my tunnel vision, challenge my narrow perception, and acknowledge how far I’ve come.

I also want to ask you for inspiration; what is the worst part for you and how are you coping?