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?

Andrea Owen (& Empathy)

I’ve always avoided the self help section of the bookstore. This was due to a lack of self-awareness, unwillingness to admit my vulnerabilities, and my natural jaded inclination to think that if people are happy or spewing rosy life advice they are probably full of garbage.

How fortuitous that the opening of my mind to the possibility of self-improvement came at a time when there is a plethora of self-help books full of curse words to comfort me, cushion my landing, and introduce me to healthy thinking.

Thanks to these foul-mouthed authors I’m getting a remedial education in basic human communication and connection. This week I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned about empathy.

In her book, How to Stop Feeling like Sh*t, Andrea Owen identifies some of the common ways that we react to people’s stories. In this case, romantic relationship issues:

  • The One-Upper: “OMG, That’s nothing! I’m almost positive my husband is cheating on me with his office manager.”
  • The Pooh-pooh-er: “It’s probably not that bad. I just saw you two last week, you seemed fine”
  • The At Least-er: “Well, at least you’re married. I’ve been single for ten freakin’ years!”
  • The Fixer: “Have you gone to counseling? Or read that book on relationships? What about date nights?”
  • The Gasper: “WHAT?! I thought your marriage was perfect! You HAVE to make this work!” (bursts into tears)
  • I’m gonna make this about me: “Ah, bummer. Yeah, so me and my husband got in this huge argument this weekend. He got drunk at a BBQ our neighbours hosted and I…”

I can admit I’ve reacted at one point or another in each of these ways, and also had people react in these way to me. In my experience, all of these reactions cause me to feel isolated, hopeless, and no better than I was before I opened my mouth and shared. The reason being that none of these are true empathy.

Empathy is about sitting in that mess. It’s about looking within, finding that feeling and sinking into it… with someone else! It’s really incredibly uncomfortable but boils down to being no more or less than a compassionate witness.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that those of us who have trouble bearing compassionate witness to our own feelings are really ineffective at doing it for others. However, like most skills, practice and persistence pay off.

It may not surprise you that I’ve been very selective in sharing this blog with people I know. I’m fearful of people’s reactions having not a lot of experience with giving or receiving empathy.

However, recently I did take a chance on a new friend. Having gone through a different, but not dissimilar life event, and after sharing some of that experience with me I decided to go against my normal instinct and gave her the URL. She surprised me, read all the entries and responded with the sincere and perfectly empathic response of thanking me for sharing with her and validating that I was justified in feeling pain.

Such a little thing, but so significant.

Unfortunately, it’s not always “safe” to be vulnerable. Like me, many people have a misguided idea of what being there for someone really means. Not all problems have solutions that others can help you find, sometimes the best gift you can get is someone that’s willing to sit there in the ditch with you and remind you that you can trust yourself to get out again.

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If you would like to learn more about Andrea Owen’s coaching, books, blog, podcast, or general awesome swing by her website, here.

Lake Monsters and Jelly Shoes

My family has a cottage on a lake in rural Ontario, Canada. In lieu of travel and family vacations to exotic locations we spent most of our time off at this magical place.

When I was little, my extended family used to enjoy spending time up there together. I had four older cousins and I idolized them; I thought they were beautiful, animated and godlike. Unfortunately for me, with a significant age gap, they thought I was annoying, clingy and lame. I remember being very excited and nervous on those rare occasions when they chose to include me.

The lake is small and shallow. As an adult, I have to walk out at least a hundred feet for the water to reach over my head. As kids, we had access to a homemade raft made from solid wood which weighed a ton, nothing like the lightweight foam contraptions I see around the lake today. We would push it out to the middle with great effort so we could compete in jumping and diving off, something that wasn’t safely available closer to shore.

Even at that age I remember being scared of deep water. I used to imagine monsters and animated plant life with tentacle like appendages ready to pull me to the bottom. Of course I wouldn’t admit that to my cousins and did my best to hide my fear hoping that would somehow convince them that I was mature and cool enough to be around them.

It was the 80’s and plastic shoes were all the rage, most cottage seasons started with a trip to Zellers to grab a pair. They would be promptly christened as lake shoes on arrival.

Walking out from shore, as the water got deeper, the bottom would get murkier and your feet would sink into the clay and sand. It wasn’t unusual for someone to lose one or both shoes yielding shrieks from the victim and laughter from the rest.  They would then have to press their bare feet into the muck to help push the raft back to shore; one of my first experiences with the concept of “chicken”.

In hindsight, my cousins were also scared of deep water and the bottom of the lake. The jelly shoes were a sort of armour we all shared but didn’t discuss; an illusion of safety against imagined demons. At the time I was too absorbed in my own fear and trying to be cool and accepted that it didn’t occur to me that admitting my feelings probably would have brought us closer together and helped me work through it.

As an adult, I’m still not crazy about deep water. I feel momentary panic when seaweed wraps around my ankles or I realize I can’t see the bottom. But I also recognize this fear is mostly in my head and rationalize that I am fortunate enough to swim in lakes that are free of most monsters. I accept that I have these irrational feelings, I can’t change them, but I can choose my reaction. I can choose to acknowledge my fear and move forward bravely with awareness and without a crutch. I may even choose to share that fear with a trusted friend.

Sometimes, when I am lonely and feel disconnected and I desperately seek comfort in others, I remind myself that there are lessons in fear and am grateful they can help me stay safe. For example, if I ever go swimming in the Amazon I will be grateful for my apprehensive and fearful mammalian brain reminding me of dangers in the deep. But in the relatively safe lake of my youth my fear is irrational, outdated, and holds me back.

I calmly remind myself that I am strong, smart, and independent. I am grateful for jelly shoes for getting me in the water as a kid but I’m happy I’ve grown enough as an adult that I can swim without them.