The last year has tested us all in different ways. We are living through times of massive change; political unrest, physical isolation and the ongoing pandemic all impacting our lives immeasurably. For many of us, positivity has felt in short supply of late.
And yet, the day-to-day of life’s unremarkable minutia rumbles on.
There are still little moments of joy, albeit they’re often found in softer, simpler ways; many of us will have gained some perspective, making promises to ourselves that we’ll change certain behaviours and not take the little things for granted when we’re back to normal (or “new normal”).
But there are also daily challenges that remain – stuff that pales in comparison to the ‘bigger issues’ but still take up our attention and emotional capacity on a micro level.
I’m writing this having grappled with my own sense of perspective and emotional intelligence in pretty intense circumstances for the last year. I experienced my own personal hardest life event last March and, as luck would have it, the timing coincided with the beginning of the pandemic and lockdown number one. Instead of the most joyful and exciting year, 2020 quickly unravelled into one of distress, and the extended periods of lockdown gave me an unwanted amount of time and space to process a significant life change. This was the case for many experiencing bereavements, job losses, financial hardships and other challenging impacts of the pandemic.
At that difficult time, and in isolation, I would have found those inconsequential, day-to-day distractions very welcome – but unfortunately the distractions that presented themselves were instead death tolls, a virus spreading exponentially worldwide, and the subsequent closure of anything remotely resembling fun. Knowing that there were so many bigger and more existential problems at play affecting people across the globe when trying to deal with my own individual crisis did not feel comfortable. It took me back to a place of feeling undeserving of help, sympathy, or even anyone’s time. These feelings of validity I now know to be common among people making their first steps for therapeutic support.
“Why should I have anything to complain about?”
“Other people have it much worse than me”
Particularly now, where conversations about privilege are quite rightly coming to the forefront of our social discourse around wellbeing, I felt like a fraud for even being upset by my own circumstances, in my sheltered and privileged life with a clean bill of health. My own problems seemingly paled into insignificance in the wider scheme of things, and that parallel made me feel even worse.
So how do you validate and tackle your own trauma at a time of such heightened collective trauma?
How do you deal with your own crap when everything is so crap?
Here are some things I’ve found useful to remind myself in the last year. These thoughts are informed by the ongoing development of my own self-awareness and emotional intelligence, but also from trends I’ve seen in our collective response to the pandemic (this WHO-approved report is a useful resource supporting some of these points).
· Understand what makes you tick
I don’t subscribe to the idea that we could or should have all picked up a hobby or new skill in lockdown; it’s counter-productive to have that expectation of ourselves. Surviving the last year is an achievement in itself – anything beyond that is a bonus. Regardless of whether or not they’re ‘recognised’ hobbies or activities, it’s vital to understand what tools and techniques you possess and are equipped with in order to help you withstand tough times. Personally, my happiness is very closely linked to my productivity and creativity. I’m a musician, a hard worker, and I have a job that I love but that comes with a high level of responsibility – and as a role overseeing implementation of tech and communications platforms, the stakes were suddenly much higher in the pandemic; the challenge was there to be met.
Recognising that those things are all choices I’ve made because they fit with my interests and values, and make me feel good, has allowed me to harness them into positive energy in recent months. I’ve been creative with my writing, produced music with friends remotely, and have really focused my energies into my day job – all of those make me feel useful and help me channel my emotions into something constructive. This Voxel Hub-recommended book ‘Flow’ expands on this, exploring the theory that “the way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism but in mindful challenge”.
That said, at least half of my evenings since last March have consisted of watching late-night quiz show re-runs. I’m not even embarrassed to write that, because sometimes it’s the mindless, trivial things that can help keep you afloat. Both make me ‘tick’ in equal measure.
If there’s something you’re doing that’s helping you push through the last year – provided it’s healthy for yourself and those around you – don’t judge yourself for it (and don’t let others judge you).
· There is no moral equivalence between distressing situations.
Lots of things can be bad. Lots of things can be bad simultaneously.
It is so frustrating to read (particularly on social media) how sad and traumatic events are presented as mutually exclusive. I’ve seen it described as the ‘Grief Olympics’ – the idea that one tragic thing is superseded in its sadness by another; ranked on a scale of suffering. This is short-sighted, unhelpful and fails to acknowledge that we collectively have the emotional capacity to be sympathetic to multiple causes and situations at the same time. It’s encapsulated by just how quickly trends appeared on Twitter, misguidedly proclaiming ‘#AllLivesMatter’ and ‘#NotAllMen’ in the wake of tragic events affecting very specific demographics, resulting in very valid, emotive reactions from said affected communities. Someone much funnier than me once said “‘Save the whales’ doesn’t mean ‘screw the dolphins’” and it feels bizarrely apt as we exist in a landscape that often tries to pitch grief and loss on a competitive spectrum.
With that in mind, it has been helpful to remind myself that my emotions are valid regardless of such extreme external noise, and I’d encourage the same of anyone experiencing their own sense of grief or distress. Being sorry for myself doesn’t mean I’m not sorry for circumstances bigger and more systemic than my own situation.
The enormity of pandemic-related fears may have dwarfed our own dilemmas – be them day-to-day or more significant – but it doesn’t make what we are feeling any less painful or relevant. This New Statesman article articulates this very well:
“Since then, a new trend has emerged: extreme backlash against a particular type of complaint – typically from young people, saying they miss their “old lives”, their nights out, their fulfilling time with friends. Anything that could be seen as hedonistic (partying, drinking, sleeping with acquaintances or strangers) is immediately met with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of comments from people policing the poster’s language, telling them they are part of what caused the second wave. Honesty – that lockdown is mind-numbing and a year of social deprivation can be soul-destroying – is met with the message that they are the problem, simply for complaining. The finger will be pointed: do they really think they have a right to complain when others are “truly suffering” in this pandemic?”
· Recognise the context
We are starting to acknowledge, albeit belatedly, that mental health is so intrinsically linked to our social and political climate. My day job is at a youth mental health charity and we have been advocates and activists for this approach for well over a decade, contextualising the way young people are feeling as so often influenced the systems they exist (or are lost) within.
However, political decisions have individual consequences and we are all shaped by them, whether we like it or not. Trauma is often a direct result of lack of social mobility or connection and we need to learn from the impact of political decisions in the last year; recognise how they have affected us on both an individual and collective level, and reflect this in our future values, decisions and votes. We can all contribute to positive change by channeling and mobilising our frustrations into social action, even in the smallest ways.
· Move away from toxic positivity
I have serious admiration for anyone who has been able to maintain a sunny disposition throughout the pandemic, despite it feeling unrelatable to me. For some, such as freelancers or those in the tech world, the lockdowns have represented either normality (working remotely, juggling work/life balance) or even opportunity in terms of using their skills to support the collective effort to come out the other side.
While I don’t think remaining positive necessarily reflects a lack of empathy – you can be positive and empathetic at the same time – nonetheless it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate resilience, which is rooted much more in coping, learning and growing through difficult situations as opposed to simply remaining stubbornly positive.
Where I do find it problematic though, is where those with such positive outlooks implore us to share the ‘good vibes only’ approach. It feels tone-deaf and misguided to expect that others, many of whom are experiencing job losses, bereavement and other significant life changes, will suppress their struggles. I for one have felt like such a drain to those around me in the past few months (albeit this is a label I have only ever self-assigned), but if there has ever been a time to acknowledge that stress, sadness and fear are normal feelings to experience at times in life, it’s now.
Surround yourself with people who recognise these difficult and complex feelings as natural, and who have the emotional intelligence to speak to you at a level that is empathetic and understanding.
Ultimately, the pandemic and all the associated distress doesn’t detract from the very real personal dilemmas that many of us will be confronting. It may, however, feel like it reduces our airtime for complaint.
Know yourself, know your worth, and don’t fall into the trap of paralleling your own distress with something so huge.
If you’re still standing after the last 12 months, that’s enough. Hold your individual experience as valid, because you, and we, have made it this far.