The Hardest Person to be With in Quarantine is Myself
This time is strange. As a psychologist, I am so interested in how people are coping and how creative they are. There are many beautiful acts of kindness and strength. However, it is also strange in that with little warning most of our daily routines were halted and replaced by new and different routines. Change is hard but I am fortunate because I have relative comfort and safety. My family and friends are generally safe and healthy. Yet, one of the things I have been experiencing is realizing how hard it is to be with myself, particularly right now.
The diagram above has been circulating on social media. For me, it’s a daily travel map. I move from zone to zone. Time is slowed down. The days exist without schedules without structure. There is time which creates space for reflection or overthinking. Lots of time for overthinking. Even if I distract myself for a brief period, I am still there when I am finished bingeing the episode, or when I am sick of sitting and passively watching TV and I can’t do it anymore. There I am, still me, in quarantine. I know what I “should” be doing. When I am frustrated with myself, I project this onto others who are in quarantine with me. I grumble to my partner about how he is moody to attempt to discharge my feelings about myself. This contributes to a cycle of frustration. As Brene Brown is fond of saying, I am now in a “shit storm of shame.” This happens for a positive reason. I am behaving in ways contrary to how I think of myself. Because I believe I am a resilient person, one who is measured, I feel uncomfortable in quarantine. I don’t feel measured in the slowed down time of the quarantine. I don’t feel resilient. There is shame around not doing “quarantine” well. I am failing quarantine, and thus, the shame storm. As a psychologist, I understand how stress impacts coping. I am fortunate and safe. My family is healthy yet, I feel angst, as if I am not enough. After days of bubbling grumpiness, I remembered something I learned and found useful once before. It is the idea of equanimity.
Equanimity is an idea I learned about during another time when I was feeling frustrated and stuck. It is the ability to have mental calmness particularly in difficult times. We all want to be the calm in the storm. We struggle with equanimity for many reasons but one reason is when something we identify with is challenged or triggered. We all identify with things that we see as our strengths and weaknesses. I am smart; I am not smart. I am funny and likeable; I am not likeable. When we struggle with things we identify with as central to who we are, we contract and become smaller; the smaller version of ourselves. We aren’t smaller because we are struggling with being who we thought we are, but because we are judging the struggle as though it is a failure. Judging it as though struggle isn’t expected or part of living. As a mental health clinician, I am hardcore judging myself for not coping better, for struggling. My inner dialogue is I am failing quarantine. I am not enough. I should be… (insert said activity or struggle of the moment). My self-talk is unkind. I recognize this cycle as one that I often talk to others about as well in my practice. I am not immune to the impact of self-judgement and reactivity; I am in the shame storm, and I’m flailing.
One antidote to such thinking and reactivity is self-forgiveness and empathy. In my practice, people are often more easily compassionate toward others. They find it harder to extend compassion to themselves. The story I tell myself that struggle equals failure, isn’t true just because I think it. When I am stuck in this loop of shame and failure, I am helped by several resources that have information about equanimity and reactivity. I love to listen to several podcasts that help me get out of the reactive place I am stuck in. I find comfort in the podcasts by Brene Brown, Tara Brach, and Audio Drama. In addition to podcasts, the book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions by
Christopher Germer and Sharon Salzberg has been very helpful to me.
These resources help me recall that self-judgment and negative internal storytelling are unhelpful. When I can offer kindness and compassion to myself and others, the reactivity and judgement eases. I can catch my breath, and the storm clouds subside. In part, I am reacting to this time with fear because it IS scary and uncertain for all of us. With others, I can more easily respond with compassion but self-compassion is harder for us to extend. With self-compassion and vulnerability, we can offer ourselves an alternative to judgment and shame, an alternative that helps us to be less reactive and more present.
This is a strange time; be kind to yourself.
Written by Monica Stewart, PhD