I’m writing this blog tonight in the hopes of helping all of us have more positive productive conversations about COVID with each other. I’m a therapist in Washington DC, and I help families and couples have difficult conversations on a daily basis. I’ve been thinking about the content of this post for the past 6 months. I’m trained to observe, reflect, and then facilitate others to become more psychologically aware and act more healthfully in their lives and relationships. A HUGE part of my job is helping people have hard conversations.
I’m also a mom who participates at all levels with her three children, their schools, and within our community–I witness and participate in challenging conversations across all domains–email, text, voice-to-voice, facebook, in person, virtual, etc. In COVID conversations, the stakes are high! We are scared for our loved ones safety, and we are advocates for our family members’ needs.
As this pandemic has stretched on, I’ve noticed a few trends that I think need naming. I’ve also anticipated that as we begin to come out of isolation and interact more socially, we will struggle to interact well with each other. Why? Understandably, we are all fearful in some way. There is nothing more primal than our love for our children and our feelings for family members. And, when we fear for their safety or for our own health, we are often reactive, stressed, and struggle to remain in a calm, reflective stance. That’s to be expected, and it is OK! I want us to begin to think about these tensions that are building in our conversations and among our neighbors as opportunities for having hard conversations well within the midst of this crisis.
DC’s Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her concerns about DC families mental health and urged families to pay special attention to what they might need to endure this health crisis through the coming school year. https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/DCWASH/bulletins/29c3c2e
Depending on how well they go, difficult conversations can either connect us or leave us feeling alone and misunderstood. And, connection is a primary tool for helping us take care of our mental health. It soothes anxiety; it wards off and lifts depression; and it dissolves loneliness. I’ve listed below some suggestions for having better conversations about COVID within the next 6 months of this pandemic. Take a step for your mental health, and learn new skills for having positive COVID conversations.
We talk about COVID constantly! Why? We are worried and preoccupied. Of course! We tend to be repetitive when we’re anxious, and these are certainly anxious times. Yet, just like we don’t want to feel anxious all of the time, we need to try to limit our COVID conversations to brief discussions about logistics when possible. Give yourself a break and limit your discussions about COVID when you are trying to relax and enjoy others’ company. Don’t avoid necessary conversations, yet simply enjoy some moments COVID-free.
We all prioritize safety precautions according to our values. Yes, we should all wear masks, wash our hands, sanitize, socialize outdoors, and stay 6 feet apart. Most of us who are tracking the data and recommendations know this.
However, have you noticed that most of us value different things in life? Some people really need to move to feel alive and will prioritize working out in groups sooner than others. Other people get depressed when isolated and need more human contact. Some kids have become depressed during this pandemic and need time with their friends to feel alive and motivated again. Even in “Corona Times”, we get to be different. To stay focused on our priorities, we have to honor what our individual and family absolute limits are (i.e. we only let our children play indoors with families in our bubble, we allow for outdoor socially distanced soccer practices but not close quartered games).
When we become angry or scared while facing someone’s different practices regarding COVID, we need to understand that we can only control ourselves and make requests of others. We can’t force anyone to do it our way (except perhaps in our own homes). We can’t control others. When we threaten, we don’t usually get better compliance—we usually get more resistance or defiance.
We are all scared. And, when we are scared by someone’s less strict mask-wearing practices or by our friends’ wider Corona bubble, we need to acknowledge our anger as a product of fear. We then must soothe our fear before heading into a conversation, whether it is online or in person. For instance, don’t text and post when you are angry. Anger is not soothed by being reactive. Anger is soothed by having some space, taking some time to think, moving your body, etc. And fear and hurt–which are almost always underneath anger–are soothed by connecting with others. If you blast someone online, glare at an unmasked pedestrian in your neighborhood, or toss a blaming comment to a fellow parent, you won’t really soothe your fear. You will just keep the anger and fear alive.
We will get upset at others. It is inevitable that we will have conflict with others. It is a crisis on several fronts—health (and mental health for some), financial, educational and racial for others. When we experience a crisis or undergo a trauma (and I think we can agree that COVID is it’s own special form of trauma), we are cracked open. We are injured on the inside, and often left with wounds and scars that are easily aggravated. It’s like having an undressed physical wound. Trauma keeps opening up old wounds and creating new injuries. Elizabeth Lesser -teacher and healer at The Omega Institute- narrates some of her students’ stories where they were “broken open” by trauma and life events. [https://www.eomega.org/]. In this phrasing, she’s highlighting that injury and pain can sometimes lead to new creations, when we allow for moments of awareness, connection, and healing. We all need to tune into where we can use our “upset”, and our hurts, as tools for helping ourselves and others. In order to use anger as a tool, we can’t spew or direct our anger at others. We need to feel our anger thoroughly enough to decide what our limits are, what we see as the real problem, and what we can use as solutions.
We need guidelines for good conversations. Try to think about the level of closeness or intimacy that is required for the particular conversation that you need to have to accomplish a good goal. How well do you know the person/group? What is the best venue and format? Does it need to be a two-way group, or just a one-way conversation (i.e. email)? Should it be more private than public (i.e. text vs. Facebook)? For emotionally difficult conversations, don’t rely on listservs, texts, or email. Aim for two-way conversations ideally that are voice-to-voice or face-to-face, even if virtual. Do there need to be several conversations or levels of engagement—one-on-one talk, small group discussions and then a large group meeting?
We need lessons in how to use control healthfully. Control almost never helps releive fear or anxiety. It almost always fuels anger, or it shuts everyone up so that there is less discussion. Don’t throw your power around. Be mindful of your audience, and consider who needs help speaking up more and how. Before sending a public message, ask yourself some of the questions–Do you have a particular position of power or influence? How can you use it well, in ways that instill confidence and reassurance? How can you pass along a positive strong message vs a negative fearful message? If you mean business and need to take action, fine–inform others, and take action. No threats are necessary.
We are all doing the best we can. I believe that the best message flowing from COVID is “WE are all in this together.” While we all have unique circumstances, and many are being treated unfairly during this pandemic, we do GET to choose to deal with this pandemic as a worldwide HUMAN problem. We can consider that our best solutions include conversations person to person.