Living and Working in the COVID Pressure Cooker
In our roles as executive coaches, organizational consultants, friends, family members and human beings, we’re watching how those around us are being impacted by the current COVID crisis, including us. This is a time that can bring out the best or the worst in us, and we see both. We’ll describe some of the challenges we’re seeing, and also the opportunities for mutual compassion and growth.
Challenge #1: Grief, unresolved grief and loss
There are many models presenting stages of grief and loss. These are not sequential steps we go through. We may not experience all of them, they can occur in any order, and for major losses they can be triggered for a long time after the loss event(s). This grief can relate to loss of freedom, loss of income, loss of employment, seeing the impact on children, the death of those we know and those we don’t, and many other situations.
The challenge arises when we do not understand that all these stages are natural, and being compassionate with ourselves while avoiding “taking it out” on others. The stages include:
- Denial — this didn’t really happen (including “this disease or loss isn’t really so bad.”)
- Numbness — at this stage we often believe that we’re handing the situation well, and don’t realize that we’re really shut down, closed off from our own feelings, and therefore others’ as well. It’s false acceptance.
- Overwhelm or chaos
- Bargaining, what-if and if-only thinking — this includes re-imagining the past so it leads to a better current outcome (“if only I’d taken that steady job before this crisis hit.”)
- Anger —the anger is sometimes directed outward in our lives, not directly at the object of loss, but rather at something or someone else. We have a feeling (anger) and then unconsciously look for a source of blame to release it. Sometimes the anger takes the form of “Why me?” and “It’s not fair!” Or we become more reactive in general to others, easily annoyed or irritated. We’re a feeling looking for a “reason” to feel that way.
- Resentment —simmering resentment is like anger without the release, it’s something we hold onto, often because it protects us from the more vulnerable feelings are are underneath.
- Anxiety — this isn’t typically listed as a stage of grief, but it’s something we can adopt to cover up our more vulnerable or tender feelings. This particularly happens when there’s not permission to have the full range of experiences related to grief and loss, coupled with lack of connection to others in our individually-oriented cultures, and the resulting sense of isolation. Humans are naturally connecting beings, and we suffer (including anxiety) when we do not have that sense of safe, secure and loving connection.
- Deeply felt sadness/grief — in many cultures, including much of North America, there’s little permission to feel this.
- Acceptance — relaxing into the reality of what has happened, not resisting any aspect of the experience, and finding a deep sense of peace even within the tumultuous thoughts and feelings that are arising.
- Meaning and hope — coming out of the situation, not just with acceptance, but also renewed hope and a “bigger picture” from which to live. This can include deep experiences of gratitude, compassion and love.
Challenge #2: Our cultures rarely support accepting, experiencing and communicating our stages of grief and loss, and we therefore get stuck
- We recently spoke to a business leader whose leadership team regularly shares the full gamut of what they’re experiencing in a consciously-nurtured safe environment. That’s rare. This leader also attributed much of their current success to this culture of openness, vulnerability and trust.
- We get stuck in stages if we aren’t able to accept and experience them, or to share our experience with others. Yet many of our cultures do not provide permission to grieve. We then deny our experience, or hide it, and therefore have trouble moving on.
- The message is often, “Get over it” or “I’d rather not hear what you’re going through.”
- Because the stages of grief and loss are not being normalized, we can tend to feel isolated and “weak” for having these experiences, especially if the “get over it” message is coming directly from others.
Challenge #3: Unlike simple grief, the losses and potential losses keep adding up
- In simple grief a loss occurs (e.g. someone passes away) and then we have stages we can go through that hopefully lead us to acceptance, meaning and hope.
- During these current times, the losses and potential losses keep coming. Our children aren’t learning, or are upset at always being told “no.” Spending more time with our spouses is leading to new tensions and issues. Friends are losing their jobs.
- When the losses and potential losses keep adding up it becomes harder to re-stabilize or to stabilize at a higher level of functioning.
Challenge #4: Anticipatory anxiety about the future
- Sadness and depression are generally about the past, while anxiety is mostly about the future. Anxiety can also be protection against deeper and more vulnerable feelings that lie below.
- While this anxiety is about the future, it’s experienced in the present.
- We want certainty, a sense of control, but the current situation makes this difficult to impossible. Economies close, open, and close again. So do schools, both K-12 and higher education. Government programs to assist us are volatile and unreliable.
- When we feel anxiety we often project the blame on others.
Challenge #5: Very few people are dealing well with Challenges #1, 2, 3 and 4
- Suicide and suicidal thoughts are on the rise, as is substance abuse.
- Spousal and child abuse is increasing.
- Very few people have the awareness and skills to handle the grief, loss and anxiety. At least in North America we’re taught to “have it together,” to not be vulnerable, and we shield ourselves from our inner reactivity, hide it from others, and/or project blame and resentment onto others or ourselves.
Challenge #6: Our negativity bias, lack of self-compassion
- Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. Using the words of neuropsychologist Rick Hansen, we’re Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. We focus on what has gone wrong, and what can go wrong in the future, much more that being grateful for what we have. This is always an issue, but becomes much more significant during these turbulent times.
- When we do step back and reflect on our situations, we usually do so with our Inner Critic rather than our Compassionate Inner Observer. We’re hard on ourselves. We may think we should be handling things better than we are, or compare ourselves negatively to others.
Challenge #7: Lack of appreciation of Common Humanity, and therefore feeling alone
- Walk into a store and look around. While they may not be showing it, virtually everyone you see has some version of grief, loss, and anxiety. It may be about them, their children, their loved ones, their friends. Yet we feel like we’re alone in our experience.
- From an attitude of Common Humanity, even when others are being reactive (belligerent, easily annoyed, aggressive, etc.), we could look at them and think, “Just like me, you’re struggling during these difficult times.” We could do the same when our children are having tantrums, our friends aren’t returning our messages, etc. But we forget. We feel like we’re alone in our experience. And , unfortunately, often rightfully so.
Challenge #8: Over-privileging Individuality over the Collective
- Some cultures naturally have a Collective orientation. When someone dies people stop what they’re doing to be with those who are impacted by the loss, and often share experiences and celebrate the person who passed. When a difficult event occurs people get together to share their experiences and wisdom. This generates mutual compassion and a sense of being in-it-together, rather than in-it-alone.
- In most of our cultures this is not the case. Our workplace cultures often give the message, “Let’s pretend this is business as usual.” We hide our tender feelings, our confusion, our anguish. We don’t feel safe to let people know how we’re actually doing. This leads to more aloneness and getting more stuck in our reactivity as a release, and stuck in some or all of the stages of grief and loss.
- Particularly in our VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) we need to come together, in safe and trusting environments, to share and then integrate diverse perspectives in order to generate wise paths forward.
Challenge #9: Insufficient self-awareness leading us to treat others poorly and project all over them
- No matter what our personality type, under stress there’s a strong pull to be the worst of ourselves. Depending on our habits, patterns and gifts, we may become more critical/judgmental, less in touch with our own needs and those of others, more artificial, more moody, more withdrawn, more anxious, more flighty, more aggressive, more shut-down, etc.
- As we describe below, we have found the Enneagram system to be particularly powerful in understanding individual personality differences. When we’re having these patterned reactions and feelings, we tend to form “stories” to support our experience, and this frequently has us projecting onto others, blaming them, seeing them as the problem, because we’re uncomfortable or inexperienced at examining the impact of our long-standing habits and patterns.
- Each Enneagram Type has typical ways in which problematic habits and patterns are reinforced. It takes regular practice to have the freedom to challenge these long-standing habits and patterns.
Challenge #10: Lack of resources
- In the midst of all this, we all want more from our governments, our employers, our family or friends. But most everyone is “tapped out,” in survival mode. There’s a general lack of abundance among people, organizations, and governments.
Challenge #11: We’re emotional sponges
- We may not show our vulnerable and tender feelings, but we’re still impacted by the experience of those around us. This is what we mean by living and working in a pressure cooker. The world is impacted. The air we breathe, and live in, is infused with a combination of grief, loss, unresolved loss, confusion, hopelessness and anxiety.
- If we’re not conscious of what we’re picking up from our life and work environments, and the different stages of loss and grief that are occurring, we don’t recognize how this impacts our reactivity, our moods, our impatience, our lack of responding to others from a place of Common Humanity (see above, Challenge #7), grace and generosity.
- We use the metaphor of Pond Thinking™. We’re all embedded in a variety of cascading or interconnected contexts and cultures: Our family, work environment, city, country, and the world. We’re impacted by them all, consciously or not.
Challenge #12: Loss of connection
- Time of stress are times when we most need the comfort and support of others. Humans are connecting beings. Human connection eases the pain and reduces the burden. Touch becomes extraordinarily important. We can become sources of healing for each other. But now, during this time of COVID pandemic and the ripples throughout our world, there’s generally only a small circle of people we see and touch. We’re having sterile talks over videoconference rather than informally connecting with each other. We’re isolated and often don’t realize how much we’re missing human connection, and how that’s impacting us.
We see these challenges playing out in our client organizations. Current and potential losses are often not sufficiently addressed. People are feeling vulnerable but having difficulty showing or sharing it in individually-oriented cultures, including North America. They aren’t coming together to support each other, and instead may be blaming each other in various ways. There’s much suffering, but not enough healing.
We similarly see these challenges playing out in our friends and family, amid those with whom we interact, and in society at large. We’re all living in a pressure cooker, and showing the impact of that, and it’s taking a toll.
Opportunity #1: Lean on the Collective, and find ways to be “in it together”
- Complex situations have no right answer. They require the integration of different and differing responses, coming up with strategies that can be tried, then adjusted depending on what happens.
- But at a time when we most need to come together, our Individual orientation gets in the way. Parents, for example, need to come together for mutual support and problem solving, as do teachers, business leaders, government leaders, other community members, etc.
- We need to have explicit permission to grieve and fully experience our losses and to express our anxieties.
- It’s vital to create contexts in which it’s safe to be open and vulnerable, to acknowledge that we don’t know the right answers, and to facilitate the kind of trusted interactions that can lead to new approaches, mutual support and compassion, and being “in it together” during these challenging times.
Opportunity #2: Cultivating compassion for ourselves and others
- During this pandemic, with its associated losses, grief and anxiety, and with the health, economic, educational, social, and other fallout from it, we can look around and realize that virtually everyone is being challenged in some way,. We can soften our hearts in response to what looks like bad behavior and practice not taking it so personally.
- We’ve heard a metaphor about walking in the woods, seeing a dog, reaching to pet it, and then having it snarl and lunge at us. After our initial defensive and/or angry reaction, we notice its foot is caught in an animal trap with metal teeth, and suddenly our upset turns to compassion as we look for a way to relieve its situation. What if we recognized that most people around us, to some extent, have their foot caught in a painful trap?
Opportunity #3: Educating ourselves and others on the stages of grief and loss, and on how we’re impacted by ongoing anxiety
- We need to be aware of and understand these stages and normalize what we and those around us are experiencing. This leads to compassion, including giving ourselves and those around us the benefit of the doubt.
- This also gives permission for others to go through the stages of grief and loss, rather than having to hide them from self or others because of messages of needing to “get over it” or at least “not share it.”
- We can look at those around us with curiosity, wondering what’s leading to their reactivity, rather than taking it personally and making things worse. And when we’re in it together to face challenges, it’s easier to do so.
Opportunity #4: Developing more self-awareness and deeper understanding of others.
- We can learn a system for better understanding the gifts, habits and patterns of ourselves and the people around us. Our favorite system, by far, is the Enneagram. We’re both certified Enneagram teachers and have been working with it for more than 25 years. We of course can’t teach you the full system now, but perhaps these brief descriptions will be helpful and may remind you of you, or of people you know.
- It is important to view these as an opportunity for greater self-awareness, rather than as inherent shortcoming in people that can’t be changed. People of each Enneagram Type can function at a wide range of Levels of Freedom and Awareness. At higher levels people are naturally more oriented to act in accordance with our deeper values. At lower levels people are increasing more self-oriented, and their relationships are increasingly conflictual.
- All Enneagram types, during times of acute and chronic stress, and particularly in these challenges times, can “project” onto other people. This can mean that we see qualities in others that are really disowned parts of ourselves (“I’m not angry, but you sure are!!”). Or we think we see in others attitudes that are parts of the “story” of our Enneagram Type (“I always worry about whether people are approving of me, so I see you as being disapproving, putting me down”). Often we are feeling something (insecure, for example) and then project blame on others for why we’re feeling that way.
- Enneagram One, The Idealist. At their best rational, dependable and principled. Under stress become more rigid, critical and judgmental. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming moody, temperamental and self-pitying. They can project that others see them as bad or defective, or that others are flaky and irresponsible.
- Enneagram Two, The Helper/Mentor. At their best kind, considerate, compassionate, caring. Under stress become more intrusive and blind to their own needs. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming angry and punishing. They can project that others see them as unlovable, or that others are self-absorbed and hypersensitive.
- Enneagram Three, The Achiever. At their best authentic, adaptable. admirable and effective. Under stress become more chameleon-like, task-focused (at the expense of the people around them), deceptive. They can also respond to acute stress by zoning out and detaching. They can project that others see them as worthless, or that others are anxious and insecure.
- Enneagram Four, The Individualist. At their best creative, unique, sensitive and deep. Under stress become more self-absorbed, moody, and hypersensitive. They can also respond to acute stress by excessively taking care of others. They can project that others see them as having no significance, or that others are critical and heartless.
- Enneagram Five, The Observer/Investigator. At their best curious, insightful, focused and integrative thinkers. Under stress become more withdrawn, detached, and antagonistic. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming flighty and escapist. They can project that others see them as incompetent, or that others are angry and intimidating.
- Enneagram Six, The Troubleshooter. At their best committed, team-oriented, trustworthy and dedicated. Under stress become more indecisive, anxious, reactive and suspicious. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming workaholic and deceptive. They can project that others are unwilling to support them, or that others are lazy and stubborn.
- Enneagram Seven, The Enthusiast. At their best playful, energetic, spontaneous and joyful. Under stress become more restless, flighty, and distracted. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming sharply critical and judgmental. They can project that others are trapping them in pain and deprivation, or that others are antagonistic and detached.
- Enneagram Eight, The Challenger. At their best magnanimous, vital, championing and courageous. Under stress become more combative, intimidating and bullying. They can also respond to acute stress by shutting down and withdrawing. They can project that others are trying to harm or control them, or that others are needy and intrusive.
- Enneagram Nine, The Peacemaker. At their best calm, peaceful, supportive and harmonious. Under stress become more disengaged, overly compliant, stubborn and passive-aggressive. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming highly anxious and fearful. They can project that others are disconnected from them, or that others are superficial and inauthentic.
Opportunity #5: Understanding that practice is required to make any of this real
- As we wrote in a previously published article, Awareness ≠ Change. This current article hopefully raises issues you find worth considering, some things you’d like to integrate. But awareness by itself is almost useless.
- Why is that? Our brains are designed to run on “cheap fuel” which means that we operate on automatic pilot or “habit mode” the vast majority of the day. We have new ideas but rarely are successful at implementing them. This recent Medium article addresses some of what is required to change habits. Please read it.
- A regular daily practice is required to build new neural pathways that change the way we think and then act. For example, re-read this article and decide on one or two aspects you’d like to integrate more into your life (e.g. being more compassionate of others, knowing that you often don’t know what they’re going through). Write down that intention in the morning, as well as some ways you might practice it. At the end of the day write down the extent to which you were aligned with that intention. Celebrate successes, taking time to reflect on the positive impact on you and on others. Our brain has a negativity bias, so this takes conscious effort. Check and see if it’s your Inner Critic reflecting, or your Compassionate Inner Observer. It’s OK if you were mostly habitual. It takes time, patience and self-compassion to change our patterns.
These times are challenging for all of us, individually and collectively. Without reflection and self-awareness these times will tend to bring out the worst in us, where we project our unowned grief, sadness and anxiety on ourselves and others. We also see people who are using these times to become of greater service to others as well as consciously taking better care of themselves. This article is our invitation (to us and to you) to see how we all are responding to current events, and whether more wisdom, compassion and ongoing reflection can assist us in providing comfort, healing and growth to ourselves and to others.
Clear Impact Consulting Group is Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC and Dr. Sandra L. Hill. Our work includes executive coaching, organizational/team consulting, and leadership development. Please feel free to contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org, 780–430–0714.