This article was written during the COVID-19 Lockdown.
Before you read on, I need to offer acknowledgement that I write under unique circumstances during these lock-down times: I have the privilege to live in an area where there have been few cases, and transmission appears to be contained. I have financial support from the government during this time, and very low living costs. As we learn more about Coronavirus, I have learned that I am probably in a higher risk category than I originally thought. So, while I have reason to be very concerned for my own personal health, at the same time I have the luxury of being able to direct my thinking beyond my day-to-day survival needs.
There are many people who are, very rightly, concerned with the virus right now. I am too. But it isn’t the thing at the forefront of my thoughts anymore. What concerns me more than the virus right now is the state of people’s minds.
It is absolutely understandable that people are scared. There is good reason to be scared of this virus that spreads so easily and is so merciless to the human body. Fear is important, it indicates to us that we need to take action to create safety that we perceive to be lacking. Sadly, the actions we take aren’t always the effective ones.
Every day in my social media feeds I’m seeing new iterations of fear-based responses. I see people doing incredible amounts of work to support themselves and their loved ones through this. I also see people downplaying the severity of the virus, and an equal number of people exaggerating the worst-case scenarios. Me, I try to listen to the qualified scientists while holding an open heart and nurturing my capacity for empathy with compassionate boundaries.
But the state of people’s minds, it worries me.
When we experience powerlessness as individuals, I’ve noticed that there is a tendency to turn towards some ‘higher power’ as a way of making sense and creating meaning for our narrative. There’s healthy ways to do this, and unhealthy ways too. We can look to government endorsed scientists and epidemiologists for guidance. We might find a way to create meaning through turning to our personal spiritual practices. Or we might adopt the narrative handed to us by a religious group. Or, we might weave stories of conspiracies.
Conspiracy Theories as a False Strategy for Safety.
I’ve been around conspiracy theories for many years, and I’ve had the opportunity to get more familiar with some than I would have liked. Knowing what I know now about the psyche and workings of the mind, I’ve come to see conspiracy theories in a different light recently: the human sharing the theory positions themselves as some kind of ‘rescuer’, their fellow humans are the ‘victims’, and some kind of malicious person/group/illuminati are the ‘persecutors’. In the case of spiritual bypassing, sometimes the ‘persecutor’ is some almighty force or being that is doing this terrible thing to test you and you “must surrender to it”. The narrative that emerges is one where you are a victim in a state of martyrdom, who will in turn perhaps rescue others.
This is not healthy. Nothing about this is healthy. Not for our minds, nor for our relationships or connections with one another.
These narratives are all forms of something called triangulation. Triangulation is something we commonly do in order to create a semblance of stability. There are healthy ways to triangulate (eg a couple seeing a relationship coach or therapist together) and there are unhealthy ways to triangulate (eg passing the blame for something on to somebody else and relinquishing responsibility). We learn to do this early on as children, and continue to do so in adulthood. Triangulation is one of the tools we employ in order to help us map out who we are, and who others are in relationship to us.
In Karpman’s Drama Triangle— one of my favorite relational models to work with— the pattern of Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor is seen to lead to more friction, more drama, and less connection. The Rescuer seeks a victim to ‘save’ from a bully. The Persecutor chastises the ‘weakling’ victim who seeks a saviour. The ‘victim’ feels powerless to change their experience without a rescuer. Drama ensues. And people can find themselves playing multiple roles within this triangle.
Playing into the Drama Triangle functions as a way to negate personal responsibility and agency: if we can always blame someone else who is invisible, then we don’t have to take any direct action ourselves to change our individual experience. It is a form of psychological victim-hood which can breed codependency between ‘victim’ and ‘rescuer’. And for far too many people, this psychological state is the only state they have known, as it has been used to manipulate groups of people for centuries (eg political propaganda) and has become second nature. To be stuck in a rescuer-victim dynamic feels familiar (and therefore desirable) even though the familiar is unhealthy.
The virus has left many feeling disempowered— physically, economically, emotionally, socially— and many are unconsciously playing into the narratives that feed that drama triangle. While depression creeps in, anxiety weaves its webs, and many find themselves in survival mode, our minds take a beating.
Even after the virus is gone, we will be left with the aftermath to our mental health. This is a legacy we will be dealing with globally for generations to come.
Befriending the Mind
The mind is powerful.
As much as we look after our bodies to protect ourselves from the virus and fortify ourselves against it, so too I think we need to look after our minds.
This doesn’t mean dismissing fears. Acknowledging our fears and recognising the brilliant weavings of our imaginations for what they are, so they do not maintain a grip on us, is healthy. When we acknowledging them, we step into a space of agency, and begin to take action to move ourselves closer towards somatic safety, and to a better experience of this crisis.
To look after your mind, you have to use discernment. Tempting as it can be, it is important to not surrender your power over to unseen, distant, or invisible forces. Rather, it means recognising that, in the infinite unknowns as we traverse wild and uncharted territory, our minds will try to latch on to stories and concepts it thinks it can be certain of— and we need to determine if those things our mind is attaching to are born from ideas of fear and disconnection, or from ideas of love and connection.
We need to fortify our mental health. We need to nurture resilience in our minds.
Co-regulation for Mental Health
We are relational beings, and everything about how we relate is changing.
One of the most common ways of creating resilience in our minds— and indeed our whole nervous system— is through something called co-regulation. Just as a baby can be soothed from the touch of a parent, we can find ourselves agitated just by being around a partner who is agitated. Co-regulation works both ways, and not just one-on-one.
In the fear and uncertainties that these times hold, we seek connection and resonance with one another— in individuals, and in groups— to co-regulate our nervous systems and to feel safe enough. When we feel safe, we can relax. We can engage with eachother in healthier ways. We are more loving, more patient, and generally happier. But, this is hard to do during lockdown, during isolation from others.
When you can’t connect in person, it’s possible to build connection (and co-regulation) through talking about shared values and goals. Stare into the void of the internet long enough, and you will find connection to someone, or some thing. However, in that void, fear and paranoia take over all too easily. The mind can project in to the void what it longs to see, and there is an illusion of intimate connection that comes through the sharing of fringe beliefs— and for the conspiracy theorists preaching, hints of narcissism can creep in as they position themselves to be the saviour of their friends.
The internet is not a terrible tool for these times. It isn’t a ‘villain’. If used wisely and with discernment,the internet is a great tool for connection. It’s incredible for me to watch, as one example, how my local community has come together online to create greater food security, with some of the knowledgeable farmers and permaculturists gathering together to mentor all the aspiring gardeners in this beautiful Valley I live in. The interaction in the group is positive, supportive, welcoming. There are seed exchanges arranged and plant starter drop offs negotiated, and lots and lots of troubleshoot advice. The folks in this group are simultaneously nurturing a connection to their own land, to nature, to one another, and to their future selves and the community that they will feed.
The pandemic is confronting us with mortality on a global scale that humans haven’t experienced in living memory, and this is also changing us.
It isn’t just the reduction of contact with one another, the struggles of how to keep putting food in our bellies or keeping businesses running during lockdowns, nor are the changes limited to the way local economies are restructuring. The journey of this pandemic may be a couple of years, but it is the journey of those after-years that I find my mind and heart contemplating. After such separation, such global shifts, such necessary systematic changes, it may take us years to get re-acquainted with ourselves, let alone our loved ones.
Those who have found themselves confronted with mortality and death daily, who have lost their loved ones, or tried desperately to save the dying, will experience a huge perspective shift. Trauma changes what values we prioritise and how we engage in relationships. It can exacerbate any existing attachment patterns and alter how we experience safety and security in relationships.
For the many who have lost income due to the shut down, whose businesses may never recover, whose dreams have been put on hold, or whose daily reality has become about financial survival, independent living will be a struggle, and the alternatives available may be less than ideal.
For those who have been privileged up until this point to live completely independently— either as isolated families that do not rely on others for support and sustenance or as solo individuals— this shift is going to be challenging.
For those who have been disenfranchised in different ways, who are familiar with calling upon extended community resources for survival already before this pandemic, those who are accustomed to living in community as a means of increasing resource availability and access, this shift might feel like an expansion of what they have already been doing: building extended communities of mutual support, while still challenged by the many ways in which government systems fail to make space for them.
The changes I feel coming won’t be limited to our romantic relationships. Yes, we will undoubtedly all be re-evaluating who we invest time and energy connecting with, and how. The changes we experience will go beyond that.
This is a turning point, a paradigm shift, in the way we relate— fundamentally— with our fellow human beings. It begins in the immediate interpersonal relationships we experience (including the romantic) and extends to encompass all our relations, including how we relate to the land, the planet, and to the other species we share her with. This change is about the way that we build communities, how we organize our economies, balance the sustainable sharing of resources, and restructure social supports— starting with the individual relationships that we form one-on-one.
Breaking Away from Dominance Culture
Exclusive dyadic pair bonding and family units that function in total independence of others (which drives corporate capitalism, environmental exploitation, racial and gendered violence, and so much more) are no longer serving us in all our needs.
This— and other paradigms propped up by ‘dominance culture’ and enshrined in romantic fairy-tales and social tropes that we’ve all been brought up around— is coming to an end. The virus didn’t precipitate this— it’s been happening for the past few generations already— but it does seem to be accelerating it. As more people embrace solo lives (without dyadic partnerships), community and cooperative living, blended families, and other alternative lifestyles, we find ourselves moving towards trauma-sensitive and healing-centred communitarian relationships, feminist relationships, the re-envisioning of conscious and non-oppressive monogamy as well as honest non-monogamous relationships. The foundation of how we build relationships begins with the most intimate relationships we keep and expands from there.
Our future relationships will need to be both trauma informed and healing focussed.
As lockdowns end we’ll probably see a rise in divorce rates, and a few years from now possibly a spike in marriages, but these aren’t the kinds of changes I am talking about.
Historically, we may have moved away from communitarian structures in a quest to be free from dogma and the grip of patriarchal religion, but along the way we have lost the incredible worth of seeing ourselves within relationship to a wider ecosystem of beings. The virus— and the destabilisation we’re experiencing as a consequence of it— points us towards solutions that include elements of socialism (like universal basic income), and expands with a return to communities founded on compassion, empathy and love.
Post Pandemic Possibilities
I’ve been thinking about what I hope changes for the better after these lockdown times. The thing that keeps arising in my heart is the importance of cultivating kindness, and all that has to change and transform in us to be able to inhabit kindness.
Kindness isn’t as simple as what many of us were taught as children. Kindness is often conflated as niceness, but is far more complex. To cultivate kindness involves various other qualities and skills: compassion, empathy, understanding, dharma, responsibility, boundaries, communication, navigation of the shadow self, and lots more.
It is hard as fuck to experience kindness in our hearts when we are in pain. We have all carried hate and darkness and violence in ourselves, and can wear these like armour to protect us from further pain. Some might perceive it as stubbornness, others will experience it as violence. Removing that armour is often clunky, risky, and cannot be done in solitude, nor can it be done in anything less than a compassionate space.
This is the catch-22 of healing from trauma: we need safety to remove our armour and begin to heal, and yet to know we are safe, we need to soften, and we cannot soften when we are encased in emotional armouring. Kindness is not some kind of switch we can just turn on when we desire, nor is it something we can cultivate without relationship with one another. We support one another to feel safe enough, we can hold each other through the fear of removing the armour, and we can apply kindness to soothe the pain and trauma.
In the after-days following this virus, there will be a lot of pain. There will be many people feeling the pangs of grief, alone-ness, and struggling to reconnect and reunite with their communities. As much as we see people donning their psychological armour now, I worry we will see it even more in the following decade— unless we can begin right now to nurture the qualities that can be a balm for the pain.
Rather than surrendering our autonomy to human or ‘super-human’ powers, can we take responsibility and work together, collaboratively, compassionately, patiently, to support all of us being able to have better relations with one another and kinder experiences of living?
I’ve come to learn it takes commitment and dedication to soften, let down one’s armour, and bring kindness into one’s own being. And that once we do— and share that kindness— it has the power to spread, like light dispelling darkness, and bringing us together in stronger, kinder relationships. This is the radical journey I am humbled to be on right now. This is the journey I hope we can all take together.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about kindness is that all of us can access it, in abundance. Kindness is: caring for our community’s health and wearing a mask when we go in public. It’s staying home when we feel sick. It’s running errands for those unable to leave home. It’s reaching out to check in on friends and neighbours. It’s sharing videos and memes that make people smile. It’s listening to someone cry. It’s holding space for someone who is dying, and making it possible for them to talk to their family. Kindness is slowing down to recognise that not everyone is on the same boat in this ocean. Kindness is doing what needs to be done to save lives, improve lives, and alleviate future suffering.
To be continued….
Relationship Coach and Facilitator, Queer, Kink, and Polyamory Friendly.
I guide social misfits & cultural rebels to experiences of joyful, embodies, authentic, open relationships.