As we all know a birthday is a day you and people who know you celebrate the day you were born. What does a birthday actually mean to you? Some people see it as a time to reflect back on the last year of their life and think about how they want to move forward. Others view it as a time of sadness as they cope with growing older. There are people who rather not make a fuss out of the occasion while others celebrate for an entire week. Birthdays can also hold deeper meanings for people who have struggled with low self-esteem or felt unimportant throughout their lives. For them it may be a chance to feel loved and remembered as they hear well wishes from others. It’s hard to remember that while some people have an excellent memory when it comes to dates others do not. If someone close to you forgets your birthday it doesn’t mean they don’t care. Sometimes people have a lot on their mind and something slips by them.
I think of birthdays in a way similar to how I think of other important moments in someone’s life such as a wedding, graduation day, or retirement. These are significant milestones and deserve to be celebrated. But these occasions shouldn’t be about just that one day. When so much emphasis is put on things being perfect for the occasion the larger picture gets lost. A wedding is only the start to what is hopefully a happy marriage. A graduation is about all the hard work leading up to that day. A retirement signifies what lies ahead as well as what was accomplished. Similarly, a birthday is about who we were and are every day. If we look at these days on a broader spectrum we might feel less hurt if they don’t turn out as planned.
Let’s think for a moment about this current time, everyone has had or will have a birthday during a global pandemic. This birthday probably wasn’t celebrated the same way as the others that came before it. Maybe you spent it alone, maybe you cried, maybe you were surprised by a birthday car parade, or maybe you were content being at home with the people closest to you. This one day does not have to signify how the rest of the year will go. I think what’s most important about a birthday is celebrating yourself. Take time and do something you enjoy doing. I know we’re in a pandemic so maybe you can’t do what you really want to but that doesn’t mean you can’t find other ways to take care of yourself. Order yourself a birthday cake, read a book, call a friend, do a workout, or plan for how you want to celebrate next year when hopefully you have more options.
Typically the anticipation of a new year is full of excitement and positive energy. It’s a time of new beginnings and people’s commitment to making changes. We look back on the previous year and take inventory of what lessons we learned and how we want to move forward. People feel hope and rejuvenation.
How do you feel at the start of this new year? Asking you that today might even illicit a different response than asking you on January 1st. Most likely this year felt different. We’re still in a global pandemic and we are a politically divided country. It is exhausting. For many people the start of 2021 was filled with dread rather than with hope. For some there was a mixture of both as they know of people getting the coronavirus vaccine and feel optimistic that we’re on the way to better days.
To everyone reading this, congrats on surviving 2020. You survived either some or all of the following: a global pandemic, working from home, homeschooling children, anxiety about getting sick, lost someone, a deeply divided presidential election, fear about having to go into work because you’re an essential worker, loss of socialization in person with friends and family, financial hardship, lack of personal space because you live with other people and are all home together all the time, and loneliness. These are just some of the complications that 2020 brought with it. In my opinion, surviving 2020 means you’re thriving. This has been a year like no other and you’re still getting by, even if it’s just hanging on by a single thread, it counts. Please stop and give yourself some credit. Use the start of the new year to see just how much you managed over the last year. At the drop of a hat, life changed dramatically and is still throwing everyone curveballs. Instead of making new year’s resolutions this year commit to continue doing what you’re doing: surviving.
As much as we want to process what’s going on, the truth is that we cannot fully process what has been happening while we’re still in it. It will take energy. It will take therapy. It will take support. It will take kindness and compassion for ourselves. And when we’re on the other side of this, whatever that other side looks like, you’ll have to give yourself the time to process. Until then give yourself credit for all the things you never imagined that you would have to accomplish but have.
Back in May someone asked me if conducting therapy in this new way, over a screen, was the same as being in person. They were curious to know if I would continue this way after everyone was back in an office. My answer at the time was that I felt this type of therapy was very effective and a good alternative. I had opportunities to see inside client’s homes and families in a way I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. Sometimes I was seeing firsthand the way a parent interacted lovingly with their child. New and productive conversations were taking place. As everyone coped with a global pandemic virtual therapy was vital. Back in May I answered that I would always return to an office and see people in person. All these months later I feel even more strongly about that statement.
While virtual therapy has had benefits, it has also had pitfalls. Aside from my clients sometimes getting distracted by their home life I too have had issues arise on my end. Sounds can be heard in the background, internet connections can drop, and a cat might meow incessantly. What’s worse than that is the shared space that is missed. That space is a place where clients can feel safe, where they have no concern about being overheard, the work computer is left at work, and distractions are greatly minimized. In that space we get to sit across from one another and see one another’s facial expressions clearly, catch the moment when a client’s body tenses up or relaxes, and fully be present together. At times the face in the screen opposite mine is so close that it can feel as though I’m sitting even closer to my client than if we were in the same room. And other times it feels like we’re worlds apart from one another because we’re not in the same physical space. Some clients will mention certain things that catch their eye if they’ve chosen to go on a walk to get the privacy they need. When they walk the same route again the following week, I’m already familiar with the sounds surrounding them. As for me, I have set up my new “office” and sit in the same place for every session. Even though the screen only shows a blank white wall behind me I have bought a small fake plant to keep besides me as a way to bring color into the area. I keep my area consistent as a way to communicate that I’m still here reliably even though it has to be through a virtual lens. After all these months it’s as though we’ve created a new shared space even while being physically distant. The truth is that I do not know when I will see clients in my office again. I certainly didn’t think I would be out of my office for this long. It saddens me to know it will still be some time until I can sit in that shared space with them, but I know as soon as it is safe, we will happily return.
I can guarantee 2020 is different from how you planned it would be. The last eight months have brought multiple challenges to everyone across the world. In the United States we’re living through a pandemic while a highly polarized presidential election and its aftermath are happening around us. As far as I can tell, everybody’s anxiety has increased. I’m constantly speaking with my clients about the importance of striking a balance.
When it comes to the news there’s a difference between staying informed versus being consumed. I understand the desire to read everything. This often is a way people try to feel more in control and as though they can prepare for what’s coming. The problem is that checking the news constantly, or even four times a day, often results in rereading the same story that is written in slightly different ways. Pay attention and I bet you’ll start to notice this happening to you. Best to stop reading once it sounds familiar. My clients who take my suggestion about limiting time for the news tell me that it helps decrease their anxiety.
Balance comes in the form of eating as well. This is always true. Both the how and what we eat can be easily triggered by this unique time in our lives. Aside from being mostly at home surrounded by whatever food we choose to keep in the house we also have that food available at any moment. It’s easy to grab something for its comfort rather than its nutritional value. There are going to be times when you choose the comfort and that’s okay. The majority of people have at one point in their lives had a complicated relationship with food. Many cultures associate food with both joyous and tragic times. What’s most important is understanding your own choices and finding the times when you want to give in to the extra indulgence and the times that you don’t.
Another favorite way for me to balance is through the books that I choose to read. A nonfiction book discussing important but often depressing topics is read in between a lighter fiction book that helps me escape reality. I do the exact same thing with TV shows. This type of balance works well for me. I get to turn my brain off sometimes and get more into deeper thoughts others.
I find the most crucial balance comes from acknowledging our feelings (ones deemed negative) versus being full of positivity. There can be a lot of pressure on people to be grateful all the time and happy with what they have because inevitably someone will always have less than them. It is good to be grateful and I have even suggested to clients that they start writing down things they’re grateful for. I only recommend this after we’ve explored all the other feelings they’re having. It’s important to feel sad, angry, and even jealous when those feelings are present. Processing those feelings is what truly helps us move forward.
Recently I wrote about the pitfalls of permanently working from home due to the pandemic. Six weeks later and I’m hearing from my patients more and more about the ways in which they are struggling. Things are getting harder rather than easier. So many people are working longer hours than ever before. They’re having a harder time shutting down the computer or stepping away from their desks even if they have no reason to believe their job will be in jeopardy if they do so. Just because we’re working from home doesn’t mean we don’t have other things to do. We still deserve our “me” time. I suggest paying attention to how much you’re working and why you’re working so much. Some people are working more because the pressure to bring in new business is stronger. That reality does exist for many people but even if that is the situation you are in; you’re still allowed to take time for yourself. In many instances, employers are encouraging people to take their vacation days and I am echoing that suggestion. I know glamorous trips aren’t happening in the same way and the thought process is why take a day off when I can’t do anything (although there are more options lately). The truth is it may be a long time until you can take the vacations you normally would and in order to preserve our mental health, now is the time to take a break. The time has come to get more creative in how we do that. Working nonstop and adding in more hours will lead to burn out. For some it’s a way to distract from the outside world. I understand the pull to want to do that but it’s not healthy to disconnect from reality even when reality can look glum.
What seems most important right now is trying to differentiate work from home when most of us are living and working in the same place. This can feel especially difficult to do when living in a New York City apartment. If there’s space I recommend designating a specific area to your “office”. It may mean packing up your space at the end of the day in order to eat dinner at the dining room table. I believe rituals can be helpful and like the idea of having one both before and after work. This could be as simple as taking a few deep breaths in order to facilitate the transition between the two. Other recommendations include leaving the apartment and going on a ten-minute walk, listening to a favorite song or two, coloring, or having your morning breakfast before sitting down and opening up your computer. We no longer have a commute, but we still deserve that time as a transition between our work and our personal lives. You would be surprised at how a quick ten minutes helps shift your mindset. I guarantee it will help you in the moment and even more so in the long run.
Similar to everyone else I do not know what the future, life post COVID-19, will look like. I expect people will be doing their best to adjust to a new reality. I believe that life will look different in six months and most likely again in another six months and two or three years after that. In my last post I wrote about how I have been working virtually and it is not going badly, it even has a few benefits. However, that does not mean that I want to give up my office forever and only see my clients through a virtual lens. Recently companies have expanded the time frame for people working from home and some have gone so far as to say it is okay with them if their employees never return to the office. I understand there are benefits to working remotely. Removing a commute from someone’s day gives them more time to do other things like sleep in, exercise, have more time with their children, cook dinner, and have more time for themselves. And the reality is that right now working from home has been deemed safer for our physical health by various health organizations that we look towards for guidance. Even when offices open back up they will not look the same, at least not for some time, since social distancing will still be important to maintain.
As individuals and companies look to the future my hope is that everyone thinks about mental health because it’s extremely important and I’m worried it’s being left out of the conversation. An office setting provides socialization. Some people find their closest friends or significant others at work. Even for those people who do not like all of their coworkers it can still feel good to see familiar faces on a regular basis. Relationships, even those with colleagues, become deeper through face to face interactions. A meeting through Zoom doesn’t allow for the few minutes of chit chat you have when you’re all sitting around the conference table waiting for people to get settled in.
Another factor to consider is use of screen time. There have been many articles published over the last few years about people’s increase in screen time, mostly connected to our phones and other handheld devices, and how it is negatively affecting us. It’s a bit amusing that now technology is what is allowing many of us to do our jobs from home. But we can’t know yet what the further increase in screen time will do to our physical health. Even if someone worked on their screen for the majority of their day in their office they were still attending meetings in person. Many of my clients still found time to get up and grab lunch outside so they could breathe in some fresh air. Of course, while you’re at home you can take a break but that break can’t be an opportunity for a face to face interaction with a colleague.
Not everyone wants their home to simultaneously be their office. Often times people like a divide between the two spaces. It’s part of what helps people shut off. On numerous occasions I’ve talked with clients about the various things they can do on their commute home to separate their work stresses from their home life. People can implement their own techniques if that commute time is not available but it will take a more conscious effort.
In my opinion, the idea of quickly switching to a permanent work from home model only serves as a short-term solution. Now that we know many jobs can be done from home it’s imperative that we give people flexibility. The truth is that there will be fear, both consciously and unconsciously, that people will feel when they return to the offices they previously left behind. That should be taken into account as well. Balance between work and home is what will ultimately leave people feeling better mentally. But balance looks different for each individual because each one of us has various needs. A one size fits all model wasn’t working before and it won’t work now. Let’s learn lessons from this unique situation we’ve all been forced to live in. Nobody knows what the future will look like, but we need to be thinking about how rapid changes now will possibly affect our mental health in the years to come.
When I was young, I would say things like “I don’t see color. Everyone is equal”. I was idealistic. I was naïve. My younger self didn’t understand my white privilege. It took years into my adulthood to realize why it’s imperative that I do see color.
The song Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist from the musical Avenue Q sums it up perfectly:
Everyone’s a little bit
Doesn’t mean we go around committing
Look around and
You will find,
No one’s really
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face.
Based on race.
Most people take pride in saying they are not racist. Most of us don’t want to be racist. The reality is we have been brought up in a society that has embedded stereotypes into our psyche. Our country was built on slavery. We have interacted with older generations who grew up in a different time and unintentionally used words or phrases that are not politically correct and quite honestly never should have been allowed. We would like to believe we know better and are more aware, but it takes a lot of thought and effort to be better. It requires us to admit our ugly racists thoughts. We have to OWN them in order to stop them. It means admitting remarks we’ve heard from loved ones along the way and standing up to others when it’s easier to be quiet. It means risking relationships and accepting that some people will never fully understand. I’ve done the work and it is hard. I still have much more to do.
The world is not color blind, nor should it be. We must see color in order to see the injustices that exist. We can do better. We need to do better.
Coronavirus struck and weeks later New York City (along with everywhere else) essentially shut down. One day I was telling my clients I would be in the office for the foreseeable future and a mere three days later I was contacting everyone to tell them my plans had changed. I quickly signed up for VSee, a HIPAA compliant virtual platform, and tested out how to use it. Similar to many other people I did not know how long it would be until I was back in my office. Truth is, I still don’t know.
Here I am two months later conducting almost all my sessions in a virtual way. A few clients have found speaking over the phone, without seeing one another, works too. For the most part I still “see” everyone. In some ways, I see more of people than I did before. Clients are calling me from their bedrooms, living rooms, studio apartments where I get to see a living room and a kitchen, and home offices. I’ve seen my client’s children and sometimes their spouses. I’ve seen how they’ve decorated their apartments or, if they’ve temporarily left the City, their childhood bedrooms. I’m getting a glimpse into my clients’ life in a different way and it’s not all bad. When I’m in front of my screen and they’re close to theirs it can sometimes feel as though I’m in even closer proximity to them than if we were sitting across from one another in my office. Their face, in particular their eyes, are looking at mine in a different way. Similar to how they’ve gotten used to speaking to friends and colleagues through a virtual lens we too have been navigating this new territory together. Yes, I am missing out on many nonverbal communications. At the same time, I am still able to see the moments when a client deeply sighs or tenses up in their chest, neck, and shoulders. Just as clearly as if someone was in my office, I still see the tears stream down someone’s face.
It was important to find a way to continue. People wanted to talk and they needed an outlet. We discussed how it felt seeing each other in this new way and everyone said it was okay. They wish they could see me in person but this is a good alternative. Things aren’t perfect, sometimes the WIFI isn’t working as well in someone’s home or there is a slight delay on the virtual platform. I’ve also noticed times where it’s harder for people to shut out work since we are talking through the computer and a work email or chat will occasionally pop up. Similar to when a phone goes off in the middle of a session and a client hits decline (usually) we get right back to where we were. We continue to jump back in time and time again.
This is a trying time for everyone and having someone there to solely listen to you and help you figure things out is as necessary, if not more so, than before. Together we’re making a conscious effort to make this new way of therapy work and we’re succeeding. One day I’ll be back in my office sitting across from a client face to face and we’ll be talking about how strange it feels. Funny to think only two months ago that’s what we were saying about speaking virtually.
As a therapist I keep thinking about what I’ll see and hear when we come out on the other side of all of this. Not only a week or a few months out but years from now. The main word that comes to mind is grief, felt by everyone, in multiple ways and on various levels. I imagine some will be unprocessed for quite some time but years later I’ll be in a session and someone will bring up where they were during the global pandemic and we’ll trace unresolved issues back to this time. It’s difficult to process while we’re living through the moment, even for those of us who are constantly working to process our emotions. I think it’s similar to a loved one dying. How do you prepare for a new normal when you cannot know what life will look like? The difference now is that we’re all going to be grieving, both collectively and individually. While there are similarities in grief there are layers of differences as well. Some of us will grieve the loss of loved ones and/or acquaintances, jobs, homes, the births that were supposed to be filled with excitement rather than fear, the funerals we couldn’t attend, and money. I think we will all grieve the loss of stability as we learn to accept that the rug of “normal life” was abruptly pulled out from underneath us. I don’t have the answers for what we do now and how we navigate the unique situation we’ve all been placed in. The main suggestion I offer is that people find a way to do something that helps them feel calm. Those things vary from person to person, but some examples include, working out, journaling, watching reality television, talking to friends, hugging a loved one (if you have that option), building Legos, and limiting one’s news intake. During this time our feelings (I say our because we’re all in this together) will ebb and flow. Sometimes we’ll feel like we’ve got a good handle on things and have settled into a new norm and then we’ll realize that we used the word normal and go to a place of sadness. Some people will feel guilt because they’re also having moments of happiness. If you have those smiles and laughs, and I bet you will, I encourage you to savor them as much as possible. Right now it’s about survival. If you are able to process some of what’s going on that’s great and if not that is okay too. Remember, there will be lots of people here to help you on the other side of this. You will have an opportunity to process and grieve and it will be important that you let yourself. Grieving and feeling our feelings doesn’t mean an inability to function but rather it is what allows us to keep moving forward and function at our best selves.
Over my years as a therapist I’ve seen firsthand and been in awe over the incredible resilience I’ve witnessed in people. I believe we all have the ability to find the resilience within ourselves.
I’m constantly in awe over the way the brain works. Recently I’ve been fascinated by memories. I have to stop and think for five minutes when trying to remember what I ate for lunch yesterday yet I can completely recite a song by heart that I first heard twenty years ago. It boggles my mind.
I don’t know why our brain works this way but I think it can be a good thing (blessing) as well as a disaster (curse). In the middle of living our everyday life something can suddenly trigger a powerful memory. It may be that you smell, see, or hear something and it instantly brings you back to another time and place. A good memory will elicit a smile or a laugh and maybe make your day a little brighter. However, a bad memory may elicit fear or agony and keep you stuck in a dark place which you would have rather avoided. Sometimes we can’t control these memories popping up. Sometimes we welcome them in by looking back at pictures or letting Facebook remind us of what we previously posted on that same day years earlier. Either way, going back in time can lead us down an interesting path. We might yearn for that time where life seemed easier and better. We might be left regretting the past and wishing we could redo things.
When life hits you with these memories stop and ask yourself what you can learn from looking back.