The Upside of Isolation

As I think we all know, the world has changed permanently. And with that, each of us has changed permanently as well. And no one knows what the future holds.

That could be both a scary thought and possibly an exhilarating one depending upon how you feel about change. This a unique time both in our country’s history and in all of our lives.

Being the optimist that I am, I thought, how could anything good possibly come out of this? I think this upheaval will last for a long time and will continue to have many challenging consequences.

Yet, I can’t help but think about my own life experience. Every time something bad happened to me, I felt like I came out of it stronger and better prepared for the next challenge.

The Dalai Lama said, “It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others.”

We’re all in uncharted waters.

This new territory for literally everyone. This is perhaps the most important thing we all have in common. No one can say they’ve been through anything like this before.

We’ve all had our lives disrupted, our routines obliterated, by the unprecedented efforts to slow this wildfire spread of coronavirus. The world seems upside down and we’re all deep into it every day.

There are so many things going haywire, it’s hard to know what to focus on. It seems to be the biggest issues are uncertainty and fear. I know when someone tells me to stay calm and don’t panic, my instinct is to do just the opposite.

We’re all living in some form of isolation. Whether you’re separated, segregated, quarantined or confined, we’re living in a restricted bubble. We understand the reason and I think most of us agree with it despite all the wrenching consequences.

Most of us are feeling some level of anxiety, depression, sadness, and loneliness. Our energy and motivation might be low. We may not be eating or sleeping well. 

I’m not going to suggest to you what to do while you’re isolated. There’s plenty of that out there already. Work on yourself, learn something new, etc.

What I am going to suggest to you is how to be. By that, I mean what state of mind would be helpful to you.

Allow yourself to feel what you feel.

Let’s talk about emotions for a bit. Most of us have been all over the board with our emotions. Many of us have a natural tendency to suppress or hold in what we think are negative emotions. Feelings such as anxiety, depression and sadness, all of which are perfectly normal feelings right now.

As someone once said, resistance is futile. You cannot control your emotions. They are going to happen whether you want them to or not.

There is a saying in psychology that what you resist persists. The more you turn away from your feelings, the more you try to keep them in check, the more intense they will become, the longer they will last and the more they will affect you.

We also have a natural tendency to judge our emotions. How many times have you thought, “I shouldn’t feel that way.” Or, “I don’t want to feel that way.”

The reality is that emotions are not facts and all emotions are neutral. There are no good or bad ones. Every emotion stands on its own as just an emotion. Happy is not good and sad isn’t bad. They’re just emotions.

But our natural tendency is to judge ourselves and this also makes it worse. You can’t control your feelings. You can’t make yourself not feel a certain way. Go ahead and try it and you’ll see what I mean.

Emotions are also temporary. They are impermanent. Every emotion you feel will eventually go away on its own and be replaced by another one.

So, the best thing to do is open up to how you feel, let it run its course and don’t judge it.

Don’t aim for better or wiser. Aim for different.

It’s too unrealistic to focus on self-improvement right now. It’s too much pressure and takes too much valuable energy. Aim for becoming a different person. So, how can you do that?

One way is to think about what your most important needs are. Needs that you can fulfill for yourself without the involvement of anyone else. In my work, I’ve been amazed at how many people have never given this serious thought.

Trust your instincts. Ask yourself, “What do I need most?” Sit with that and feel what comes up. The answers won’t come right away. It will take a few tries. But eventually what comes up will most likely reflect your most important needs.

One thing to remember is that the magnitude of this pandemic has changed all of us anyway. Many of us are different right now and we will all be different when this is over. The opportunity is to be different in a way that makes you a better person.

Self-compassion is a necessity.

You know, the golden rule is a two-way street. The one way we’ve always heard is “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

The other way is “Do unto yourself the way you do unto others.”

Research tells us here are three elements to self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness – We talk a lot about being kind to others. But we tend to treat others more kindly than we treat ourselves. Who is more deserving of kindness than you? No one.
  2. Common humanity – We’re all doing the best we can. Especially you. Acknowledge that. We’re no better and no worse than anyone else. Recognize the similarities among all people and accept that others are doing their best.
  3. Mindfulness – This is living in the present moment without judgment or expectations. Putting this in the context of self-compassion enables us to have more balance in our lives and feel more equanimity. 

Putting these three elements together makes us stronger and more resilient. It enables us to take care of ourselves, so we have the ability to help others.

Cultivate resilience.

Resilience means to overcome adversity. It requires inner strength. We all have the capability to be resilient.

  • One thing you can do is change the narrative through expressive writing. Research tells us that expressive writing is therapeutic, and my experience confirms that.

Start writing down your strongest thoughts and feelings. Write longhand on paper or in a journal. Don’t type. It can be words, phrases or complete sentences. It doesn’t matter, just get something down. It’s a safe method to express our deepest thoughts and feelings.

  • Face your fears by acknowledging them. This will take some of their power away. There’s a tremendous amount of fear in the air right now. 

What’s your greatest fear right now? Becoming sick, losing your job, the health of an elderly relative, not being able to pay your bills? Give it some thought. 

When you’ve identified that fear, just sit with it. Bring it into your awareness. Allow yourself to feel it. Doing this should give that fear less power over you. It’s still fear but hopefully less scary.

  • Practice self-compassion in the way that I’ve already discussed. 
  • Meditate. Research tells us the many benefits of meditation. Calmness, stress tolerance, mindfulness, peace. Use the time at home to start or to become more consistent with your meditation practice.
  • Cultivate forgiveness for what you’re holding on to. In view of what’s happening right now, how important is that grievance, that grudge, in the scheme of things.

So, to cultivate resilience, change the narrative, face your fears by acknowledging them, practice self-compassion, meditate and cultivate forgiveness.

If you can do these things during and after this upheaval, imagine how resilient you’ll be in the future.

Take in the good.

Our brains have a built-in negativity bias that goes back to the origin of the human race. Back then, one threat could be fatal. So, our brains evolved to focus on threats for survival, not good experiences. Even now, that’s made us pay more attention to negative experiences than positive ones.

It takes some work to dwell on the positive but it’s worth it. Find one positive thing that’s happened to you recently. Bring it into your awareness and be with it. Make space for it. Allow it to soak in.

Think about it for several minutes. Feel the goodness wash over you. Enjoy it.

The more you dwell on positive experiences, the more you will change your brain’s wiring to counteract the negativity bias.

So, as a summary, feel what you feel, aim for different, practice self-compassion, cultivate resilience and take in the good.

May you find clarity and peace.