“Who are we now?”
By Jerry Fromm, 4x4@4 “Talking It Through” Moderator
For nearly two months the COVID-19 pandemic has affected how we relate to each other. Work life and social life have changed. We are farther apart and have to find new ways to be together. In that process, emotional challenges and stresses face everyone, and take their toll on the more vulnerable. The 4X4@4 “Talking It Through” series creates an online forum on select Monday afternoons for panelists and members of the general public to explore the psychological impact of what we’re going through and to make new connections, both with each other and in our understanding of these challenges.
In the opening session on May 11, four panelists and a number of audience participants spoke from personal experience and with considerable thoughtfulness about the emotional and mental health challenges they were seeing in their roles. One interesting theme in the conversation was identity.
“I’m a social person,” a younger member of the group said. COVID-19 creates different challenges for different people, and we might wonder about how the challenge for this person might be different from the challenge for a person who says “I’m a bit of a loner.” Later in the conversation, another identity challenge emerged: someone spoke about performance artists who can’t be onstage for the time being. While this is a major economic problem for Berkshire cultural organizations, it’s an identity problem too. As someone in the arts put it, there’s desperation within the community, a feeling of “Please don’t forget us,” a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” anxiety. Someone else, from the field of psychoanalysis, also noted an identity challenge. Her anxiety was more in terms of “out of office, out of touch.” Psychotherapy relies on the therapist’s getting in touch with a patient’s emotional life, which registers in how they look, speak and move. It seems so difficult, or at least so much of a slowly developing skill, to do that in online work.
These and other experiences require people to find ways to anchor themselves and their sense of identity in this new, strange, anxious context. Another theme had to do with ways to accomplish that anchoring and what happens when it’s missing. In some organizations, meditation, mindfulness work and clearly defining new priorities, among other focused activities, were extremely useful in creating space for clear thinking, developing routines and what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott would call a “holding environment.”
But it was also clear from the conversation that the COVID-19 crisis can attack the vulnerabilities - what we might think of as “pre-existing conditions” – within any organization. For example, one person spoke of the resentment she feels from some co-workers because her job allows for online work while theirs does not. Someone else spoke of the guilt she feels for being able to work online while others can’t. These tensions, which may have been there in some form all along, are heightened in a context of fear. They become a challenge for leadership, whose difficult job requires a “holding” of all these feelings and putting them in the perspective of how everyone is contributing to the accomplishment of a critical task.
The conversation suggested that team-building and team-restoration are important activities moving forward. It was clear in the discussion that anxiety, interpersonal tensions and larger political divides can tear at the collective fabric. It was also clear that community and organizational solidarity is extremely helpful to people’s morale and perhaps even to their mental health. But we heard another theme too: that, while efforts toward solidarity are crucial, people are inevitably facing loneliness, aloneness and serious loss. This opens up the topic of mourning, which may be developed in a future conversation.
The next 4X4@4 “Talking It Through” sessions will take place at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, May 18; Monday, June 1; and Monday, June 8.
For more information and to reserve your place, see our 4x4@4 online registration page.
About 4x4@4 “Talking it Through”
Hosted by Jerry Fromm, PhD, ABPP, senior consultant to and former director of the Erikson Institute of the Austen Riggs Center, the 60-minute “Talking It Through” sessions are offered via Zoom video conferencing. Each gathering begins with an initial conversation among four mental health professionals related to the feelings people are struggling with during the coronavirus crisis. After the initial conversation among the panelists, the dialogue expands to other participants, in the hope that “talking it through” will lead to deeper understanding and mutual support.