We’ve been in this transitional phase for over a year now. Even as things are beginning to open up, I still can’t shake feeling uneasy and unsettled. I know some of my direct reports are feeling it, too.
In Emotional Limbo
It’s true that even as we move forward, many of us are still feeling off balance.
My good friend and colleague Pat H. sent me an article on ambiguous loss last week. It was written by Pauline Boss, PhD, who coined the term ambiguous loss in the ‘70s and is the person most closely associated with the concept, and her colleague Janet R. Yeats, MA, LMFT, a therapist.
While not intended in the article written more than 10 years ago, I began to see similarities to what we, broadly, have been experiencing during Covid.
First, what is ambiguous loss?
It is a loss that remains unclear, without resolution and has no ending because it is ongoing, and there are two distinct versions.
One: physical absence with psychological presence – or leaving without saying goodbye. Examples include soldiers MIA and those lost at sea or to suicide.
Two: psychological absence with physical presence – or goodbye without leaving. Examples include living with someone with dementia or who is actively addicted to drugs or alcohol.
In a separate article from the American Psychological Association by Kristen Weir, directly addressing the psychological impact of Covid, it is noted that “There is communal grief as we watch our work, health-care, education and economic systems – all these systems we depend on—destabilize. . . The crisis isn’t just shaking our faith in those systems. It’s upending our understanding of the world around us.”
We can see the impact of both a loss of one’s normal daily and monthly rhythms and also the free-floating anxiety of what’s to come.
We may live in the same place with the same family and might even have the same job but day-to-day living has been significantly disrupted and looks and feels very different.
Plus, there is general consensus that as we move forward out of the restrictions of Covid, we will not be recreating the normal we left behind. Some changes will be permanent and others modifying.
The spectrum of options for returning to the office is a good example. For many, there is uncertainty whether it will be all back to the office, all virtual, or some hybrid version. I have long believed that uncertainty is harder to handle than even bad news.
Boss and Yeats says the answer is to live well despite the ‘not knowing.’ They list six guidelines to boost resilience:
Finding meaning – reflect to consider what the situation means; reframe when possible, for positive meanings; naming it lays the foundation to start the coping process; meaning making is hindered by isolation, anger and family secrets
Tempering mastery – balance feelings of helplessness with control where it is possible such as exercise, meditation and prayer
Reconstructing identity – accept that things will not go back to normal; consider how one sees themself in this next normal
Normalizing ambivalence – accept as OK that the ambiguity may elicit some ambivalence
Revising attachment – grieve what is lost and also celebrate what remains; don’t give in to pressure to feel like you have to get over it
Discovering hope – imagine new possibilities for creating hope
To add these approaches, the APA article stresses the importance of social support.
While extra-challenging with Covid restrictions, connecting with people can be critical to moving on from grief. Reaching out and helping others is also effective. Plus, it’s important to continue to connect socially even as we return to more open living conditions.
While we are all affected by Covid, the senior people in an organization often have more resources available to cushion the impact.
All the more reason that compassion and understanding from leaders will be noticed and appreciated by their more junior colleagues.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, I loved the Rule of Thirds. The excerpt is below.
One day while training for the Rio Olympics, Alexi Pappas became frustrated and frightened when she couldn’t hit her pace on the track. She started to cry. But her coach, Ian Dobson, also an Olympian, explained that her workout wasn’t a problem because it fit into the Rule of Thirds. When you are chasing a big goal, he told her, you’re supposed to feel good a third of the time, OK a third of the time and crummy a third of the time. If you’re feeling bad all the time you’re fatiguing, he said. If you’re feeling good all the time, you’re not working hard enough. . .
She uses the Rule of Thirds in all areas of her life. While writing her book, for example, she says she had days where the words “did not flow,” but she still kept trying to write. “On the good days, you grow your confidence,” Ms. Pappas says. “On the crappy days you grow your patience, courage and resilience to stay on your own team.”
There are similarities between version two (goodbye without leaving) and how many of us have lived this past year during Covid.
We have experienced several types of psychological stress: fear of getting sick, unemployment, job insecurity, financial anxiety, stressful working and living conditions with everyone home (all the time!), plus disruption of daily routines, socializing, recreation, entertainment and more.