In March, we started a new recurring series with Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and advice columnist. Every other week, she answers questions about relationship, work-life balance, family dynamics and more.
Of course, shortly after we launched her column, Ask Dr. Andrea, the world changed. Since then, she’s been onslaught with questions about the challenges of adjusting to life under the coronavirus.
Dear Dr. Andrea,
I am a month into working from home and social-distancing, and while of course I am grateful I have a job and am healthy, I am getting so down on myself that I am not accomplishing much. If you had told me last winter that things would be shut down and I’d be under house arrest for weeks, with no commute and my social obligations wiped clean, I would have imagined that I’d spend time getting my life in order. I don’t have children, and I’m dating someone who right now is across the country, so I really have no obligations to anyone but myself, and yet I don’t do anything. I have fitness goals, professional development goals, home projects to do — and I haven’t used this time at all. I can’t even bring myself to do my taxes. Some days I feel like I should give myself a break, and other times I just know that when we come out of this I am going to hate myself for not using the time better. I need a pep talk here.
Here’s the start of my pep talk: You are coping with each day as you go through something exceedingly stressful and strange. Something that there’s no road map for. And that’s an accomplishment worthy of the biggest check mark of all in your day planner.
Seriously. It’s admirable that you want to use your time in a “productive” way — and we’re about to talk about ways to feel more like you’re doing that. But let’s not limit the meaning of productivity to meeting the goals that seemed so shiny before this crisis started. We are in the middle of a pandemic. Your brain has been taxed in ways that it was never expecting, even as you remain grateful for your job and your health.
Add in the fact that there’s no clear end date in sight, and it’s a situation that’s not exactly conducive to tackling that list of home projects or putting on a smile while you storm to the top of the professional ladder.
That said, I don’t want to indulge in all-or-none thinking. You express a tinge of it yourself — saying you haven’t used this time “at all” — which will only make you feel worse. So, the answer is to dig yourself out of the inertia-built hole by getting just a little bit of momentum on your side.
Small, specific goals are where to begin here. What’s the home project that will give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of time spent? When can you commit just 15 minutes to getting started on your taxes? Is there one document or email you can work on that, at the end of the week, will make you feel a little more on the path you want professionally?
If you can broaden the way that you look at this time, then you’ll understand that productivity is not measured just in checklists. It’s measured in keeping yourself functioning, taking time to pause when you need it, and letting yourself adjust to the daily hum of stressors that you’ve never experienced before. Yes, in the winter you may have been surprised to hear that you had a month at home and didn’t yet get your taxes done. But you might also have been pretty shocked at what you have endured and managed to cope with, as well.
Dear Dr. Andrea,
Do you have advice for people with no family or friends? I’ve got lots of acquaintances, some distant relatives (distant for a reason), but they're all busy working from home and home schooling. We text a tiny bit but they're all so busy. I'm single, with no kids. I go days with no contact with anyone. I was working on meeting new people, but that's on hold for at least two more months, they're saying. The past three weeks have been very isolating. Not even small talk when doing errands or at a park. I have lots of stress relievers, but nothing for isolation and lack of human contact for three months total, possibly longer. I'm feeling very alone.
—Party of One
My heart goes out to you. We’re in the strangest of times, where you are anything but alone in feeling alone. And people who live by themselves are taking the brunt of the isolation, and in a particularly surreal way — with even the simplest of in-person human contact drastically curtailed in ways we’ve likely never seen in our lifetimes.
First, let’s talk about the busy friends (even if just acquaintances) that you have. It seems like everybody is trying videoconferencing for social chats now (much to the chagrin of people who find it too awkward), and so it’s worth a try to suggest an online meetup instead of just little bits of texting. Why not be honest and say that after weeks with only your own company, you could use a laugh or the sound of another voice? The worst that can happen is that they say it can’t work for them. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they too could use the little break from monotony. Be flexible on timing, and plan for it to be brief, with a start and end time. Or suggest a spin on the face-to-pixelated-face meeting, and see if they want to watch a movie “together” or play an online game.
Then, challenge yourself on why meeting new people has to totally be put on hold. Think about the ways you were doing it before, and the types of people you most want to connect with, and how and where you could find them now. Message boards for things you’re interested in? Listservs for your neighborhood or apartment building? Even pre-pandemic friendship-making had grown to have something of a digital component to it, typically. By accepting that component has to take the lead right now, at least you won’t throw out the possibility altogether.
But it’s also important not to over-focus on finding individual friendships.
Is there a volunteer effort you can donate a little time or money to? (Helping others gives us a mood boost as well.) An older neighbor you can check in on? Can you attend an online concert, trivia night, comedy live stream or something else that floats your boat with a live and engaged audience? Artists of all stripes are putting out more online content all the time, with the goal of audiences being able to feel part of something bigger than themselves once again.
I understand that none of this comes close to replacing the momentum you had before, and I know that the limitations you’re facing now are stark. But with a willingness to let yourself be vulnerable and experiment, you just might find just enough light to illuminate this dark time.