Many of us are experiencing for the first time in our lifetimes the effects of prolonged uncertainty, change, and “operating conditions” that are continuously out of our control and difficult, if not impossible to plan for. Whilst this global pandemic started as one of physical health, it has become one that has tested our mental and emotional wellbeing as well. For many, it has become a psychological pandemic of self-doubt.
First, it tested our need for control as our world spun out and the small things we were used to having choice over on a daily basis (such as leaving our house) were taken out of our hands. Then it tested our capacity for dealing with the unknown – our capacity to handle the fear of what we can’t see coming. Not only was there something we couldn’t see hunting us and our loved ones down, but everything we knew for certain was undermined. Security of financial income, availability and ease of obtaining food and general medication, our ability to socialise and exercise our bodies, our ability to travel and experience new things.
What we thought was going to be over in a few weeks, or perhaps a month or three, has stretched out to affect things as far ahead as we can currently see. As much as we have moved to shift our own methods of dealing with change personally and in our work, the evidence that our psychological tolerance levels are in a different space to where they used to be are all around us.
Our ability to juggle multiple topics, needs and sources of pressure has decreased. Our ability to thinking strategically has diminished and many are unable to focus their energy on strategy for any length of time without finding solitude, or grouping people together for a specific conversation. In our schools, the grade point average has dropped as the psychological weight bears down on our children, regardless of age. They too are living in a world where they are privy to considerations they’ve never had to make before and where their learning skills have been tested in unorthodox ways. While many schools and businesses have moved to meet the changing needs and methods of delivery, they are nonetheless manned by people who are just as much under strain as those they serve.
One of the most prevalent results of this period of change has been self-doubt. Those in a position of leadership have been put under pressure to make far-reaching decisions for those they lead like never before. It is only right that they question themselves. We have all been called on to reconfigure our lives in some way that we’ve had little to no prior precedent for. It’s only natural that we would feel uncertain. We are all looking at results that are now affected by multiple different aspects where previously, affecting them would have been our sole responsibility. We are all reaping the psychological gremlins of a disconnected world that is slightly out of control and where our own personal survival seems insecure.
So, what are the cures for disconnection, for isolation, self-doubt, psychological fatigue and unhealthy results? What’s the best way forward to stabilise ourselves, our children and our teams? Do we work harder in new ways? Do we focus on new methods of teaching, and draw up new measurements for results? Do we reiterate the same messages, just louder? Do we demand that people take more personal responsibility and focus better on what needs doing?
In my opinion, rather than continuing to find new ways to drive forward, we need to be doing the exact opposite. We need to be finding more moments to pause. More moments to check in with each other. More moments to breathe. Rather than chasing the win, we need to make sure the people that will achieve that win are able.
It is natural that a lack of control over our world would result in us striving to take control in the areas we can affect (like petty choices, and how we communicate on the road). It’s also natural that our inexperience of handling the multilayered effects of a global pandemic would make our attempts at control (over self and environment) trial and error. It is natural that self-doubt would make us less likely to confess our inadequacies to anyone else, even if we’re able to recognise that we’re all carrying a level of the same. It’s natural that we’ll all show less healthy symptoms of seeking connection when our normal ways of connecting have been circumvented for so long.
So what does readjusting look like if this isn’t something we can just drive ourselves through and demand others do differently? What does “effective” look like when our brains are fatigued and less tolerant? How do we rebuild our inner certainty and regenerate strategic thinking?
We remember that we’re ALL human. We remember that we’re all going through the same pressures, and having been doing for a very long while now. We take a moment to be patient with ourselves and remind ourselves that there’s no possible way we’re supposed to have this all figured out; and that the same is true for everyone else. We’re all processing differently, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but we’re all showing different symptoms of the same things.
What we can do is check in with each other and ask questions that invite others to share how they’re doing. We can be proactive about unpacking how each of us is coping on any given day, work to our strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses. We can provide the cure for prolonged disconnection with small moments of connection that allow everyone to pause and take a breath. When we create space for everyone to “check in”, we allow everyone to realise they’re not alone in what they’re processing, which helps to alleviate self-doubt.
Sharing helps us measure how much of what we’re dealing with is unique to us, and how much of it is universal. When we can identify what’s universal, and what is unique to us, we know better what we can and can’t control. When we stop waiting for everyone to self-correct, we can come together to discuss the new needs behind what we’re trying to achieve. When we can be patient with ourselves and others, we can find more compassionate ways of dealing with each other. Compassion, care and communication are what connect us. They are the salve for the myriad of psychological fall out and fatigue the world is experiencing.
Here is something we can be proactive about. Here is our opportunity for growth and progression. If we can learn to sit in our own and others discomfort and be patient until the answers come rather than trying to control those answers; if we can prioritise connection and realise how many things are indicative of the lack of it; if we can take our need to control our changing world and turn it into a will to try new things, then we will have grasped the opportunity before us rather than trying to bulldoze our way through it until change passes.
Try starting each day, each meeting, each class with a 5 minute First Aid Round. Quantify it as such. Set the expectations and reasoning. Allow every person to make a brief statement about how they’re doing today. Set the bar yourself, volunteering truth that encourages others to do the same. You don’t need to solve it for each other, but your communication, sharing, compassion and connection are the cure for more than I can fit on this page.
A First Aid statement may sound like “I’m feeling frustrated and ineffectual today because that deal I thought was in the bag, isn’t.” It may sound like “Today, I’m feeling uncertain, and I don’t know why. My energy is low and I’m trying to gather myself.” It may sound like “I studied my behind off for that exam. I don’t know how my mark was so low.” It might sound like “I had a win yesterday, and whilst it was small, I feel proud.”
Many may struggle to share, to access and articulate what’s going on for them. Many leaders are scared about giving licence for a “whingeing session”. Again, the idea is not to fix it for everyone or to derail each meeting with side-agendas. If things come up that need addressing, you can do so after your current session. The focus is on connection. On compassion and communication. On seeing where each of your team are at and how you can cover each other today.
The more proficient we become at identifying our needs and unpacking them, the more proficient we’ll become at meeting them. The more we learn we’re not alone in our thinking, the more we’ll find the energy to rise. The more we discover or remember we’re part of a team, the more we will move together towards a common goal again; the more we will draw strength from each other; the more we will volunteer our strength TO each other.
by Christen Killick
October 4th, 2021