Understanding the self in times of uncertainty
by Patricia O’Reilly
“We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm.”
As humans we inhabit a distinctive social world of lived experience, and for most, the sense of self is a profoundly social phenomenon. When our world as we know it is interrupted and we are plunged into a planet of uncertainty where the whole landscape of our way of being is changed, how do we understand ourselves as we make sense of our new reality and experience?
As therapists we see the radical effects of the Covid-19 restrictions and hazards on our own and on our clients’ emotional landscapes, on both our ability and theirs to engage from a distance, and on our style of responding to the people and the changed environment around us. As the outer world changed, so too did the world within. The terrain of inner thoughts, feelings, and reflections shifted in a rapid determination to make sense of our own internal states and those of our clients.
Numerous clients on their therapeutic journeys, dealing with emotional wounds and other issues, have become distracted; their thinking and physical survival has become fused with, and almost a part of the Covid-19 pandemic as this becomes their conscious reality. As Ogden and Fisher write: “Adverse experiences can interfere with our ability to be ‘here’ instead of ‘there’” (2015: 137). Individuals often ignore, suppress, or minimise their own present moment experience, distracted instead by the chaotic environment created by the threat of pandemic.
Uncertainty during the Covid-19 pandemic has made us all think differently about decisions we make and risks we take. The earth is faced with the unknown and we are compelled into serious thoughts about how to manage change, deal with difficult issues and get ready for the unexpected.
We are overwhelmed by the virus that is running wild in the world around us and seems intent on destroying human life. For some, the unpleasantness strikes directly from within and we are dragged into despair. We find it difficult to love ourselves and others, we cannot see a future, and our reality as we know it is changed. We cannot control the world outside us.
We feel like we are in a dark space when uncertainty distracts us from who we really are. If we have not faced our own darkness, we can seldom bear it with another. We are incapacitated as human beings if we will not face darkness. We cannot pass through the very depths of our own lives; nor can we take uncertainty which comes upon us suddenly; nor reach out to others when they feel afraid or anxious and need us desperately.
How can we face uncertainty? What can we do about it? The yin yang ancient symbol of harmony reminds us that life is a balancing act and most fulfilling when we learn to embrace its dualities, the ups and downs, good times and bad, joys and challenges.
Therefore, when uncertainty comes, we can begin to accept it as natural and realise that we do not have to give up in dismay. Uncertainty must be faced and known – and yet resisted – and this is a fine art. When the struggle comes, the only thing I can do is sit quietly and connect with the self that was there before.
A sense of self
At this uncertain time, as I reflect on the quality of my sense of self as a real human being, I am conscious that I struggled for years, enduring pain, hurt and disappointment, often losing my way and being discouraged, taking dead end roads and ending up frustrated and uncertain about who I was, only to come to understand that I have been created with an incredible potential and a unique destiny which no one else can fill. This is very humbling.
Understanding the self does not happen from being passive. It takes real effort and co- operation with the process of transformation, and steps forward utilising our imagination and vision to become conscious of our potential.
We can begin by understanding that the human psyche has many parts. It is so easy for us to identify with only one small part of ourselves, with the anger or inner peace, fear or courage, sadness or joy. One sign of real maturity is the ability to see that the darkness – which at times seems to be all that we are or ever shall be – is only a small part of us and that all the other parts are still there. We are not simple, undivided selves, but a whole army of interwoven selves. And when we realise this, we see uncertainty as only one part of the whole, and we will not let it take over our whole being. I had to learn not to allow uncertainty or insecurity to become commander-in-chief of this complex person that is me. Insecurity robs many of us of our ability to deal with life and we just exist with little confidence or vision for the future. Sadly, what one thinks themselves to be, that is what they are. The way we consider ourselves usually influences what we become.
Differing reactions to uncertainty
The insecurity around Covid-19 strikes different people in different ways. One person perceives it as a disaster and falls into discouragement while another looks for ways to remake the self. Many of the individuals to whom I listen at present have lost understanding of themselves because of the world pandemic that has disorganised their whole lives. They are emotionally paralysed which prevents positive self-talk and some have lapsed into self-alienation. Many are hurt because they started life in situations where they were not appreciated: they were the wrong gender, they lacked required competencies which their parents prized, their parents were neglectful or abusive, they endured poverty, loss, or other tragedy or trauma.
When children in their developmental years don’t attach and feel they are undeserving and unworthy, they usually grow up continuing to believe this, and sadly they live their lives feeling not good enough and unworthy and regardless of what work or process they do very often when uncertainty hits, they regress.
It is almost impossible to understand the self when living with fear and constantly expecting the worst. Individuals who suffer with the affliction of fear and anxiety defeat themselves in their dealings with the world and are often dragged into depression and despair.
Only a change from within can help an individual who is dysregulated and anxious. If we have a sound understanding of self when life is good, when the worst happens, we will be so sustained that we will be able to walk on through. Siegel (2018: 169) talks about “self-knowing awareness” which necessitates insight, or mental time travel – connecting the past to the present.
With appropriate understanding of the self, we live with hope and from there we engage in constructive, positive thinking that is powerful. Ryan Holiday states that the most effective women and men of the world were people with hope and ambition who “flipped their obstacles upside down”. Holiday believes in turning every obstacle into an advantage by moving through them with the disciplines of “Perception, Action, and Will” (Holiday, 2015: 4)
Janina Fisher (2017: 65) affirms that: “To keep on ‘keeping on’ we must psychically split off from what is happening right now, what did happen a moment ago, and what might happen next”. She maintains that in times of uncertainty, some sense of self must be kept separate from the fear-provoking events around us, even if that self just goes through the motions of living. It may be concluded, that by rejecting various distressed parts of ourselves, when uncertainty occurs, we can sustain positivity and hold hope for the future and keep going with living.
Hope or anxiety, one or the other, is our personal contribution to nearly every situation. We can choose between these two attitudes towards life. Even then, however, hope is not automatic. It comes only as we work hard at it and struggle always to possess it. We must courageously and resolutely set our faces away from worry and anxiety and let hope take over, even when our inclination is otherwise.
We can work at understanding that it is just as easy to hope as it is to fear. Hope is the anticipation of specific good and the conviction that life is on our side. It is confidence projecting a ray of light into the future and it dwells on the positive side of every situation. We must impart this to our clients to carry them through this crisis with greater peace and strength.
Loss of a sense of self causes the physical body to react by dumping adrenalin and sugar into the blood stream to release additional power. If fear and anxiety only occur occasionally, the reaction does little or no harm to the body, but continued fear and anxiety keeps this process going and causes harm to the digestive system, the cardio-vascular system and the nervous system.
How can we honestly understand our own sense of self? We can take time out and be still, we can look at our reactions to others, we can listen to our dreams, we can talk to those we trust. Taking time to discover what is meaningful to us in this pandemic, pursuing it, planning and adjusting to change can bring us hope and create the expectation that good things will happen.
One useful technique is mindfulness, which has been found to reduce stress (Ogden, 2015). It improves self-regulation, focus and concentration; helps us tolerate emotions and think more clearly; and improves equanimity and relational capacity.
What therapists can do to help
As therapists, we ask ourselves what we can do to help our clients during this uncertain time. Debs Dana (2018) states that healing cannot occur in an unsafe environment; therefore, safety is a treatment and is fundamental to change. We must listen to what it is like for our clients living with uncertainty and what it feels like when they feel powerless, anxious and afraid. Psychoeducation helps clients become informed collaborators in understanding and integrating their own process. We must help our clients recognise that the life they have been living prior to Covid-19 was not necessarily any more secure than the life they are living in the midst of the pandemic.
Debs Dana (2018: 120) comes across with the idea of “attending to autonomic states” which calls for present-moment awareness. She suggests that when we have lost our sense of self in uncertainty, present-moment awareness is a challenge.
In her book, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Dana presents exercises to help individuals explore how they can navigate their personal autonomic pathways. These exercises can facilitate us in becoming safely self-aware in order to be able to attend to present-moment safety.
The essence of the relationship between a counsellor and client is that the client is accepted as he or she is and begins to accept himself or herself. As therapists we wish to be open, aware, knowledgeable, available and hopeful. In order to do my best work, it is essential to maintain self-care so I can be all these things for my clients and for myself.
Working with clients using new social engagement systems at this time can be challenging and we must tend to our own needs in order not to be depleted. We need to preserve our own compassion so that our delicate sensibilities will remain attuned to the transient aspects of life as we understand our sense of self in the beauty, grace, joy and love essential to the restoration of our full humanity.
As a therapist I have had the privilege of listening to many who have been trying to understand themselves in the aftermath of uncertainty in their lives. They, just as I, have had problems with their self-worth and value. They are often attached to darkness and depression and are overcome by fears and hurt feelings. Sometimes their anger and their passion runs away with them and they get off on the wrong road – I always hold the hope for each person whose ability to hope is impacted by their uncertainty, hope that they have a destiny beyond their wildest imagination and that each of them has infinite potential for understanding themselves in times of uncertainty.
Patricia O’Reilly (MIAHIP) works as a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist, supervisor, and trainer, and works for the NCS specialising in Trauma Therapy.
Barr, D [@Damien_Barr]. (2020, April 21). We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/damian_barr/status/1252626152604270593?lang=en.
Dana, D. (2018). The Polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors: Overcoming internal self- alienation. New York & Oxon: Routledge.
Ogden, P. & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Holiday, R. (2015). The obstacle is the way: The ancient art of turning adversity to advantage. London: Profile Books.
Siegel, D.J. (2018). Aware: The science and practice of presence. London: Scribe Publications.