As the COVID-19 lockdown continues, conflicts are erupting all over the world. Not just between Trump and China, or between household members who are riding the waves of cabin fever together. The most intense conflicts are often the ones inside our own head.
These can take various forms, based on the contradictory messages we give ourselves:
— Expect the worst vs. Trust it will be OK
— Bite your tongue and keep the family peace vs. Defend your personal needs and boundaries
Another source of internal conflict that has been messing with our minds is:
— Make best use of this time by staying productive and achieving new goals vs. Whoa, take a break, surrender to the shutdown…
Social media has magnified this particular dilemma. The first offensive was a ‘motivational’ meme:
“If you don’t come out of this quarantine with 1) a new skill, 2) your side hustle started, 3) more knowledge — you never lacked time, you lacked DISCIPLINE.”
Almost immediately, the counter-offensive rallied in outraged articles and Facebook posts. Hell no, they argued. This is a time of collective trauma. Drop those unrealistic, high-pressure expectations of yourself. Focus only on your physical and psychological security. Rest, reflect, be kind to yourself.
And that would be great if it were the end of it — argument won, return to Netflix. The trouble is that, when these conflicts play out in our head, they rarely find easy resolution. Instead, they volley back and forth, forcing each side into more extreme positions, tugging at us, shaming us.
Of course, this isn’t an experience that’s unique to the time of coronavirus. Most of us who have been shaped by the prevailing culture of self-optimisation will recognise this tussle between two competing impulses, productivity and switch-off (or what is often seen as procrastination). Rising levels of burnout in society are a sure symptom of this — not just caused by overwork, but by the relentless internal war between “do, do, do” and “no, no, no”. It’s like hitting the accelerator and brakes hard at the same time.
But the stakes have been raised recently by this strange suspension of normal activity and routine. For those who have been furloughed or laid off work, a new space has opened up while we’re in lockdown. This space could potentially be filled and optimised in new, constructive ways. But the sense of disruption and even shock that we’re feeling can also leave us fatigued and demotivated. Just as the tensions between family members can escalate under lockdown conditions, so too are our internal conflicts escalating.
So it’s a good time to look at this pattern more closely — to help us get through this particularly difficult time, and also to learn practices that will boost our resilience in the future ‘normal’.
TAKING US APART TO PUT US BACK TOGETHER
The impasse between the productivity impulse and the switch-off impulse is resolved by making space for both of them — by allowing our mixed feelings, seeing how these represent different parts of us, and engaging with them in a more friendly, sympathetic way.
This approach comes from a model of psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS). As well as having a transformative effect on severe conditions such as trauma, eating disorders, depression and addictions, IFS also offers some very effective ways to navigate our everyday life challenges and dilemmas.
A central premise of IFS work is that each of us has different parts of our identity and personality, and these parts have different roles and relationships within us, like an internal family. They frequently end up in conflict with each other, but when they learn to understand and work together more supportively, balance and harmony is restored to our minds and lives.
In this case, we are dealing with two parts that tend to play prominent roles in our day-to-day lives. Let’s provisionally call one the ‘Pusher’ (as in, always pushing us for more effort, more productivity, more achievement) and the other the ‘Slacker’ (preferring to take it easy or even shut down in response to too much pressure).
In IFS therapy sessions, we would work with these two parts in much greater depth, also taking account of other parts that interact with them in the system of ‘You’. I want to highlight two basic principles that people often find especially helpful and can practise on their own: unblending and befriending.
1. ‘UNBLENDING’: FINDING INNER SPACE AND CLARITY
When we recognise and name our mixed feelings as different parts of us — the Pusher and the Slacker — we are in effect unblending from them. We step back from the fray and become a separate observer with a clearer vantage point.
This step can immediately take some intensity out of our experience. We can objectively see that these two parts of us are locked into a polarising conflict. The harder the Pusher pushes, the more the Slacker will want to resist and shut down, which triggers the Pusher into even more urgent activity. Neither of them will win.
So how do you unblend from this kind of inner conflict situation?
- Press pause for a moment. Take a deep breath.
- Notice if you have sensations in specific areas of your body, e.g. tension, heat, tingling. Notice any emotions that seem to be linked to those physical feelings.
- Notice if there are persistent thoughts or images bubbling up in your mind that seem to represent the Pusher and the Slacker, helping you to get a clearer sense of their standpoints.
There’s no need to analyse or fix anything you notice — just observe it as it is, and bring some awareness to your position as the observer.
As you unblend from these parts, you will probably notice you start to feel calmer and clearer. You’re able to focus better on what’s happening rather than being tangled up in a tug-of-war. Perhaps you’re also feeling a more open-hearted curiosity about these parts and their roles? That’s a good thing, so invite in more of this curiosity.
2. ‘BEFRIENDING’: FINDING SELF-COMPASSION
Once we’ve unblended from these parts, we need to build a more empathic, constructive relationship with them — to befriend them. Our mission here is to get to know the Pusher and the Slacker better. We ask them questions, listen to their answers and encourage them to listen to each other. That calm, clear, curious ‘Self’ we uncovered during the unblending phase plays an important role as leader and mediator of this process, bringing about more understanding between the different parts of us.
Perhaps the most potent question we can ask is: “What’s the positive purpose behind the role you play in my life?” At first sight, this probably feels jarring. We’re more aware of these parts’ negative aspects and effects as they throw shade at each other.
But if we focus on each part in turn, inwardly ask it this question and then wait for the answer to come to us intuitively (rather than letting the analytical or story-making parts of ourselves take over), we can get a surprising response.
The parts of us that try to manage our lives actually have an intention to protect us, even if their efforts are misguided. For example, if we ask this question of the Pusher and the Slacker, we discover that:
- Tries to keep us productive, successful, valued and secure; protects us against possible failure and rejection from our community;
- Opposes and defends us against the Slacker part, which is undermining our motivation;
- Keeps us busy in order to suppress or distract from deeper, more troublesome feelings that are threatening to erupt, e.g. overwhelming fear, grief, emptiness or memories of past trauma.
- Tries to keep us sufficiently rested, healthy, able to function; protects us against potential overload and burnout;
- Opposes and defends us against the Pusher, which could drive us beyond our limits;
- Keeps us calm or numbed in order to suppress deeper feelings that are threatening to erupt, e.g. overwhelming fear, grief, emptiness or memories of past trauma (including previous burnout experiences); kicks in like a safety brake to prevent a big crash.
Now we’ve seen their positive intentions, we can probably feel more compassion for these two parts of us, rather than taking sides or demonising both of them. They are trying valiantly to do their best for us, but they are locked into a counter-productive struggle with each other. And of course, living through COVID-combat is activating them more than usual, forcing them to work extra-hard to protect us against this new threat to our financial, social, physical and mental wellbeing.
We can also see that the Pusher and Slacker have a shared agenda to suppress our deeper, potentially overwhelming feelings, but they have different strategies for doing so. In IFS therapy sessions, we would gradually and carefully explore these suppressed parts of us too — known as ‘Exiles’ — helping to heal their past traumas and burdens so that the protective parts don’t have to work overtime as prison officers.
But even without the support of a long therapy process, my experience is that a good amount of healing and relief comes when we simply recognise and value the good intentions of these protective parts, especially when they are in a polarised relationship. Often, when they hear their counterpart’s perspective, and when they feel our understanding and compassion flowing to them, there is a spontaneous and simultaneous easing of tensions. We can immediately feel more relaxed and centred again.
PRACTISING SELF-LEADERSHIP — A LOCKDOWN DIVIDEND
The Pusher and Slacker can now start to forge a more collaborative relationship within our system — feeding us the right amounts of healthy energy and motivation on the one hand, while also guiding necessary periods of rest and self-care on the other hand. The names we previously gave them — derived from the judgements of their opponent — now feel redundant. Maybe ‘Cheerleader’ and ‘Care-Giver’ would be more appropriate from here on?
From this place of wiser Self-leadership, we can re-engage with the question of how to spend our coronavirus lockdown time (or any other time). Instead of pushing ourselves into action, what do we feel naturally energised by and drawn towards? Instead of just switching off, how can we make choices that will best support and nourish our body, mind and soul? What are the different parts of us suggesting, and why? Which small, manageable step could we take today that will move us towards our purpose or goals? How could we make a simple task — or mundane chore — feel as interesting, fun and rewarding as possible?
We have been presented with an ideal time to practise this approach. If we make the best of it (in a balanced, non-pressured way), we will reap the benefits long after the lockdown has been lifted.