How to use compassion to gain a new perspective to the unexpected

Week 7 of isolation. What do you find surprising or intriguing about how you manage yourself in isolation? 

Let’s do a short recap of the emotional experiences in the weeks of physical distancing, so far, shall we? After initial reactions of disbelief and outrage against the emerging disruptions, moments of acceptance of what is may have followed. The gap between rejection and acceptance was filled by finding new routines. The new routines allowed us to continue the activities we were doing before. For me, new routines came with new activities also, like online yoga, which spiced up my days. 

By week 7, life in isolation is likely to be perceived as the new normal. A normality where we may have gotten used to e-see people, both in work and personal contexts. In the webinars that I facilitate, I do miss the richness of information that I used to receive from non-verbal cues in face-to-face communications.  

The other day, one of my uncles shared some photos taken two years ago at my niece’s baptism.  It dawned on me that in the new normality, I feel out of time and place. And I’m intrigued by this state. 

“On a normal day, people interact with somewhere between 11 and 16 weak ties on the way to work, while running errands, or on a break between meetings at the office.”, write the authors of the Harvard Business Review article, Why You Miss Those Casual Friends so Much. In the last 7 weeks, I interacted once from meters distance with a neighbour, a person belonging to my weak social ties. As for my strong ties, the initial enthusiasm of reconnecting with old contacts faded away and was replaced by the fatigue of keeping up this new habit. 

Without the physical presence of people who are part of my social network, I feel I’m flying high in the sky without being able to see the proximity of land. Does this sound familiar to you? Have you recently felt that your existence has shifted into a being nowhere normality? In week 7 of isolation, nowhere is my new address.

“It’s the most important place in the world – nowhere.” writes Tatyana Tolstaya, in her collection of short stories, Aetherial Worlds. “ Everyone should spend some time there. It’s scary, empty, and cold; it’s sad beyond all bearing; it’s where all human communication is lost, where all your sins, all your shortcomings, all lies and half-truths and double-dealings emerge from the dusk to look you in the eye with neither disapproval nor empathy, but simply and matter-of-factly. Here we are. Here you are. ‘And filled with revulsion, you read the story of your life.’ And you make decisions. “

Being nowhere means we are in the absence of the physical presence of others. If we choose to, for hours on end, the stream of our consciousness can go on uninterrupted by others’ sounds. This is how it must be like in a meditation retreat. And this is the beauty of the nowhere place. It’s like watching an ongoing parade of clouds, different forms, colors and sizes crossing a clear sky. These clouds are our undisturbed thoughts emerging in aloneness. As Tatyana Tolstaya writes, some thoughts, like memories of duplicity, personal flaws and lies can be menacing. And yet, what treasure chest memories are! Who would we be without our memories, both those we are proud of and those we are ashamed of?! 

Being in the nowhere space I found a gem in flashbacks of a beloved past, of great grandfather and father. Great-grandfather fought in the Second World War. Father spent the first half of his life in communism. In the second half, when realizing that the salary of a high-school teacher would not suffice to afford a good education for my sister and me, he learned the ropes of entrepreneurship and free market economy. 

Thinking of great grandfather and father triggered an overwhelming compassion for their struggles, of which neither of them spoke about. The compassion cloud which took over the space of my consciousness showered my heart in humbleness. In the last years of life, father fought cancer. His last intelligible words were, “I am glad.” When he couldn’t talk anymore, he would simply look into my eyes with smiling eyes. 

Great-grandfather didn’t talk about his war experience. I didn’t even know he took part in the war, until two years ago when one of us, his great grandchildren visited the old house. Somewhere in a wooden shelf, a letter was found. The pages had a yellow hue. The letter was written by great-grandfather’s captain, describing his bravery. Next to the letter, there was a small cardboard box where a medal should have been. The medal couldn’t be found though.   

Compassion smoothly arose in my being nowhere space. It connected me to the past and empowered me to make decisions in the present. How about you? What kind of clouds of the past might march through your sky? Allow yourself to observe and feel whatever content you glimpse. What might you notice? 

Being in the nowhere, we may discover that our life stories are at the intersection of others’ life stories. Our destinies are captured in a matrix of decisions and actions, which entangle our lives with the lives of the people who will ever matter to us. When we contemplate on their life stories, we can see our own lives in new perspectives. 

Beloved memories and hope! These are the most rewarding moments in being nowhere.

In week 7 of isolation, what do your hard times consist of? Do you miss giving a hug to close friends? Are you tired switching back and forward between work tasks and attending kids? Are you overwhelmed with the marathon of virtual work meetings? 

Exhaustion may have crippled in. How about asking yourself, “What would my grandfather have done in this situation?”, “What would I have done if I had faced grandfather’s challenges?”

Each generation copes with unexpected changes. You may have accepted that now it’s your turn to go through difficulties. But you may have reached a point when you feel you cannot bear any longer the physical distancing and all the consequences resulting from it. Ask yourself another two questions, “In what ways does the COVID-19 disrupt my life today?”, “Under the circumstances, how can I keep focus on what is essential today?”.

The corona virus outbreak may last longer than expected. And it may take unforeseeable turns. Manage wisely your energy. Spend some time in your nowhere space. You may find some inspiring thoughts. 

Update. In the New York Times article, How Long Will a Vaccine Really Take, published on April 30th, the earliest date for the distribution of an effective vaccine against coronavirus is August 2021.

How the experience of envy can take us to our authentic selves

“Hell is other people.” wrote Sartre, the renowned French philosopher, novelist and playwright in his play, No Exit. The famous quote is in the end of the play when three characters arrive in a place that appears to be hell. While they try to figure out what crimes they committed, they realize that the three of them are trapped in a room. They continue to get on each other’s nerves when one of the characters concludes, “Hell is other people.”

What do you make of this quote? One way to interpret this is that when an individual becomes conscious of someone else’s gaze, the awareness of being watched restricts the freedom of thinking and being as an individual. 

Sartre’s quote is a witty observation into the social nature of human beings. Other people give us a frame of reference and constraints to understand ourselves, our aspirations and purpose. We can be physically next to another person. Or, we can bring the other in our thoughts. Under both scenarios, our brains automatically scan the physical or imaginary presence in attempts to answer the question, “What is my status in this relationship?”, “Am I better off or worse than the other?” By design, we compare ourselves to others. Everybody does it, one way or another.

When dealing with an unprecedented life threatening situation, like the coronavirus outbreak, we have the tendency to compare ourselves to others more than normally. How do others react to the chaos? We perceive the environment with an increased sense of vulnerability. What do others do to adapt to the new reality of remote work? Is my colleague, let’s say Mike, performing better than I am? Is he more resilient than I am? 

Every few seconds, our brains scan the environment – both physical and virtual – in search of safety. Have you heard of the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”? Our brains may be designed to ensure our survival but when comparative thinking becomes obsessive, the good intention of protecting starts to backfire. 

For some of us, the experience of envy can be one of the main outcomes of this comparative thinking. Under the current circumstances of social isolation, remote work and homeschooling, we may end up stuck with envy.

There is hope. Living among others, even if the others are in our thoughts only, can reveal glimpses of heaven in us. Are you interested in understanding yourself, aspirations and purpose with more clarity? If you are, what may be of particular interest is what can we do about the envy ensuing from the impulsive comparison to others. 

There can be four ways in which we can experience envy:

  1. We unconsciously let the invidiousness manifest in reflective words and behaviours. In the mildest forms of envy, we give The Look. You know, that green with envy look. We may be unconscious about it but the other can notice it even in video conferences. What are the more severe forms of unconscious words and behaviours of envy that you have noticed in others?   
  2. We become aware of feeling envious. Unless we are masochists, we don’t like the taste of suffering that envy brings. Envy is a toxic feeling that burns the heart. What do we do? How can we fix the poisoning effects fast? We shift the blame on the other for making us feel the way we do. Or we find excuses why the other achieved something which we crave but could’t accomplish yet. “Of course, my colleague Mike is performing better. He is in better control of remote work because he has no kids.” There we go. We feel better. Next time we’ll experience this feeling, we’ll rinse and repeat. 
  3. Some of us respond with shame over feeling envious in the first place. We try to ignore the feeling. The ideal self who wants the best of us overrules the envy. “It’s not me to feel this way.” While it’s a virtue to aim at the greatest possible good in ourselves, we end up creating an illusion of goodness when we cannot look at the envy in the eye. It would be like responding to chronic headaches by using affirmations, such as “All is well”, “I am pain free”, “I am healthy”. Do positive affirmations take away the headache? Do positive affirmations lead to understanding what causes the headache?   
  4. The fourth way of reacting increases self-awareness, when we have better odds at gaining clarity on what is the problem and what solutions we can come up with. We can observe the feeling as it arises. If you can, pause to reflect on it. If you’re into the middle of some important task, set a date in your calendar when we can take a break and get curious to understand, “What lies behind my envy? Why do I feel this way?” 

The experience of envy shows us there is a need. Unprecedented situations make us more insecure and whatever unfulfilled needs we may have had before, they become now bigger. I’m thinking of the need for safety, employment needs, status, recognition or self-actualization. One of these needs may be important for us and not fulfilled yet. 

Whenever we experience envy as a result of comparing ourselves to others, we can take it as a barometer of personal or professional fulfilment. The point of envy shows us the status quo of fulfilment. Press reset. Embrace instead the path of authenticity. What aspirations and dreams are dormant in us? 

“Comparing yourself to others is an insult to yourself.” 

Bill Gates    

Each interpersonal interaction is like a mirror that shows us how to know ourselves better. The mirror can show the best sides we perceive in others, which trigger the envy. Press reset. Breathe. Look away from the mirror. Breathe.

Look back at the mirror. What is inspiring about how your colleague Mike is coping with remote work? Breathe. Look away from the mirror. Breathe. 

Look back again. The mirror can now reflect aspects of our ideal selves. We cannot copy and paste others’ best qualities. We can only discover and practice our best qualities. Breathe. Look away from the mirror. Breathe. 

Look back again. The mirror can show reflections of our authentic selves that will help us satisfy the important needs.

In the first days of self-isolation, when I was quite blown by the novelty of the unwanted change, I received messages from a couple of friends who shared their new calendars for the stay at home week.  

It was obvious to me that discipline was my friends’ strength. I was tempted to copy my friends’ action and come up with a new daily schedule to adapt to self-isolation with children. Yet, I’ve always known that discipline is one of my weaknesses and I would not have been able to follow through the schedule. Instead, I chose to look into what purpose the discipline served for my friends? 

What my friends were doing by exercising their discipline was to claim agency over their new lives, turned upside down by the coronavirus outbreak. They created a new sense of control for themselves by writing down a daily calendar of events for their work, for their kids and for their families. 

The human brain loves to have predictability. And since the coronavirus outbreak brought lots of ambiguity and uncertainty, the way to develop predictability is to set up new daily routines.   

The interactions with my friends brought me in front of the mirror of personal strengths. “Mirror mirror on the wall, tell me what is my best strength of all?” I had to find my strength to bring predictability in the daily chaos. And my strength is to take my kids’ perspective and be flexible to their needs. What did I do? 

schedule_6_year_kidIn the morning, as we woke up, I asked them to draw a plan for the day. As you might expect and can see in the above picture, my 6 year old drew all sorts of play activities. Play was my kids’ way to have agency over the changes in our lives. Therefore, day by day, when the energy in the room would be about to get explosive, I initiated some moments of dance and other physical activities with the boys.     

The mirrors that others place in front of us help us see more earnestly what qualities or strengths we may choose to lead ourselves through a trying life situation, such as the coronavirus outbreak.

Hell is other people if we focus on the best selves of others instead of focusing on our authentic selves.


To avoid feeling like a failure when working at home, have a short break of self-compassion

“I don’t manage to do anything.”, one friend, father of 3, mentioned during one of our survival chats this week. “I don’t manage to work. I don’t even manage to go out for a walk.”

Like my friend, after the outbreak of coronavirus, some of us who moved their office work at home may find ourselves caught between the work responsibilities and the responsibility as a parent. How can we expect to have high work productivity in one room, when our kids are crying in the next room? 

To manage the chaos that happens around us, we may need to learn to manage the storm of thoughts going on inside ourselves. A working parent may have the best intentions to finish her report before the next video conference. At the same time, she may want to attend her kids who are getting into a fight because they’re lacking attention. 

At this point, the voice of the inner critic is getting louder and louder. If we chose to spend some time with the kids, the inner critic would scold, “You should be working on your report now.” If we locked ourselves in a room to focus on work, the inner critic would be whispering, “What kind of a parent would do that?”

And to make things worse, the “comparing yourself to others” voice joins the inner conversation, “Other colleagues, some superheroes, like Wonder Woman or IronMan, must be better at managing this kind of situation.”  

The duo of the two voices can bring us down to the status that my friend was talking about. When we cannot work. When we cannot attend the needs of our kids. When we get lost in guilt and shame. 

What can help? We human beings have a paradoxical nature. We have a deep need to be seen and be understood. And we are looking for understanding from those around us. We need family members and friends to say kind and encouraging words to us. Yet, it doesn’t cross our minds to give ourselves first-help.

While waiting for external help, how about being the first ones who understand our own pain? How about telling ourselves what we would tell a friend who needs compassion? “I can see your pain. You’re not alone in this. Let me know what kind of help you need.”   

Self-compassion can be our first-help tool kit. Self-compassion, a term coined by professor Kristin Neff at the University of Texas, refers to the ability to genuinely care for our wellbeing, to accept our negative emotions and have the desire to recover after a setback, such as coronavirus disruption. 

I could relate to my friend’s overwhelm. I have days when I feel exactly the same, torn between work and children. And I feel disappointed both about my work performance and the interaction I’m having with the kids. Is there something we can do in those moments? 

How about giving ourselves a short break of self-compassion? Listen to the inner voice and let it go. Listen to the “comparing yourself to others” voice. Tell it “I’ll get back to you later.” The voice may be trying to tell you something but when you’re in a low moment it’s not the best time. 

What you need in moments when you feel you’re failing at performing a task is to be kind with yourself. It doesn’t mean you start blaming your kids or your boss or any one else for the situation. It doesn’t mean you start feeling like a victim, “Poor me, what a lousy situation I find myself in”. Being kind with yourself means that you empower yourself to take constructive action in the present moment. 

“I realize that now I feel I’m failing more than in other days. What matters most for me at this moment?”

In the long run, what matters most is that these difficult times produce the best versions of ourselves. In the present, what’s more important is to grow aware about choosing one thought over another. 

According to old wisdom, “Thoughts become words, words become deeds, deeds become habits, habit becomes character, and character becomes destiny.” 

And your destiny has great influence over others’ thoughts.