Last year, as the pandemic took hold slowly, steadily, and then suddenly, I started playing The Sims. For the twelve people who don’t know, The Sims is a video game that simulates life, and allows the player (me) to control the lives of various Sims characters. I could pick out their outfit, choose their job, decide how many hours they worked at said job, whom they talked to, whom they flirted with. I was completely in control; it was one of the only things that provided a sense of concrete escape at that time. I played it on my phone. Everything else on my phone was too overwhelming to look at – the news predicting catastrophe, everyone fighting on Facebook about masks, influencers being purposefully obtuse on Instagram. Nothing soothed, nothing reassured, and nothing felt right; it felt like a sense of internal panic was simmering at all times, boiling over occasionally. I saw it in me, and I saw it in others, especially in the agonizing and agonized ways people implored, demanded, or shamed others into wearing masks and keeping a distance: the fear was everywhere, and suffocating.
Prior to the pandemic, I had never been interested in The Sims, or any video game for that matter. The fantasy of control that The Sims offered during the terrifying transition to an unknown and uncertain world was both totally understandable and almost too on the nose, even for me, a person about as subtle as a Forever 21 statement tee. Almost dutifully, each day I opened the Sims app and maneuvered the characters this way and that, having them go to parties and work, the same monotonous routines. I did this for about a month, until I could tolerate being in the world again, which only happened when everyone else, when all of us, started feeling like we could be in the world again, that through the remarkable uncertainties, there were some things that didn’t falter in our own increasingly private worlds.
I want to talk about two things that I think will be helpful: the diminished capacity to be present that I think that majority of us experience/are still experiencing throughout the pandemic, and the return to that initial terror, and our resulting unconscious behaviors, that the anniversary of COVID can, and will, invite. The theme of this
dissertation blog post is that we need to go back to know where we are. So, although (if you are like me) it might be the last thing that you want to do, let’s think about what was happening for us when the pandemic began last March.
As I will likely die saying … like statistically speaking, I will be mid-sentence saying this and die because I never stop talking about this … our basic needs as human beings according to Dan Siegel are to feel: (1) safe, (2) secure, (3) seen and (4) soothed. If these needs are met consistently and continuously throughout our life, we will begin not only to develop a rich inner world in which we fundamentally feel that we can trust the world around us and that it’s OK to partake in the offerings that life brings, we also develop the ability to soothe ourselves when we the world feels overwhelming, or when a situation that seemed inviting starts to unravel. The ability to self-soothe is not something we, or our children, develop in isolation, and it’s not something that we organically or automatically do (though one of the most soothing things we can do for ourselves is an automatic response: breathing, slowly). Our capacity to self-soothe is carved out and curated only after we have experienced someone else (typically, our primary caregivers) soothe us: their voice, soft and reassuring, becomes our inner monologue, their confidence in us contributes to our resilience. Soothing, security, safety, seeing and being seen happens in connection, in community, in communion, even (and in early childhood, especially) without language.
The reverse is also true: if we don’t have someone or someones to soothe us, or if their version of soothing involves criticism, invalidation, or dismissal, it can be difficult for us to learn how to create a sense of safety in our bodies when life becomes overwhelming or overstimulating: we may instead feel incredibly unsafe in our bodies, searching desperately for some external sense of security or comfort; often when therapists reference “regulation,” we mean the process and tools of tolerating the physical sensations that we experience when our nervous system is activated. Our heart might beat faster when we see an incoming phone call from a family member who never calls us unless there’s bad news; we may experience dread in our stomach when we see on Instagram that a bunch of friends got together over the weekend without us; we may get a lump in our throat if someone in a meeting shuts down our idea without hearing us out. These are natural and protective (more on that later) physical reactions to one of our four primary needs being threatened, and they are uncomfortable, painful, and at times, overwhelming. We don’t like them, mentally, emotionally and our body doesn’t like feeling threatened, either. Almost every part of us – mental, psychological, physical, emotional – wants to feel safe, and in balance. I say “almost” because I think that our spiritual selves know that struggle is part of the process, and that discomfort and pain can reveal our true, remarkable, limitless selves. But I don’t know that for sure, because according to some, I am “not God.” OK, sure Mom!!!!
When we feel dysregulated, which is a somewhat fancy word for feeling off-kilter and off-balance, we naturally want to find balance and regain our sense of equilibrium. This is when we seek to restore our disrupted or destroyed sense of safety, security, soothing, or being seen: we seek to escape the physical or psychic discomfort we are experiencing, and our favorite escape becomes a close friend: enter alcohol, or drugs, or sugar, or sex, or pasta, or Instagram, or cheese, or fleeting relationships, or (at this point I am wondering that if I use another food item, you guys will figure out what my current maladaptive fixation is) seeking validation by texting someone you definitely should not.
We do this, and it works for us.
And sometimes, it stops working for us. Sometimes, that is because we, as humans, are complicated and messy and life, our near-constant companion, is always going to give us opportunities to grow and change and shift, even when we don’t ask for it, like a birthday gift from a friend that you publicly say “thank you so much!” for, and then privately turn to your spouse and say “and what the fuck am I supposed to do with this?” Life if always going to give us stuff that we don’t initially know what the fuck to do with, and sometimes it means that we will need to develop new skills and new tools and new ways of thinking.
Sometimes it stops working for us because of issues in supply and demand. If we have developed an addiction to our escape of choice, which we tend to, our tolerance for it becomes higher and we need more of the substance/experience to achieve the same therapeutic (beneficial) effect. We need more alcohol, more likes on Instagram, more attention from our romantic partner. In attempting to rectify the initial, inner imbalance of feeling unsafe, insecure, scared, or invisible, we have created a different imbalance living outside of us. Often times, these external imbalances have consequences, sometimes significant: we repeat the same dynamics in relationships and end up unsatisfied and unhappy, we annoy everyone we know with our compulsive Instagram posts, we drive drunk, we parent drunk, we show up to work drunk.
Sometimes it’s not the supply, but the demand: sometimes life demands that we live through a pandemic. Sometimes in order to survive said pandemic, life demands that we dramatically limit access to the supply of what makes us feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure: connection, community, and communion with others, with our humans, with our people.
We lost so much this year.
We gained a lot too. But in order to access the gifts, in order to allow the re-frame its meaning, in order to incorporate the lessons of this year, we have to allow in the grief of this past year. We have to invite it in. We have to see it for ourselves. We have to see it for others. We have to create space to see and be seen, to soothe and be soothed.
To be continued: Part 2 coming in a few days.