The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all – but we’re each reacting in a way that is uniquely personal. Major stressors (like a global pandemic) have a way of revealing our individual vulnerabilities, just like a cardiac stress test detects potential problems in the heart.
What is this crisis showing you about yourself? Personally, I’ve noticed that while I’m not worried at all about toilet paper, I do have a big fear of running out of food. If we had more room in our house, I can imagine I’d be amassing quite a stockpile to guard against the possibility of going hungry. As it is, I’ve filled our small pantry as much as possible.
It’s worth taking note of these observations about ourselves because they might reveal something important about who we are and how we meet the world. With the example of my fears around food insufficiency, I suspect they come from a more general “scarcity mindset”, meaning that I unconsciously harbor a belief that resources are limited and fear that there won’t be enough for me and my family. This tendency no doubt is at play in me during other times of stress, and probably has subtle effects on my mind and actions even when all is well.
We tend to stick with comfortable patterns unless we’re compelled to change. The things you’re now noticing about yourself didn’t appear out of nowhere, and they don’t only affect you in the middle of a crisis. They probably guide your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in subtle ways you’re not even aware of, but that influence how you live your life and who you are in your relationships.
What might you learn about yourself from your own reactions to the Covid-19 crisis?
Consider the following areas as you’re taking an inventory of yourself during this time:
Social distancing has changed the rhythms and routines of our lives, which can bring into sharper focus the things we need to stay well mentally and emotionally. It’s easy to overlook our needs when they’re constantly met, and harder to miss them when they’re unfulfilled (like when you’re deprived of air for even a few seconds). I’ve become more aware, for example, of my need for time and space to myself. When alone time was built into my day, I hadn’t realized how much I valued it.
This difficult period can also show you the wounds that you’re carrying, perhaps from long ago. It may be bringing up painful emotions from a past trauma, or difficult experiences from your childhood. If you grew up in a chaotic household, for example, the insecurity of this period could be quite triggering for you.
All of us have ways of defending ourselves when we feel threatened. These defenses may be self-protective, like when a child learns to withdraw emotionally to avoid being overwhelmed by a domineering parent. But at some point, the costs might outweigh the benefits, like if that child grows into an adult who avoids the emotional engagement that true intimacy requires. This pandemic may be triggering a feeling of being threatened – can you notice what defense systems have been activated to keep you “safe”?
All of us have aspects of ourselves that we’re not aware of, which psychologists call our “shadow.” For example, a parent who’s typically kind and patient toward their kids may also be capable of irritability and impatience, and even cruelty. Or someone who is usually thoughtful and generous might also be selfish at times. These hidden tendencies can have powerful effects in our lives—especially if we remain unaware of them.
Like the dark side of the moon, we usually can’t see our own shadow, but it tends to be more apparent during times of stress. For example, conflict with a partner can expose our ability to be petty. Maybe what many of us hate about this pandemic is that it’s revealing parts of ourselves we would just as soon keep hidden away: our fearfulness if we pride ourselves on being brave; our doubt if we see ourselves as people of faith; our fits of anger if we’re usually even-keeled.
Of course, the pandemic doesn’t only reveal our weaknesses and dark sides; it can also show us our strengths. You might realize you’re more adaptable than you knew, for example, or that you have a steady hand in a time of crisis. Maybe you’ve discovered strength or courage that you didn’t know were yours. Be open to all that this time is showing you—good, bad, or bewildering.
Along with seeing your strengths more clearly, maybe you’ve realized what really brings you alive. Someone I know, for example, has been bringing meals to those who struggle to get out and shop for groceries; in the process she's discovered that caring for others is her greatest joy. You might also learn what you’re most passionate about from not being able to do it, like teachers who ache to return to the classroom and be with their students.
If you’re learning important things about yourself, you don’t necessarily need to work on them right away. It might be enough to get through this period more or less intact, without trying to tackle pandemic self-improvement. If that’s the case, think of this as a time of self-discovery as you gather up your observations. Simply acknowledging the reactions you’re having is a big step. You can figure out what to do about them later on, including the possibility of addressing them with a therapist.