It’s somehow November 20th. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris performed a double fist bump heard around the world two weeks ago. Four Season’s Total Landscaping is Philly’s hottest new four-person wedding venue. Temperatures are dropping at the same rapid rate that Covid cases are sky rocketing. Climate change is still very much a problem. Racism is rampant. Dolly Parton’s vaccine is likely on the horizon, but not for a while.
Clap your hands three times if you feel like the brown substance trickling down Rudy Giuliani’s face last night.
Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a client who has been going THROUGH it. 20 years old, living back at home with her negligent-yet-critical parents, studying musical theatre….. in the midst of a global pandemic… In the past, when she described her struggles, I’d offer her a quick fix (!) solution. Have you tried meditating for ten minutes? How about doing some breathing exercises? Taking a bath? Writing in your journal? Going for a leisurely walk? Each time, she threw 1996 Shawn Kemp blocks to my MJ shots —waBAM.
This week, I tried a different play.
When she finished unloading everything that was undeniably horrible about her life, I looked her dead in the webcam eye and said:
Of course, because we were meeting over zoom, there was a slight delay in my stating the obvious and her receiving it. Once synced back up, we both burst into laughter. It was like… a valve had been opened, we could finally just release all the bullshit, and just be. “This fucking sucks” was the most honest, clinical description I’d offered this year. This fucking sucks, and it’s okay to say that. In fact, I think it’s really important to say that. While I’m all here for finding whatever self-care/compassion/survival skills work; sometimes, the most therapeutic approach, is to genuinely acknowledge the reality of a situation.
This semester, I’ve been co-leading a “Building Your Pandemic Mental Health Toolkit” group at the counseling center where I’m an intern. The purpose of the group is to help college students adjusting to the “new normal” of Covid-19 through coping strategies and distress tolerance skill building. While our attendance has been sparse, for those few who have joined each week, the biggest takeaway is how necessary honesty is for our mental health. It’s not the hand outs with bullet point suggestions for coping strategies. Not the self-care bingo set, with suggestions like, “Got out of bed” and “took a shower.” Not the “future planning” mindset activity, where students are encouraged to set goals for what they plan on doing when the pandemic is finally over. No. The real healing occurs when students see other distressed peers who are just as lost in all of this. That is the therapeutic process. It’s recognizing that other people feel as screwed up as you do. I don’t believe it’s just that misery loves company, but rather, that we’re craving hearing about other’s misery because — it’s real.
The most consistent feedback I’ve received over the years is that I’m “such a positive person!” While at face value that may seem like a compliment, these days when I hear it, I feel really sad. When someone says, “you’re such a positive person,” in the midst of this shit storm, I feel squeamish because it means I’m doing it again. I’m lying. Avoiding. People pleasing. Faking it all. Because most of the time these days, I’m feeling so anxious, scared, angry and confused. Most of the time, my positivity is masking my real feelings, the ones that are deemed “ugly” and therefore, I’ve been taught, should be covered with a mask.
In clinical psychology, there is the term reaction formation to describe a defense mechanism people may use to reject how, unconsciously, they or their ego really feel. Instead, someone behaves in a way that is exactly the opposite — and often at the extreme in an amplified or exaggerated way.
This type of behavior is usually compulsive – it is difficult for a person to control. The intrinsic need of the ego to protect itself and prevent others from seeing and experiencing what they are really feeling comes from a place of self-preservation rather than one of dishonesty. The reaction formation behavior can become obsessive, with the individual becoming argumentative and defensive if challenged or questioned.
I think we may be struggling as a society with reaction formation. Self-care bingo sets; woke wellness routines; live laugh love plaques. What are we doing here?
I’m not here to wallow just for the sake of it. But I also don’t believe express trains to happiness are running right now. We’re in this for the long haul. We’re talking local, northeastern regional, baby. Slogging up to one dark station after the next. Soggy pretzels. Hairballs stuck between the seats. Peanut M&Ms cracking fillings. Unstable internet connection. Someone’s eating tuna fish on rye one aisle over.
When I started writing this week’s post, I really did have the intention of offering some mental health quick fixes. But it felt forced, and inauthentic. And I am exhausted, goddamn it. Staying creative and motivated is exhausting to me right now. I have to be in this head space, at least for some time. To recognize pain and sadness. To learn to tolerate myself, fully.
So here’s to placing the pandemic toolkit on the shelf in the garage, for now. You are not in need of fixing today. Let’s be real. This fucking sucks. And that is okay.