It’s OK Not to Be OK in a Pandemic

“Everything is going to be OK” is a mantra that many of us tell ourselves—and yearn to hear from others—when we are trying to get through hard times. Not being OK is scary. It can even be terrifying. Most of us fight hard to get back to being OK as quickly as we can. And, there’s a flood of advice out there on how to do this. Go for a walk. Create something. Work out. Engage in something productive. Call a friend. See your therapist. Breathe. Meditate. Tell yourself: “I’m OK.”

But sometimes it just isn’t true. Sometimes we are not OK at all. And our bodies know it. Our psyches, minds, and hearts know it. If telling yourself “I’m OK” while breathing deeply does not increase your inner peace, if it leads to stifled crying or outright sobbing, if you find yourself shaking while wanting to curl up in a ball, you are not alone. Plenty of us are not OK. And whether we were already coping with depression or anxiety, burning out on caregiving, trying to survive or escape domestic violence, trying to start anew as a refugee, living life while targeted by oppression based on our race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, ability, socioeconomic status, age, and so on, so many of us were not OK even before COVID-19.

If telling yourself “I’m OK” while breathing deeply does not increase your inner peace, if it leads to stifled crying or outright sobbing, if you find yourself shaking while wanting to curl up in a ball, you are not alone.

A traumatic stressor the magnitude of a pandemic, logically evokes a similar magnitude of stress within us: we experience the automatic physiological and neurological stress response that allows us to do whatever it takes to survive a major threat. Our muscles are primed for kicking or hitting or running, if that unconsciously seems to be the most likely means of surviving. Or we freeze, when we unconsciously know that fight or flight are not going to help us make it out alive. Or we fawn, when we unconsciously know that persuading an aggressor that we are on their side will result in less harm now—and a greater likelihood of escape later. But our bodies don’t know that none of these automatic stress responses are actually going to be effective against the chronic traumatic stressor of a viral pandemic.

Amidst this stress, we may have few to no answers for countless questions that may not have had any urgency just a short time ago. “How will I or my family survive the financial impact of no income—for weeks or even months?” “If a member of my family gets really sick, how will we pay for medical care with the insurance we can barely afford—or with no insurance at all?” “What if someone I love dies?” “Who will raise my children if I die?” We may push such questions out of our minds in one moment and go round and round with them in another. In a time without threat, such avoidance might be considered sensible and such perseveration might be considered problematic. But now, if we haven’t already done so, we really do need to research the steps of how to designate a power of attorney, draw up a will, and select a guardian for our children. We really do need to make our best possible choices in a confusing and ever-changing context with a multitude of factors that are completely outside our control. And we need to do these all while our minds, hearts, and bodies are repeatedly experiencing fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

So, we are not OK. And not being OK is a logical response when we’re navigating life during a pandemic.

If you are crying at this point, take the time you need to cry—if at all possible. The crying does not need to be stopped. It is not the hurting. It is the healing. You may need to walk away from reading this until you can find a time when a child isn’t needing your immediate attention. You may need to pause until you can find a moment away from an abuser, so you can be who you really are and not what they demand that you be. If you are an essential worker (and thank you so much for all that you are doing), you may have to wait until you are done with your shift, rather than about to end a break to go right back to helping scared people buy groceries, disinfecting a thousand surfaces, delivering package after package, or providing medical care for those who are sick or dying. Pause if you have to pause. And, then—when you can, no matter how long it takes—come back to the crying. It is profoundly good to cry when you are not OK.

Among the most important things we can do when we are not OK is to make space for that truth.

Among the most important things we can do when we are not OK is to make space for that truth. To make space to honor the questions, the tears, the shaking, the exhaustion, the loss, the grief, the trauma, the injustice, the powerlessness, … the authentic experience of being human during a major crisis. By definition, making this space is hard to do. Sometimes it is impossible for long periods of time. Sometimes we have so much on our shoulders that we can hardly find the time to breathe, much less to settle into the pain of our humanity, still less to recover from settling into that pain. For we know that we also need time to bring ourselves back to some semblance of functioning, so we can keep doing the things that we must do in everyday life. And because we know this, we can find ourselves just holding it all in, increasingly worried that our hearts are becoming dams that could crack and break with the force of everything we cannot feel, much less express.

And that breaking is OK, too. People with hearts care. We love. We yearn for goodness and justice. And when that caring and loving and yearning are met with loss, injustice, and trauma, our hearts do break. That is the completely logical response for a loving heart in such times. Our broken hearts need to grieve like a river needs to flow—with thoughts and feelings that come and go, come and go, and come and go again. We may need to weep a torrent of tears that carries our grief outside of us, rage at the sky (so we don’t rage at our loved ones), pound a pillow in the futility of our powerlessness, speak our truth (or write it in a journal), pull weeds with a vengeance, hammer nails into wood, …. Just let the river flow, because grief is the gateway for choosing life. Grief is not where we stay; it is the journey through which we heal our broken hearts and learn to live again.

Just let the river flow, because grief is the gateway for choosing life. Grief is not where we stay; it is the journey through which we heal our broken hearts and learn to live again.

With time and space in which to grieve, we can move through the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses that we automatically and repeatedly experience when experiencing traumatic stress. If we can find ways to honor the truth that we are not OK, we can, paradoxically, become more OK. We can learn to move more fluidly between the rising and falling waves of all that we feel. We can be less afraid of being humans who, quite naturally, are not OK right now. And, with the compassionate honoring and releasing of at least some of our emotion, we may find that we actually can go for a walk, create something, meditate, work out, engage in something productive, call a friend, see a therapist, breathe, and tell ourselves: “I’m OK.” Because it’s OK not to be OK in a pandemic.

Take good care,

Cynthia

Suspecting Narcissistic Abuse

This post is for readers who are just suspecting that their partner may be a narcissist who is targeting them with narcissistic abuse. You may have stumbled across an article, book, or website related to narcissistic abuse and had a very uncomfortable light bulb go on in your head. Or someone may have told you that they think your partner could be a narcissist.

One of the greatest challenges in the journey you are just beginning is taking in the full reality of the chasm between who you thought you were in relationship with and who you actually are in relationship with. People like you, with the capacity to love and provide empathy to others, find it profoundly difficult to take in the horrific reality that someone who has claimed to love them—and who, at times, has behaved in what seemed to be a loving manner—could so intentionally want to cause them significant harm. While you know full well that everyone (including you and me) is capable of making mistakes and hurting others, most of us don’t intentionally try to cause others significant harm. Doing so is literally mindboggling to most people. Unconscionable. We cannot wrap our heads around this horrible truth. In trying to make sense of it all, we experience what is called cognitive dissonance.

When the human mind encounters new (to us) information that conflicts strongly with our pre-existing beliefs, we experience cognitive dissonance—which often comes with an unconscious tendency to reject the new information. That new information could be, for example, receiving a new and serious medical diagnosis (we ask in disbelief, “Are you sure, doctor?”) or being told that someone we love has died (we cry out in shock, “No! It can’t be true!”). This tendency to automatically reject new information that conflicts with our pre-existing beliefs is not a character flaw. It is not something we do willingly or knowingly. The physical, emotional, and cognitive stress we experience because of the contrast (dissonance) between what we have believed and the new information is so great that our minds automatically seek to reduce that huge stress. Humans only have a couple of basic options to try to feel less stressed: 1) change our beliefs (which also necessitates changing our behaviors) so they align with the new information or 2) minimize, discount, or otherwise reject the new information.

Before we talk more about these two choices, it’s important to know that a fundamental part of narcissistic abuse is gaslighting: a control tactic of psychological manipulation used by narcissists to cause targets of their abuse to doubt their own experience of reality and, therefore, to doubt their sanity. In brief, some of the ways that narcissists do this is to accuse their target of being “too sensitive;” denying that something happened (when it actually did); projecting their own cheating, lying, and abuse onto their target; and repeatedly lying. These behaviors (and many more) are engaged in gradually, sporadically, and increasingly, which makes them much harder to recognize than if they were first engaged in abruptly, consistently, and blatantly.

So, let’s go back to exploring the two basic options for reducing the major stress of cognitive dissonance: 1) changing our existing beliefs (and behaviors) to align with the new information or 2) minimizing, discounting, or rejecting the new information.

When you are in a relationship with a narcissist, just a few of your existing beliefs may include:

  • The narcissist currently or used to love you
  • You should honor your commitment to the narcissist
  • If such-and-such challenge (e.g., your relationship skills, your helping the narcissist overcome a personal challenge, something you may be at fault for) is lessened or eliminated, the narcissist will behave in a more loving manner and you will be able to have your dreamed-of future with the narcissist
  • You have been wrong in multiple ways (generally defined by the narcissist who is using gaslighting) and are the one who is causing major problems
  • If the narcissist does not love you, you are unlovable
  • The failure of the relationship with the narcissist would be your fault and be evidence of your incapacity to create a loving, healthy relationship in the future
  • Getting involved with the narcissist shows you are fundamentally flawed

Changing these kinds of beliefs is extremely difficult. It takes time, energy, effort, grieving, and often specialized support (e.g., counseling) to do so. These beliefs go to the core of your being. You are not a failure because you are unable to change them in an instant. No one can change them in an instant. No one. And, as the victim of narcissistic abuse, you have already been gaslit, which massively undermines your capacity to trust your own perception, experience, and judgment. Having been gaslit by a narcissist is a huge barrier for changing beliefs like the ones listed above and is also a huge barrier for taking in new information about narcissistic abuse.

In addition to the difficulty of changing deep (and often initially unconscious) beliefs after narcissistic abuse, there’s the profoundly challenging reality of barriers to ending an abusive relationship. You may fear—or know—that:

  • You do not currently have the ability to financially survive on your own if you leave (often due to financial abuse by the narcissist)
  • The narcissist will slander you widely if you leave (or has already done so to make it harder for you to leave)
  • You will have no social support if you leave (often due to isolation created by the narcissist or the narcissist being “a pillar of the community”)
  • The narcissist will hurt or even kill you and/or your children if you try to leave
  • You will not be able to afford legal protection for you and/or your children if you leave
  • You will lose your children to the narcissist if you leave
  • The narcissist will harm your pet if you leave
  • You will not be believed and/or will be judged by important others if you leave (e.g., family members, friends who are also friends with the narcissist, leaders and members of a house of worship if you belong to one)
  • Due to the abuse you have endured, you do not yet have the emotional, physical, cognitive, and social resources needed to make the huge life changes involved in leaving anyone, much less involved in escaping a narcissistic abuser
  • You do not yet know how to engage in the huge and complex work of leaving the narcissist

And, in addition to these barriers, targets of narcissistic abuse are impacted by trauma bonding with their abuser: the involuntary development of addictive biochemical patterns that result from intermittent reinforcement in the form of behavior that occasionally appears loving scattered throughout abusive behavior. Trauma bonding creates strong physiologically based barriers to leaving an abuser. Again, this is not a character flaw: it’s the result of having a human body and of how human bodies biochemically respond to being the target of repeated abuse.

Back to cognitive dissonance…. These fears and realities pose very real barriers to option 1 (changing behaviors in ways that would align with changing beliefs so that they align, in turn, with new information about the narcissistic abuse you are enduring). People typically need to “buy time” before they can escape narcissistic abuse. Option 2 (minimizing, discounting, or rejecting the new information) allows that time to be bought. It is psychologically unbearable to take in the full reality of narcissistic abuse and then not be able to leave your abuser. Victims of narcissistic abuse need time to grapple with immense cognitive dissonance, learn more about narcissistic abuse, and try to get into a better position that makes it possible for them to start changing at least some of their beliefs, as well as to develop a plan to try to surmount the very real barriers that they face when trying to leave a narcissistic abuser.

So, if you are struggling with learning that your partner may be a narcissist, know that you are not alone. No one can take in the full reality of narcissistic abuse instantly. It is, quite logically, a very difficult journey that involves much cognitive dissonance and the need to find support as well as to prepare to face the many barriers to leaving an abuser. Your journey is likely to have many stops and starts. You might leave, return, and leave again. Anyone who judges you is simply wrong. If you can safely do so, try to find others who are on similar journeys so that you can experience the validation you need and deserve as you find your way out of narcissistic abuse.

I’ll be writing more about narcissistic abuse in the future.  For now, I hope that this post is helpful to anyone newly suspecting that they have been the victim of narcissistic abuse.

Cynthia

Pregnancy Loss and Infant Death: Understanding Grief and Trauma

Pregnancy loss and infant death can be devastating experiences that leave expectant and new parents in shock and deeply grieving. In addition to experiencing many painful symptoms, parents can worry about whether there is something wrong with them for feeling how they feel. While anticipatory guidance doesn’t eliminate grief, it can assuage fears about grieving and clarify what is normal after loss has been experienced.

My newly updated information sheet, Pregnancy Loss and Infant Death: Understanding Grief and Trauma, offers a brief overview of the nature of grief (and how it differs from depression), trauma, and the kind of support that can be helpful. Here’s an excerpt….

The loss of a baby during pregnancy, during birth, or after birth can be an indescribably painful and devastating experience. In the beginning, parents may feel a sense of disbelief, numbness, and shock. They may feel like their dreams for the future have been cruelly wrenched from them. They may experience guilt and ask unanswerable questions: Why my baby? Why me? Their arms and hearts may ache with emptiness. The reactions of friends and family, co-workers, and strangers may reflect ignorant insensitivity or the deepest compassion. Unfortunately, many societies do not fully recognize pregnancy loss and infant death as real losses, often leaving bereaved parents feeling invalidated and alone in their grief. Parents may feel great pressure to act as though they have “moved on” when they are actually still grieving and they have been changed forever by the living and the dying of their baby. They may quickly realize that few people are able to listen to them and to support them in their grief. Learning about the normalcy and healthiness of grief can be a critical step in finding ways to grieve well.

Cynthia Good

You can read the full information sheet for free here. I hope you find it helpful. And, if you have experienced pregnancy loss or infant death, I am so very sorry for your loss.

Cynthia