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This week Erin, one of the kids I live with, came to me saying she had a new friend, called Dishy.  She spent a good 15 minutes describing the story of Dishy who, I discovered, was in fact a dishwasher tablet.  There have been other friends too. When she was much younger, she kept a teabag with her.  After she had explained the life of Dishy, I asked whether she would like to have a new teabag friend.  She said yes.  And now the teabag goes everywhere with her.  

This could be a coincidence or a quirk of circumstances, but there is good evidence to suggest that when people are under some emotional stress, as many of us are at the moment, we have a tendency to regress to earlier forms of coping.  I wondered whether this was Erin’s way of dealing with the changes happening around her.  On the surface she is dealing very well with boredom, lack of structure, missing her friends, and teachers.  I think part of her is quite enjoying the attention and not having to go to school.  But Dishy represents a younger form of coping, that may signal a deeper level of discomfort.

Regressive coping is one form of what is called dissociation – a distancing from reality.  This can include acting out, projecting anger or pain on to some other person or thing, and physical tension caused by underlying emotional distress. Perhaps some of those around us are displaying similar behaviours.  On the surface, I think we are good at keeping going amid the coronavirus outbreak. But underneath, the trauma to our personal, social, financial and existential wellbeing is having a deep effect.

There is a predictable pattern to how we experience loss or hurt, as identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. The early stages include shock, numbness, denial, anger and fear.  I would characterise the onset of these as steep descent, although it’s not a linear journey, it is more circular. We cycle around each stage – angry then coping, panic to coping, shock to coping.

As people descend through these early stages, they eventually come to a crucial moment of analysis. This kicks off another phase in grieving which is soul-searching, involving guilt, loneliness, isolation, and depression. Sometimes these deeply upsetting feelings will be overlaid by denial and dissociation.  Rather than experiencing the full extent of anxiety, we will dissociate from it, push it away and focus on other things like rationalising, over-intellectualising, getting busy.

Adjusting to new circumstances is a slow process, and along the way these automatic psychological defences help protect us. We can’t rely on them entirely however. In these early stages of national lockdown, we must actively help ourselves by slowing down the adjustment process. We have no choice – there is a lot to adjust to. We are in unprecedented circumstances. Our ability to make sense of the world around us has been jarred by the disintegration of normal life.

Our systems of coping allow small parts of the new way of things to be processed in our conscious awareness. But large parts of reality are held at bay, below our awareness.  As we gradually get more comfortable with the changes in the world around us, we begin to tolerate them more. Step by step, we accept the new reality – and by accepting it, it becomes a new starting point in making sense of the world.

I think of this gradual step-by-step process as a bridge across the valley of change or grief. It would be nice to leap from loss and hurt straight across to adjustment and adaptation. But we cannot jump that far, at least not in a single leap.  We have to construct tentative bridges, rope swings, and islands of normality to help us complete the journey.  These moments of dissociation, regression, pushing away emotions, rationalising, are part of the coping process.

Such moments serve two purposes. They delay adjustment, but we must also realise that each step in the grief cycle also helps us accept and integrate the new reality.  To eventually get to the other side, in one piece, we must welcome each step of the journey across the valley. And though it may be hard, the journey is necessary if we are to properly adapt. Leaders, managers and teams can ease the process by supporting people along the way:

  • For some, the initial descent will be steep.  It will require time, listening, reassurance, normalising (it’s okay to be feeling what you are feeling).
  • Searching is important for recovery.  We each need space to assess how things are affecting us, what they mean and how to find a way through them.
  • Soul-searching – uncomfortable for some. Leaders might be tempted to bounce people out of this phase quickly, but it is a necessary part of the process. It is grief for the loss of the old ways. When helping someone through it, reminiscing, empathising, acknowledging the pain, personalising communication and being there are all important.
  • Recovery – as the grieving process begins to recede, people will start to feel determined about finding a better way.  Leaders can offer encouragement by playing to peoples’ strengths, providing short, clear goals to work towards, and giving hope and direction.
  • As recovery continues, new strength can be found.  People will begin to believe that “I can do this”, “we are making progress”.  They will see the storm-clouds break up and sunlight start to come through.  This is very different from a “phoney” adjustment that can happen in the very early stages.  True recovery is where grounded progress can be made, it is more real, and rooted in the truth of what is.  Leaders and managers have to maintain a fine balance between positivity and optimism on one hand and realistic progress on the other.
  • Adaptation and adjustment lead us to look more outward than inward, prompting thoughts such as who can we help, how can I support others, what is my role for others in this new landscape?  At this point, you as a manager need to give lots of affirmation and validation of support in the interests of rewarding and recognising the behaviours you want people to maintain.

Two final thoughts. This will not be a linear path, grief swirls back and forth and often involves returning and coping and returning again. It cannot be forced or rushed.  Secondly, a lot of the defences we construct are beyond our awareness. Helping people observe what may lie under the surface is something that good leaders can help with.

There are many articles and internet tips and techniques for dealing with isolation, or working from home, or how leaders can help in a crisis.  A lot of the ideas are well intended but are sometimes little more than quick fixes.  Adjusting to loss has hidden depths that take time to discover. Reaching down to them is not always a bad thing. It helps to remember that after the darkness of night there is a new dawn.  Healthily navigating the valley will lead to psychologically stronger, more resilient, well-adjusted staff on the other side.

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