At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent effects have been bearing down upon us all for a little over one year. While some have experienced its impact as an opportunity for growth, the vast majority of people I have come into contact with have encountered it, generally, as negatively impacting their lives. And while an extensive list could be made regarding what specifically has been adverse about COVID-19, I’d like to spend the subsequent paragraphs discussing one of the main challenges I’ve seen presented in my work with others over the last year: identity.
For ease, a working definition of identity could be broadly posed as “who I understand myself to be.” Within that statement, one may attend to what sorts of statements arise in describing oneself, specific feelings or bodily sensations, certain memories that give credence to the images of the person that is conjured, or even future depictions of who might one day spring forth. Regardless, these different aspects of oneself say something or give evidence to the person regarding who they experience themselves to be. Now, depending on which theorist you talk to, you may get differing responses as to whether an identity is permanently fixed or changes over time; however, what matters is that people generally tend to experience their identity as structurally stable and sound (i.e. I wake up and recognize who’s looking at me in the mirror). Stated differently, most understand themselves as the same person over time with generally predictable behavior, so long as nothing terribly out of the ordinary occurs.
Safe to say, COVID-19 is something some may call “out of the ordinary,” and in many cases, it has presented challenges to who we, as individuals and communities, say we are, as defined by our responses to those self-same challenges. For example, perhaps I saw myself as a hardworking student, but I’ve felt too exhausted with the online format of classes and can’t seem to find the motivation to complete my work. Or, I thought of myself as a loving significant other to my partner, but after finding myself stuck at home every day for a year, I find myself becoming easily frustrated and temperamental. Finally, maybe I was a fairly social person, but through constant messages that an invisible, viral enemy is lurking within everyone with whom I come into contact, I feel cautious to re-engage with friends and family. These are but a few examples of concerns brought in by many I’ve seen in psychotherapeutic contexts over the last year, but the ever-present theme is that these challenges destabilize or upend identity – our sense of who we see ourselves as. To engage with these experiences, I often use the metaphor of how and when to unpack your bag.
Your Identity Bag
I don’t just mean any kind of bag, though. During my time in the military, there were many instances when it was important to have a backpack or rucksack prepped and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Sometimes referred to as “bug out bags,” it is not uncommon to see them in use for emergency preparedness situations, such as keeping warm clothes and a sleeping bag in the car for blizzard conditions or essential living items needed in case of a quick egress during a house fire. These bags offer the necessary essentials to survive during a period of disruption and transiency, a short-term way of coping when home is not accessible. The goal, then, is not to live out of this bag forever, but to be able to survive on the way to eventual settlement.
A subtle, often unspoken implication inherent to the bug out bag is the understanding that “home” will be a new place, whether because the physical space has changed or the person inhabiting it has. In the abovementioned example of a housefire, even if the people who resided there return, neither their experience of or the house itself will ever be exactly the same as before. This change, while certainly not predicted or likely desired, could be experienced in a number of ways – negatively, positively, or a combination of both. Perhaps the fire destroyed meaningful, irreplaceable objects or created “scars” on the house that now serve as reminder of what occurred. On the other hand, maybe the fire created opportunity to begin that new construction that was always wanted but always existed as a project that one would “eventually” never get to.
For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has created many psychological and physical challenges that often warrant the use of a metaphorical (sometimes literal) “bug out bag.” By this, I mean any number of adaptive strategies and coping mechanisms that developed in response to the disruptive impact that COVID-19 presented. As a few examples, some decided to increase their exercise routines, catch up on television shows, start new trends (i.e. whipped coffee, sourdough bread, etc.), spend more time with immediate family and pets, etc.; others, who lost jobs, relationships, or struggled in the transition to virtual platforms were confronted with even more abrupt changes, sometimes warranting consideration of an entire directional life shift. In any case, the relative certainty of life continuing on in a specific direction was uprooted with the advent of COVID-19 – home was lost – and everyone had to pull out their bug out bag.
The problem though, as mentioned above, is not merely that the pandemic happened, but that it continues to happen. Having to use one’s bug out bag is cause enough for concern – it means an emergency has happened – but now that we’ve been living out of a short-term bag for an extended time, the major questions that arise are: “When will I be home, or is returning home even possible? And even if I could return to the place once called ‘home,’ will it truly be the same place I left?” In the context of identity, those same questions may be rephrased as: “Will I be the same person at the end of COVID? Even if I could be, would I want that, or are there aspects of me that have changed outside of my control?”
The Trauma of a Pandemic
In many ways, these questions mimic our understanding of traumatic event mitigation. For many, what a great deal of research shows is that people are resilient in the face of traumatic events, especially those that are shorter in duration and only occur once. This is likely because less change and adaptation are required to make sense of and integrate them, although this is not always true. More complex, long lasting trauma, on the other hand, is likely to carry a larger impact, creating the need for more coping mechanisms and using more energy to adapt. For example, many individuals I’ve spoken to have questioned the possibility of ever returning to work in-person, despite everyone having been vaccinated. Others, who despite missing physical closeness and contact, still vigilantly create more space if passing by someone on the street too closely. These kinds of questions and others offer a glimpse into some of the longer-term deliberations that now may exist regarding how I experience myself, my relationships to others, and what matters.
The term “traumatic event mitigation,” though, is a bit of a misnomer, as it would seem to imply that the experience or effects of such events can be eliminated or erased, such that one could return exactly (or as close as possible) as one was to a pre-COVID state of being. I’ve even heard some say that the experience thus far has been so horrific that they wish they could eventually pretend to live as though it never happened at all. But, in some ways, being conscious of the desire to return to a prior state highlights that we are already looking at it in the rear-view mirror – that it is may not be a place one can return to. What can feel scary is the sense that if we eventually return our gaze to the road now in front of us, there is no certainty as to if it will be the same road we previously expected to be on. Stated differently, when we experience our immediate thoughts, emotions, or body as different to how we understand our identity, it can create anxiety and disequilibrium – a sense of not fully having a grounded sense of self.
While many did not have a choice in what effects COVID had on their lives (i.e. job losses, transitions to virtual platforms, social distancing, etc.), one beautiful human quality remains in the midst – the ability to choose one’s attitudinal stance in response to unexpected circumstances (discussed in more detail elsewhere). By choice here, I don’t necessarily mean that one will be able to change circumstances, what thoughts or emotions arise in response to such events, or even that it will be pleasant – merely that one can choose how to engage with these challenging circumstances. For example, do I “shut down” and isolate myself from others or find ways to continue connecting, even if it feels exhausting? Can I show myself empathy in taking that virtual class, knowing that I may not do as well as I would have done during an in-person class? Does my center of gravity shrink around me, or can I press back against it?
Far from only applying to experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, helping people understand and clarify what barriers exist to them living a meaningful life and what choices may or may not be available in helping to achieve this are prime aspects of all good psychotherapy. If you’d like to learn more about how therapy can help or would like to a meeting with one of our expert psychologists or counselors, please see our FAQs page or schedule a consultation here.