Expect Less of Yourself
August 19, 2020 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Science journalist Tara Haelle writing on Medium about coping with the uncertainty of the pandemic: Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely. “The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,” says Masten. When it’s depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?

“Our culture is very solution-oriented, which is a good way of thinking for many things,” she says. “It’s partly responsible for getting a man on the moon and a rover on Mars and all the things we’ve done in this country that are wonderful. But it’s a very destructive way of thinking when you’re faced with a problem that has no solution, at least for a while.”

That means reckoning with what’s called ambiguous loss: any loss that’s unclear and lacks a resolution. It can be physical, such as a missing person or the loss of a limb or organ, or psychological, such as a family member with dementia or a serious addiction. “In this case, it is a loss of a way of life, of the ability to meet up with your friends and extended family,” Boss says. “It is perhaps a loss of trust in our government. It’s the loss of our freedom to move about in our daily life as we used to.”
posted by Bella Donna (41 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know why I keep reading these articles when they all say the exact same thing, and I don't know why I ever think what they say will be different.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:12 AM on August 19, 2020 [29 favorites]


This really hit home. At the beginning of this, I was extremely productive - in fact, it was great. I convinced myself I would use this quarantine of a couple weeks (hahahaha) to finish some writing projects and things of that nature, as all in-person research was shut down and I was given this seeming "gift" or time to just sit on my couch and finally finish a bunch of projects I'd been meaning to wrap up for a year.

As it went on, my productivity tanked. Big time. And though I have always been prone to depression, this was a sort of new kind. My brain was so tired and foggy, I couldn't find the motivation to do much of anything. I started playing stupid games on my phone which I had never really done. I started binging House Hunters International. Zoom happy hours went from novel to a chore to just not happening at all. Then you get into that spiral where you become more depressed because you aren't being as productive, which makes it harder to be productive, and so on.

I'd love to say I have now found a way to deal with it all and settle into a sort of normalcy around the whole thing but that wouldn't really be true. Every day is a struggle. My wife and I have a joke we share almost every night now that I think we saw somewhere on Twitter: "It's tonight already? What's next? Tomorrow? Fuck this."
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:14 AM on August 19, 2020 [57 favorites]


That's a great post, Bella.
posted by Wordshore at 9:23 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]


Dear diary, it is Monday, March 463, and
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:38 AM on August 19, 2020 [36 favorites]


“Our culture is very solution-oriented, which is a good way of thinking for many things,” she says. “It’s partly responsible for getting a man on the moon and a rover on Mars and all the things we’ve done in this country that are wonderful. But it’s a very destructive way of thinking when you’re faced with a problem that has no solution, at least for a while.”

This reminds me of Paula Kamen, author of All in My Head, her memoir about her chronic migraine. She got a severe headache one day in 1991 at the age of 23, and although the pain and other symptoms can range greatly in severity day to day, it has never gone completely away in all that time. She has tried every possible remedy, from neurosurgery to a vibrating hat off eBay, and though she has found some things that offer minor relief, nothing has ever proven to be a cure.

She has said that there's a prevailing ideology in our culture that one mustn't ever give up until one solves a problem, but that she found her quality of life only got better when she accepted that, while she remained open to trying new medical options that might come along, she was in chronic pain and might be for the rest of her life, that there was at present no solution for it, that she didn't know whether her headache would get better or worse or stay the same as she aged, and that she was simply going to have to accept that and deal with it and live her life as best she could. Accepting her condition as permanent and irresolvable made it possible for her to plan more realistically, to come up with strategies to adapt, and gave her more peace of mind.
posted by orange swan at 9:57 AM on August 19, 2020 [40 favorites]


I think that's what's so hard to accept...that life may never go back to normal for us. The uncertainty of that is so exhausting.
posted by tiny frying pan at 10:18 AM on August 19, 2020 [6 favorites]


I just got in trouble at work for missing the deadline for my annual review...because I "insubordinately" wrote "LEARN HOW TO DO MY JOB IN A NEW GLOBAL AND ECONOMIC CLIMATE" as my "goals".

It was rejected by HR.
posted by lextex at 10:21 AM on August 19, 2020 [66 favorites]


these articles make me so frustrated. my employer hasn't adjusted their expectations at all. if anything, they've gotten even harsher as my industry has had to adapt on a dime. my employer doesn't give a fuck if i'm at my breaking point or even if i have covid. they've already fired multiple people because our revenue is gone, so i have to work harder than ever and be exceptionally perfect so that i don't get fired too. so, sure, i can be gentle with myself because i've been gaining weight and eating more takeout because of the just BLAH of living in pandemic times. but no one else is being gentle with me, or understanding that productivity may be lessened because of burnout. fuck capitalism (and i work for a "non-profit").
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:32 AM on August 19, 2020 [45 favorites]


i work for a "non-profit"
UGH, all my sympathies, forever. They are the absolute worst to work for.
(Sample size: 1) (Maybe there are some good-to-work-for ones, who knows. Mine sucked because management was all wannabe moguls, nonprofit or no, AND we were supposed to want to work for the sheer joy of "contributing.")

PS: thank you for this fab post--this is exactly what happened with me. I'm utterly without motivation after a couple months of frenetic productivity. I am currently staying somewhat functional by cosplaying my life. I pretend to be June Cleaver/Peggy on Mad Men. Yesterday I put on some kitten heels to walk down the hall to my home office. Then when I'm tempted to binge frosting videos and risk getting canned, I remind myself that it's the 1960s so, yay, COVID doesn't exist but boo, neither does YouTube, so if I'm bored and exhausted, tough, I'll have to wait 'til coffee break and then go smoke a bunch of cigarettes with the girls from the typing pool.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:53 AM on August 19, 2020 [17 favorites]


God, yes; what would I do without snarking around with the girls from the typing pool?
posted by allthinky at 11:11 AM on August 19, 2020 [3 favorites]


Obligatory onion link. This is a great article, thanks for posting it. I love the line "the destruction is, for most people, invisible and ongoing" — this is very true, and exactly the kind of thing we deal worst with :-/
posted by ianso at 11:16 AM on August 19, 2020 [9 favorites]


I'll have to wait 'til coffee break and then go smoke a bunch of cigarettes with the girls from the typing pool.

I will say that resuming my smoking habit has been actually super helpful. I previously had not smoked in well over a decade, but there's something about it that feels appropriately defiant and resigned.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:33 AM on August 19, 2020 [8 favorites]



I don't know why I keep reading these articles when they all say the exact same thing, and I don't know why I ever think what they say will be different.


This.

I realize the "there is absoluely nothing you can do, things will suck forever, try to get used to it and not be so hard on yourself" is the only reasonable advice anyone has to give at all anymore. But seriously, every time I read it, I sink a little deeper into the morass and wonder whether it isn't high time for me to start smoking again.
posted by thivaia at 11:38 AM on August 19, 2020 [11 favorites]


Looks like I picked the wrong pandemic to quit smoking.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:50 AM on August 19, 2020 [14 favorites]


There's always vaping. :D

Seriously though, I can only speak for myself and say that the lack of any sort of ending to this is taking a deep toll on my mental health. It would be one thing if someone said "Well, we should have a handle on this by X." but nobody is, and while I intellectually understand that and can't really hope for anything different, emotionally I'm craving for some sort of deadline that I can count towards. I feel that I've taken a couple steps back in my pursuit of better mental health, and am having a difficult time dealing with it currently.

Admittedly, it could be worse yet my day-to-day existence has been getting more and more tedious trying to avoid that elephant in the room.

Good luck to everyone and here's hoping that there may be some sort of end to this somewhere in the not-too-distant future.
posted by Sphinx at 12:02 PM on August 19, 2020 [3 favorites]


The irony of it is, I personally reached this kind of long-term stress point in my own life back when the recession happened. That was the kickoff for ten solid years of unrelenting, if-it-isn't-one-thing-it's-another levels of sucky stuff that kept happening again and again and again, which knocked me down from my trying to climb back up and out of it like Sisyphus. It definitely had an affect on me.

Perversely, all of that ended about a week before the pandemic hit; I finally found a good job that was finally going to stay put, and finally was at a point where I could finally have wherewithal for a good quality of life. Then this all happened. So while I'm still stuck sitting around the house like a lump, I'm doing so with that ten-year millstone of "what if I can't make rent" finally lifted up from my shoulders. Which is still a net positive, and that's had an enormous impact on how I'm coping.

My point being - this kind of long-term stress can be grinding. And also, that sometimes the path out of it may not be the one you think.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:09 PM on August 19, 2020 [24 favorites]


misanthropicsarah, word. I also work for a nonprofit, and we've all been expected to be at 110% since the lockdown started. And I do feel like I have an extra obligation to show up and be amazing because I don't have kids, and I know I'm lucky to even have an income right now, let alone one that doesn't require me to put myself in physical peril every day, and the work of nonprofits is so much more important now that so many people are suffering in new and terrible ways. But ugh. I feel stupid and foggy and useless and terrible always, and resentful about the six hours of video calls I'm on every day, and I just hate myself for not performing even at the level I was pre-pandemic, which wasn't enough on its own. All of the existing problems in my head just got amplified. Some days I get really bogged down by the fact that I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel, there's nothing in life to look forward to, and nothing I do will ever be enough for my org, because we're pushing a boulder up an endless hill and expected to be inspiring to others while we're at it. Even evenings and weekends feel like a shapeless wearying slog, in which I just feel guilty for not getting more done around the house. The workday occurs, I hate myself for not being more productive. The workday ends, I hate myself for not being more productive. What's even the difference?

I feel guilty for mourning the changes in my life since this started, because at least I'm fortunate enough not to be mourning any people yet. But fork, man. I'm not proud to learn that I would not have been keeping calm and carrying on during the Blitz. I would have been a useless sack of useless, like I am now. My ancestors had the pluck and determination to move to a foreign country and survive wars, and I can't seem to get through....staying inside my house for a few years without turning into a potato.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 12:37 PM on August 19, 2020 [9 favorites]


It was rejected by HR.

Not that I wouldn’t prefer a simple, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely approach to the world as it is - but I don’t believe HR saw any. Possibly if we replace “measurable “ with “heuristic “.
posted by clew at 12:48 PM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]


I haven’t been reading all of those articles, so I did not notice it was a rehash. The idea of surge capacity was new to me. Moreover, different people come to different things at different times. Call me a late bloomer. So personally I found the article useful in several ways although, of course, annoying as well. It featured many high achievers, something which I am not. Despite not being a high achiever, the pandemic has still been fucking hard on me and everyone I know.

Also: The single most fucked up place I ever worked was a nonprofit. I hope things get better for you, misanthropicsarah, bowtiesarecooland everyone else struggling at work and elsewhere.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:53 PM on August 19, 2020 [7 favorites]


It featured many high achievers, something which I am not.

I mean, same. It is laughable to be advised to ask less of myself when my entire life before the pandemic was built around asking as little of myself as humanly possible.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:29 PM on August 19, 2020 [24 favorites]


I also work for a nonprofit, and we've all been expected to be at 110% since the lockdown started.

Same for me - I work in student services at a large public university. Demand from work was huge, starting in March, and then in July, I had 1/2 of someone's else's job added to my already more-than-full-time job because she retired and we have a hiring freeze and can't replace her.

Asling less of myself basically means giving everything to work to meet that firehose of expectations there, and having nothing left over for myself. At the beginning of the pandemic, my doctor was going on about all the "extra time" I would have to exercise and eat well, and I got very snappy with her then because I was drowning at work, and that was even before I was given the additional job duties.

I'm trying to make it to September, and then I am going to seriously consider leaving my job because I've hit the wall on dredging up energy.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 1:56 PM on August 19, 2020 [8 favorites]


It is laughable to be advised to ask less of myself when my entire life before the pandemic was built around asking as little of myself as humanly possible.
This is perfect. I wish you lived in my neighborhood.
posted by Don Pepino at 5:44 PM on August 19, 2020 [2 favorites]


I think that's what's so hard to accept...that life may never go back to normal for us.

But like . . . what if your life was never "normal?"
posted by aspersioncast at 5:48 PM on August 19, 2020 [3 favorites]


Fuck, I started smoking again too.
posted by STFUDonnie at 6:03 PM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]


Tobacco companies must be loving the hell out of corona times.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:47 PM on August 19, 2020 [3 favorites]


Ugh, misanthropicsarah, bowtiesarecool, See you tomorrow, saguaro, what is it with nonprofits? The expectations are so laughably unrealistic that it seems pointless to keep trying to meet them. Things eased up briefly in July, but I was too burned out to do much more than stare at my monitor while wrestling with the vague feeling that Things Needed To Be Done. Every day feels like walking through waist-deep molasses. Just. Molasses. Everywhere. All the time.

And now the ED wants certain staff to return to the office. Just the lowest-paid ones who can only afford to take the bus, and who have spent five months demonstrating they're perfectly capable of doing their jobs from home. They can ride the tiny elevators and share the high-traffic restroom with unmasked strangers because...??? If gods forbid anyone contracts it at the office the ED will claim plausible deniability and refuse the workers comp claim. After all, we're a nonprofit. We probably couldn't afford what that would do to our premiums, and what would our clients do without us?
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 11:21 PM on August 19, 2020 [8 favorites]


natural disasters occur over a short period

Tell that to the dinosaurs.
posted by fairmettle at 11:54 PM on August 19, 2020


Or Californians.
posted by jamjam at 12:47 AM on August 20, 2020 [4 favorites]


orange swan, that's an interesting link you've made. As a chronically ill and disabled person, there's been so much over the last few months that has felt like watching abled people be suddenly thrown into the world I've been living in for years, and struggling to adapt in very similar ways. Not just in practical ways, but the loss of certainty, the loss of a fairly fundamental unexamined confidence that you have some idea what tomorrow, or next week, or next year looks like - and the idea that you have control over what it looks like.
I feel like starting an advice column.
posted by BlueNorther at 1:53 AM on August 20, 2020 [14 favorites]


Just the lowest-paid ones who can only afford to take the bus, and who have spent five months demonstrating they're perfectly capable of doing their jobs from home.
Same at my dopey institution! It is stunning.
posted by Don Pepino at 5:32 AM on August 20, 2020 [5 favorites]


Ironically - I loved the non-profit I worked at, and I also was mainly working in HR where they looked at you funny if you didn't use your vacation time. It was still a problem because they didn't pay me enough to live on and I had to bail.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:39 AM on August 20, 2020 [1 favorite]


BlueNorther, I have chronic fatigue issues, and yes, when I see people having to learn to deal with things I've been dealing with for years, such as extreme isolation, I think, "HELLO AND WELCOME TO MY WORLD."
posted by orange swan at 6:54 AM on August 20, 2020 [9 favorites]


I surprised myself in late July by organizing a collective action because our department head wanted all the staff back in the office, had not communicated how we would be safe doing that, and was very vague about things like having a computer for work and for home so we could only work part-days.

I'm not really much of a leader type but I texted all the staff affected, asked them if they wanted to sign a letter, wrote the letter, sent around several drafts and then sent it to the department head with everyone's names signed. I was like, well, if I get fired at least I don't have to go back to the office.

However, the end result was that the dept head relented and we're allowed to stay at home (working our asses off around the clock.)
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 10:53 AM on August 20, 2020 [10 favorites]


the loss of certainty, the loss of a fairly fundamental unexamined confidence that you have some idea what tomorrow, or next week, or next year looks like - and the idea that you have control over what it looks like

BlueNorther, you described that perfectly, and I want to subscribe to your newsletter.
posted by rogerroger at 1:31 PM on August 20, 2020 [3 favorites]


unexamined confidence that you have some idea what tomorrow, or next week, or next year looks like

Heck I never had much faith in the next week or year but I did used to have a fair grasp on the next 8-10 hours and lately, not so much. I remember a conversation about ordering dinner that took place in the morning and ended with "I mean, if we make it to dinner."
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:01 PM on August 20, 2020 [8 favorites]


"At this point I don't even buy green bananas anymore."
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:30 PM on August 20, 2020 [7 favorites]


On top of all of it—or maybe beneath is more accurate—is the deep, smoldering rage that it didn’t have to be anywhere near this bad. And a large part of that can be ascribed to a single individual who will probably never pay any kind of price for it aside from, perhaps, humiliation.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:25 PM on August 20, 2020 [11 favorites]


BlueNorther, I have chronic fatigue issues, and yes, when I see people having to learn to deal with things I've been dealing with for years, such as extreme isolation, I think, "HELLO AND WELCOME TO MY WORLD."

Yeah but like...did you emerge into that world full of acceptance and peace on Day 1? Or did you flail around and grieve your old life and generally feel like this was a shitty thing to have happened? I mean it'd be great if we all just could be completely zen from GO about losing everything we ever cared about or were, but it's not especially realistic. When we've all been doing this for years, as you have, maybe we'll be better at it.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:13 AM on August 21, 2020 [3 favorites]


I think one thing that is particularly disorienting about this too is the lack of a sense of shared sacrifice, and of meaning in sacrifice. It's one thing when you have a crisis and people have to give some things up temporarily for the greater good. It never hits everyone equally, but there is at least the sense of purpose and doing your part, and the prosocial impulse to rally around and help one another through difficulty. My sense, from talking to people who study this for a living, is that this is indeed what tends to happen in the short-term, spatially restricted disasters we're used to.

It's entirely another thing when all around you, you see people who contesting the existence or gravity of the threat or even deliberately sabotaging our ability to respond to it, employers who are demanding people physically come to their clearly non-essential jobs, governors who insist on opening the economy even though we all know exactly what will happen if they do, etc. The communities that should be coming together and getting stronger and helping one another in response are splitting and fighting and exploiting instead. It puts you in the bizarre position of feeling like maybe you're the crazy one for taking serious precautions against a disease that has likely killed 200k Americans since March. The isolation has become two-fold, first because of the realities of physical distancing, and then, on top of that, because it has started to feel like you're going it alone.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:12 AM on August 21, 2020 [8 favorites]


I did like this video from Mark Freeman about The Stockdale Paradox. The main point is that optimism in a situation like this is toxic and delusional. The tips he mentions for responding are: 1. start with data and honesty about your current situation, 2. pursue supports instead of solutions (related to the ideas expressed in the link), 3. keep success close (things you have control over in the very short term), 4. save your energy for what you can control, 5. practice trusting yourself to handle the worst possible scenario (which is different from holding out hope that things will magically change).
posted by en forme de poire at 9:24 AM on August 21, 2020 [9 favorites]


Thank you for posting that video link, en forme de poire. I found it very helpful! It feels less helpful for people to call out individual posters IMHO. Also, it’s not like this is a contest. I’m pretty sure that the shittiness of the pandemic is even shittier for people with chronic conditions and/or are marginalized in other ways because that’s kind of how this fucked up culture works.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:24 AM on August 24, 2020 [5 favorites]


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