What happened to our capacity for relating?
There is something that I have been noticing for a while now, in every part of my life.
Over the last three years, our capacity to honour working arrangements, connections, friendships, and even simple responses has often become severely impaired. Of course, I include myself in this.
So how have we come to this normalisation of burnout? Behaving as if those around us are disposable, and it is simply too much effort to put ourselves in others’ shoes and understand the consequences of our actions, because we are just too zoned out.
We were already overloaded
Looking back to long before the pandemic, many of us were already at the limits of our capacity to endure stress. This might be due to a minority or global majority identity, past trauma, juggling survival (perhaps with disabilities, housing issues, chronic health issues, and/or chronic financial stress), and the sheer exhaustion of living in a society that is, increasingly, trying to kill us. Then there was and is climate change and the rise of fascism.
Even if we had ‘enough’ resources for the day or week or month, or even the year, and were in good health, the spectre of that changing was ever present.
When you’re already on the edge, small setbacks feel like big ones, and big ones feel like catastrophes. If you haven’t had time to recover from one thing, and another one happens, you are dealing with more than one layer of response, and these layers can quickly pile up. This over time is likely to reduce your capacity for empathy and your energy to receive others’ bids for attention or help, let alone your capacity to respond to them.
The impact of sudden change
We have all had different responses to the pandemic. But one thing is true, that we all had to adapt to Covid-19 very quickly. Over time, we realised our resources were shrinking : social, personal, and financial. While time seemed to stretch, and some felt persistently hopeful that we were almost out of the woods (we aren’t, still), many people found themselves with less energy. Many people stepped away from relating because it just took too much personal resource.
Remember the frenetic activity of those suddenly finding themselves at home all days? Creating mockups of famous paintings using saucepans and pet cats, learning Italian, and baking sourdough. Those whose labour keeps society propped up were neglected, while being expected to keep turning up for work, or they would lose everything.
The pandemic itself
If you have Long Covid, (or greatly fear getting it for all sorts of valid reasons) you will have been navigating that on top of the huge society wide denial by many governments that the pandemic is still happening. A very redundant form of individualism has been normalised and encouraged, as if to check whether others are okay – family wide, community wide, or country wide – is seen as laughable. An infantile notion of ‘freedom’ has been invoked, freedom from ‘lockdown’ which sounds carceral and something to be rebelled against, instead of a way to keep us all safe.
People as a whole have been encouraged since the start not to take the pandemic seriously. So many aren’t wearing masks now, or acknowledging the decreased capacities, and increased access needs, of a significant minority of people. I am sad to see this even in queer/left community. I wrote more about this here.
This is a trauma response
Before you think I am condemning all humans, it is very clear that this negligent apathy is also a trauma response. Many people have been struggling to connect the way they did before. They may have felt abandoned by close people, friends, partners, and the social system they exist in. They may have experienced multple bereavements, both due to Covid-19, waiting lists, or inadequate medical care due to a deliberately depleted NHS. They may have hated working from home, or been laid off work, or lost their business. They may have been evicted by a rogue landlord.
Life has changed, and this is the new normal, but many people still feel that we can get ‘back to normal’ with no consequence. I find this somewhat delusional – but I am well aware sometimes our delusions and denials are all we have in order to remain upright.
Traumatic dissociation is a major driver of what I am talking about in this post. Dissociation is a very valid survival response and most of us fall into it at some time or another. It may for example be masking a flight response, or a freeze, or any other response to overwhelm.
And what is hard to talk about here is that trauma can make us self-absorbed, selfish and worse. Trauma isn’t pretty. The fight response often isn’t, and the fawn safety response (tend and befriend, caretaking, or appeasing) tries to be pretty, but often can only be sustained on the surface. I’ve even noticed a hierarchy of trauma responses – basically fawn is the most acceptable, and fight the least – which deserves unpacking in another post.
How do we reframe our existence, heal, and reconnect?
I wish I had an immediate answer to this.
I admit that I have been shocked to the core by the behaviours and attitudes of people that I thought I knew. And I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve been baffled at being ignored, over and over, when attempting to maintain a collaboration. Again, I know I’m not alone. Endless one-sided initiation feels like a mug’s game, and trust seems in short supply now.
One thing this society does is divide and rule. The more we fight each other, the more we remain divided. I also know that it is not that simple, and in many cases of discrimination there definitely aren’t two equal sides.
I hear people in certain circles criticising individualism and insist on community all the way, especially in terms of transforming society from the extractive to the supportive. Which is fine, but many of us have not been trained in how to be in community, and we have no experience of how to do it at all, let alone well. And when we do try, very often abusers (emotional, financial, or sexual) find their way into positions of power. It happens over and over again.
There is a lot of work to do here, and a lot of healing and reconfiguring. And we have to start somewhere. As in therapy, sometimes all we can do to begin is make the unconscious concious, by naming what is going on and keep it from falling below the surface again.