Carrying the tension between complex emotions: A year into COVID-19

Last week, as we honored the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic, I found myself moving through multiple layers of emotions and experiences that many others also seem to be navigating these days.

Shock that it’s been an entire year. Grief over the 535k US lives and 2.65 million lives lost around the world. Sadness and loneliness tied to not seeing so many loved ones outside my home for over a year. Fear of getting COVID-19 in light of my own health complications. Worry of the burnout rates among our healthcare workers, teachers, parents, and essential workers. Concern for my kids’ separation from friends, teachers, and some of their favorite activities. Devastation for those who have financially struggled over the last year. Anger over the lack of leadership in my state and spread of false information. Heaviness after the last few months’ surges in cases.

And alongside these, I admit to the gift of reconnecting with my children and husband over more meals and midday breaks. Gratitude for mine and my loved ones’ health. Relief due to a more flexible schedule that includes less time spent getting ready each morning. Thankfulness for a job that can be done remotely and for our current technology. Inspiration from the resilience and genuine efforts to care for others among so many. Peace from the increase in grace I’ve received from and extended to others. Hope tied to seeing more vaccines being distributed. Appreciation for the layer-by-layer lessons that were gained over the last year.

All of it can coexist and has for the last year in ways I cannot remember being held side-by-side to this extent in my own life and in the lives of those around me for an entire year.

Honoring the effort of holding the tension between complex emotions
For this week’s episode of CXMH podcast, we decided to reflect on the last year as Robert and I have experienced it. As usual, we went into the conversation with a few questions sketched out and hit record. For those unfamiliar with CXMH, our episodes focus on the intersection of faith and mental health, and the topic of holding multiple emotions at once is often discussed.

What has stuck with me since our conversation this week was the depth of realization regarding how much energy and effort go into mindfully and continually honoring the tension between the complex emotions we carry in light of our current struggles and supports.

We can choose to solely stand with a single feeling or experience, even when other(s) coexist beside it, without acknowledging the other(s). And sometimes, standing beside one emotion or experience is what we most need. However, take for example the grief and gratitude woven in the last year – if we cling to gratitude too tightly and ignore any ounce of grief, we risk bypassing the pain … or if we cling to grief and ignore any ounce of gratitude, we risk missing the gifts worth recognizing. We need to honor both (the best of our ability) within our unique circumstances, but it can be hard to discern how, to what degree, and for how long to hold both.

Others may be uncomfortable with our emotions and might attempt to “should” us into feeling one or the other, but this can actually be really hurtful. Instead, we often need others to simply be with us as we discern which emotion(s) demand to be felt in a given moment, recognizing it’s oftentimes a complex combination of more than one emotion. By identifying which emotions need be felt, we can allow ourselves to feel what surfaces. (A licensed mental health care provider can be a helpful resource through this, which you may find on sites like Psychology Today.)

Layering difficulties and traumatic experiences over the last year
One shared experience for many of us that makes the last year so difficult included the ways we constantly carried the tension between complex emotions. For example, we often held within both grief and gratitude, loss and gain, loneliness and connection, fear and relief, uncertainty and comfort, unfamiliar and familiar, impatience and contentment. And for many of us, these emotions were experienced much more intensely and uniquely than ever before.

Add on the layers of juggling jobs with childcare and virtual school, women quickly dropping out of the workforce, an clearer recognition of racism at systemic and individual levels, a tumultuous election season, the loss of jobs and increased financial struggles for many, the death of loved ones (and mourning virtually rather grieving together, in person), an insurrection, natural disasters (e.g., recent winter storms across the south), a growing rate of addiction and alcohol consumption, rising rates of mental health struggles, and wholehearted empathy for those impacted around us… just to name a few. In fact, the American Psychological Association recently released a statement regarding the arising health concerns related to stressors we’ve experienced in the last year.

Perhaps it’s worth naming that we’ve been stretching between so many often competing and complex emotions over the last year without respite in ways that many of us (individually AND collectively) have never had to navigate before. As resilient as we are, a year of constantly navigating these emotional tensions to this degree is exhausting, and without our usual coping strategies (again, individually AND collectively), we may find ourselves hitting yet another layer of the “pandemic wall.”

Some hope for us in the weeks ahead…
My hope for us these days is that we can name the exhaustion, give ourselves room to feel the surfacing emotions, and allow the tears to fall. I hope that we’ll remember again and again (and again) that no one has ever navigated a pandemic like this in today’s world and that we’re all doing the best we can in light of our current circumstances, knowledge, health + mental health, resources, responsibilities, needs, and supports. I hope we can continue to love our neighbors as ourselves to the best of our abilities as we follow CDC guidelines, receive our vaccines as we’re able to, and consider our summer plans. I hope that as we imagine reconnecting with others in the weeks and months ahead and transition to another version of “normal”, that we pay attention to what we need and honor those needs by meeting them as best as we’re able to. I hope leaders will pay attention to the burnout rates of those they serve and allow the necessary margin to shift into a new workflow and way of being.

Mostly, I hope we honor the ways we’ve stretched and grown over the last year, including around the unexpected levels of effort and energy required of us and the lessons offered to us. I hope we can pause before automatically defaulting into life pre-2020 as if nothing had changed and see how much has changed within and around us.

Finally, I hope we can be excessively gentle with ourselves in the days, weeks, and months ahead and with one another; name the exhaustion in our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits; and continue to practice caring for ourselves well.

We are so worth it, friends. There is no one right way to move through these days and my prayer is that we take the necessary steps to decide what it is that we each need as we continue to take this one day, one moment at a time, to the best of our ability.

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