Empathy Overload: Thoughts About Life During Coronavirus Lockdown – by Lynn Findlay

“You will never understand, how it feels to live your life, with no meaning or control, and with nowhere left to go” (Pulp, Common People, 1995)

I am finding during lockdown, as I forge new routines and try to create a new structure to my days and weeks, I have vivid memories which pop into my consciousness. Like many other people right now my emotions and anxieties fluctuate across the day; some hours feel normal and its all okay. Other hours are spent endlessly reading news articles, with my thoughts focused on nothing else except when this will all be over.  But other times I find I lose myself in memories from the past.

In general, I am doing more of everything we can do, but at different times and in differing quantities and for different purposes. I am eating more (for routine and boredom rather than nutrition), running more (to get outside and move, rather than following my training plan) and sleeping more (less at night, with daytime naps). I think it’s what is now referred to as the ‘new normal’.

I have also noticed that I am thinking differently. I switch between reviewing my life and existence so far to hopes for the future and the potential changes (for the better) that this pandemic will bring and create in our society. I don’t know what these will be, when they will happen or how they will come about, but the thoughts of a better life emerging for many people keeps me going sometimes. I need an optimistic hour in my day.

 A proper job?

Its been a while since I studied my undergraduate degree in psychology, taking my small-town working-class upbringing into a new world of higher education. My Dad, a traditional working-class patriarch believed in ‘proper jobs’ and ‘women’s work’ (largely the work which we are now hugely valuing and appreciating by previously unsung keyworkers), he wanted me to finish school and get a proper job, not ‘poncing around at university studying nonsense.’

Although despite ‘poncing-off’ to Uni to study psychology ‘mumbo-jumbo’, taking my working-class accent, values and expectations into a largely middle-class world. I have retained and strongly value many aspects of my upbringing; a stable family home, with a working parent and the overarching value of only, buy what you can afford.

In the current situation in lockdown these values have resurged. There is less to buy, only what we need, not want, and the ability to continue working is a privilege. Sometimes I feel I am living in the past, and that lockdown is recreating many aspects of my childhood but in a globally connected online world.

Inspiring Common People

I have always loved music (listening not singing, being tone-deaf gets the way) and always found lyrics inspirational and motivational (as a student revision days always started with a blast of Whitney[1] and Irene[2]!).  Yet during my psychology degree, the lyrics from one song particularly resonated with me and I feel shaped my future career path.

My background taught me to take people at face value, I was oblivious to many identities and these were expressed or projected. So, at Uni, I did the same at first, the student look, the clothes, the accommodation, always skint, until I visited my new friends in their parental homes across the country. A world away from my northern home.

I realised some people did pretend they had no money and live like Common People and do whatever common people do because if they called their dad, he really could stop it all. [3] This was true. I was seeing these lyrics with my own eyes. The song came to life. It was real.

I guess back then this was a lightbulb moment and the start of reflections about myself and other people. I guess that’s also why I was studying psychology because I was interested in people’s minds and behaviours. But it was also the start of empathy and that I didn’t want to leave my roots behind.

I valued my values too much. I knew I wanted to work as a therapist at some point in my life, but it wasn’t the right time for a fresh-faced 21-year-old in 1995. I rejected a career path in psychology and entered social work, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help people.

Fast forward 25 years and this pandemic is both creating equality and highlighting inequalities which have remained part of our society but hidden if you don’t really want to find them. Its been easier until now for society not to really see, or feel, or understand. Even if we did see and empathise as deep and hard as we can, do we or did we ever really understand?

“You will never understand, how it feels to live your life, with no meaning or control, and with nowhere left to go” (Common People, 1995)    But now I do. Much more than before.

Empathy overload

The lockdown has highlighted the separations that were always there, for those whose homes are safe spaces versus those where home isn’t the sanctuary it now needs to be. For those with a garden, or outdoor space, money, a job to return to, a job which is safe to be doing right now, and many other dichotomies which show lockdown isn’t a safety net, but makes life harder physically, emotionally and psychologically.

As a counsellor, during lockdown, all sessions have moved to telephone or online. I continue to follow my relational training and seek to promote and offer the core conditions for empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard to my clients.

I have experienced moments of relational depth and deep connection where I am being alongside my clients, and not trying to do or solve something as my social work mindset would tell me to do. Since lockdown, clients have commented this is what life is like for them all the time (paraphrasing) and I have noticed I am beginning to develop a new level or type of empathy.

This is a type of empathy which is experiential in real-time. Not just experiential through having shared past experiences, where we are encouraged to deal with these issues in our own therapy and /or supervision, but current, shared experiences at all levels. These are shared emotions, fears and hopes, and shared experiences during a worldwide situation which is out of most of our control.

For the first time, I do genuinely understand, how it feels to live your life, without (a familiar) meaning and control, and where there are a lot fewer places left to go.

Lynn Findlay

Bio: Lynn is a social worker and trainer with over 20 years’ experience working with children and families. Lynn is a counsellor, with a Diploma in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy, and is currently practising within the NHS.

Lynn is on twitter @lm_findlay and can be contacted at lmfindlaycounselling@outlook.com Her personal blog, called Perfect Pacing, is all about running and therapy, is hosted at lmfindlaycounsellingandtraining.wordpress.com

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96aAx0kxVSA

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILWSp0m9G2U

[3] Reference to lyrics by Pulp (1995) Common People https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuTMWgOduFM

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