During COVID-19 we were told to stay at home and if we ventured to a supermarket we had to keep our distance and speak through a plastic screen.
This can be seen as having a particular impact on people that live alone. In these circumstances shopping can become an alienating experience, which it can be argued nudges you closer to noticing the existential truth, that we are born alone and that we die alone.
Existential therapists such as Professor Emmy Van Dearzen, argue that by embracing the truth of our social isolation, we can live authentically and begin to chart our own course through life.
The proportion of single-person households was recently estimated at 31 percent in the UK and this is “wholly unprecedented historically, even reaching to 60 percent or more of households in some modern European and North American cities” (Snell, 2017). Social isolation has been a tool employed to protect us since the fourteenth century from the plague, cholera, influenza and now COVID-19 (Tognotti, 2013). However, to see solitude as synonymous with loneliness has been challenged over the years (Storr, 1988). Being on our own can for example give us the opportunity to really focus on a meaningful activity that can lead to us losing ourselves in a rewarding positive flow experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).
Self-criticism for many people is never far from the door and one of the downsides of being on her own is that we hear our critical voice. Imagine you have a harsh critical voice telling you that you should read a book you bought for yourself. The Jiminy Cricket in your head, who Pinocchio has given the slip, says “You spent all that money on that book, and now you’re just watching TV! You never do what you should do it! You start with good intentions but never see anything through!” You begin to feel angry and in your head tell Jiminy to make his way to “Pleasure Island” to help Pinocchio. While the self-critical voice may at first seem to have caused the anger, on reflection it is clear that the anger is a reaction to the emotional pain of experiencing the criticism. Anger can be called a secondary emotion while emotional pain is usually a primary emotion in humanistic-experiential therapies.
The question is how else might we respond to these primary emotions? Well the answer according to therapists of the ilk of Leslie Greenberg and Robert Elliott is to find what these primary emotions need. Sometimes our critical voice may in fact be scared and need reassurance, while the part of us that experiences emotional pain might respond well to a less harsh critic. So for example, if we notice that we are criticising ourselves harshly it is worth noting how that makes us feel. Our harsh critic will often knock our confidence and make us feel despondent; disappointed in ourselves. This feeling may need to be explored further to find where it originates before progress can be made.
For more tools and resources on wellbeing visit: areyouok.gov.im
Here’s a YouTube video recommended by the Scottish Institute for Emotion Focused Therapy
“Lockdown lessons from the history of Solitude” David Vincent
“Solitude: A Return to the Self” by Anthony Storr
“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“Reflecting on this time of lockdown” Emmy van Dearzen
D. M. Snell (2017) The rise of living alone and loneliness in history, Social History, 42:1, 2-28, DOI: 10.1080/03071022.2017.1256093
Tognotti E. Lessons from the history of quarantine, from plague to influenza A. Emerg Infect Dis. 2013;19(2):254-259. doi:10.3201/eid1902.120312