This is the sixth week that people in Switzerland are quarantined due to the coronavirus pandemic. The situation is the same for many people in many countries. A tough time for many of us.
My biggest challenge so far is to focus on work during working hours and to balance between work and family life. I think a pain point is the paradoxical combination of lack of personal contact and overwhelming virtual information and communication.
On the positive side, here are a few things that I am learning: how to live with emotions, how to communicate effectively, how to master information instead of being mastered, and last but not least, how to balance between life and work. Below I document my learnings and thoughts to be read by my later self. If you find one point or another interesting or useful, I will be more than happy.
Learning to live with emotions
One metaphor (or a hypothesis) may help in learning to live with emotions: riding an elephant. As far as I can tell, it was discussed in depth in the book The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science by Jonathan Haidt. The central hypothesis is that we live with our emotions as if we ride an elephant. We are the rider, and the emotion is an elephant. When the elephant is in good mood, we think that we can fully control it. However, there are situations where we may find it difficult or nearly impossible to control the elephant.
This hypothesis was particularly helpful for me because it made me clear that that we not our emotions, and we have to control them. It is in our nature, likely both hard-coded in our genome by the evolution and soft-coded in our culture, that we have the emotions and we have to live with them and, if we decide to, to control them.
A prerequisite to controlling our emotion is our physical health - the mind-body axis needs to be in a good shape. Eating, sleeping, and physical exercise matter tremendously.
Besides keeping healthy physically, the RAIN technique may help to tame our emotions. There are many articles on the internet about this technique. I learned it mainly from two of them: Manage Emotional Pains with RAINS by Meg Selig, and 你的队友和孩子有没有在家呆到精神失常？ by Xiaocheng Dai (戴晓橙, network ID 橙子, mindbodygarden.com), in Chinese.
RAIN means Recognize, Acknowledge (or Allow, or Accept), Investigate (or Inquire), and Nourish.
- Recognize means that the first step is to recognize the emotions or thoughts that are troubling. Observe them without judgement, just like you are observing weather changing or moon rising. Naming them can also help shrink them to manageable size, for instance ‘I am overwhelmed by virtual communication’, or ‘I am worried for my friends who belong to the high-risk population of the corona virus’.
- Acknowledge means that next to accept the emotion as a reality. This can be tough and difficult to follow. But accepting the emotion as a reality does not mean that you have to like it. It means to nail mental contents, pleasant or not, down under observation and in focus. The aim is to stop the emotions being amorphous. ‘Okay, I am overwhelmed by virtual communication’.
- Investigate means that to use curiosity and analytical ability to analyse the emotion. Talk with yourself with kindness: what triggered the distress? Have I experienced similar situations before? What thoughts and feelings are connected to these feelings? Is my thinking reasonable and realistic? What actions can I take to help myself or another person? What help do I need? What can I do?
- Nourish (or nurture, or non-identification): the thoughts, feelings, and sensations are not you. Step to the side, watch the emotions objectively, and take care of yourself. Do things that nourish you: listening to music, reading a book, or taking a deep breath.
Meg Selig recommends a fifth step, Self-compassion (making the synonym RAINS). It is merged into the Nourish item in the post by Xiaocheng. The key idea is to be friendly, generous, and sympathize with oneself.
It can be challenging for some people, especially those who aim to be perfect, to learn the humanness, imperfection of oneself and live with that. But it is a necessary requisite to emphasize with lovers, friends, and other people.
If you find your emotions nearly out of control, recalling the RAIN my help.
Learning to communicate effectively
Given the special circumstances, it becomes more important to communication effectively. A lot of words are spent on this topic. Here are a few suggestions that I found useful to me. Most of them are discussed in the context of communication between family members. They may help in other contexts, though.
Effective communication needs open discussion of responsibility, which in turn requires that both parties know what they want to achieve: do I want support from the communication partner? Do I want acknowledgement of him or her? Express that clearly, without any ambiguity.
Next, learn to live with being rejected in communication. Being rejected happens often, not only in communication but also in buyer-seller relationships, in job applications, etc. Being rejected does not mean you as a person is rejected. Try to find alternatives and to handle a solution that satisfy both parties.
In short, effective communication involves clear formulation of one’s wishes and thoughts, open exchange, readiness to take set-backs and to compromise.
Learning to master information overload
As said at the beginning, I am overwhelmed by a lot of information around. Not all of them are of high quality - some are more confusing or misleading than helpful - and much of them are of little use at all.
What helped me was to learn to balance being informed but not being sucked. Concretely, it helped to set clear boundaries between activities, both spatial and temporal, and treat ‘information gathering’ as one activity that needs to be separated from other ones.
To focus on the real life - the valuable time with parents, spouses, and kids - also helped. Doing things, however trivial they are, that help other people helped me to stay in touch with my loved ones. It can be just walking with someone, doing exercise with them, or explaining the kids things that they did not understand. What I gained was valuable experience and fulfilling time.
Last but not least, I found doing things alone that I enjoy is a good meditation. It helped me to shred worries and smooth my emotions by making music, reading both scientific papers and comic strips, and writing essays and blog posts.
In short, setting boundaries of activities and finding time both for others and for myself helped me to master information overload.
How to balance life and work
It is a constant struggle to balance life and work. During the corona time, I found it even more challenging to do the balance well. And sometimes I feel ashamed that I cannot work as much as I wish so.
On the other side, I now see the time as a chance to observe the balance from a new light. First, I value learning without goals more. Second, I better see my egos and ambitions, and learn to set realistic expectations and goals for myself and for others. And finally, I learn to observe how I and my family members pursue their goals.
To write about life-work balance will need another blog post. Here, it suffices to state that I am learning to accept the situation, and trying to make the best out of the situation.
This is an ongoing journey. It seems now that many colleagues who work in the office are not able to return to their desks earlier than mid-June. Until then, I have to learn to improve on all these aspects - controlling my emotions, communicating effectively, mastering information overload, and balancing work and life.
Stay healthy, both physically and mentally, whenever possible. And enjoy the precious time with your beloved ones or with yourself.