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Picking up the pieces through connection

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Verse from Funeral Blues, W.H. Auden

The themes of “Funeral Blues” are grief, love, death, mourning and unhappiness, much like the themes of the pandemic we still find ourselves trapped within. Over the last year, 3.2 million people are reported to have died from COVID worldwide and over 16k in Portugal. Entire lives and families have been and are still being destroyed during this pandemic. Despite the arrival of the vaccine in some parts of the world, we still have a way to go before this period of loss and grief is behind us. Still, there are yet other losses which are more elusive and less talked about.

They are the immense non-death losses, which are harder to record like income and financial security, faith in leaders, shattered dreams and hopes, connection with families and communities, mental and emotional wellbeing and profoundly a loss of sense of self. The heavyweight of these non-death losses is dragging many into the depths of loneliness, anxiety and depression. The effects and costs of these losses are often not given attention and understanding in our communities and sometimes even judged, labelled and dismissed.

There is no escaping loss, one way or another. Despite our current physical distance and disconnection, we are all bound together by our experience of loss.

Whichever type of loss we face, we tend to be left feeling a similar range of emotions, including the lesser talked about – loss of sense of self. A sense of self can be lost, for example, when you lose a loved one and the way you see yourself might change as a result.

After losing her husband of 45 years, a client said to me: “I am no longer his wife, I am a widow and that just doesn’t feel like who I am.” Another client who had lost his employment said: “I defined myself by what I did and what I earned, and now I am not sure who I am. I find that I’ve lost my place in the world somehow.”

Loss of connection with a loved one, with a job, with income and with community can all lead to a loss of connection with oneself.

A connection with ourselves or sense of self refers to the ways we perceive, describe and evaluate ourselves in relation to others. When we think of our sense of self, we might think about our qualities, our defining characteristics, and our responsibilities in the world. It sounds very individual. And yet, our sense of self is heavily influenced by others around us – we grow up in and with our communities. And so it follows, a loss of connection with our community can lead to a profound loss of self. We can feel lost within and to ourselves.

“We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.”

Dalai Lama

Our sense of self, our communities, our self-esteem or self-worth and happiness are all interconnected. A simple conversation with someone can lead to us learning something about ourselves, and can lead to us working through a difficult issue or emotion. We depend upon our community to learn about ourselves and so, with the disintegrative effects of lockdown, we can easily come to a standstill or even come to a place of self-disintegration and loss of self-worth, the effects of which can be long term and dramatic for our society.

Whilst we have been taking care of ourselves and each other by keeping our distance, we may have been inadvertently losing ourselves as our community life has diminished. We may also develop self-protective measures where we may have unconsciously become recluses and anti-social, or lost confidence in our ability to be social.

How then can we ensure we don’t lose our sense of self? Here are some scientifically researched ways to connect with and build our sense of self:

Remember we are social animals. Loneliness can produce a sense of lost meaning. We need to feel life is meaningful, and deep relationships are a vital way many people create and enjoy meaning in their lives. Reconnect with people you may have lost touch with, that you recall having a deeper connection with. Or find ways to help rebuild your community. Reach out to others who may be lonely and losing their sense of self. We all have a need for human contact, to give and receive attention. Giving attention is as important as receiving it.

You can build your self-worth by consciously thinking about and identifying your personal values, and then make choices that match your values. Building your self worth through connection with your values and not social status, wealth and a job is deeply rewarding and means your sense of self remains within your control.

Working on your wellbeing and improving your self-care are other routes to self-esteem which are connected to a strong sense of self. You can make a list of all the activities that make you feel good and start scheduling them into your diary. Isn’t feeling good that important? It seems so obvious, but we easily forget to do things that make us feel good. We can even also easily forget what it is that actually makes us feel good. And we can also forget to stay present in that activity so we actually truly, deeply, feel good.

Work on building your self-compassion, be kinder to yourself. How could you treat yourself more like you treat your valued friends?

If you have lost a part of your identity, through life’s losses, remember nothing stays the same; even your identity can be in flow. Rebuild a sense of yourself by asking yourself ‘what are my qualities and characteristics now?’ Find someone who has experienced a similar change in sense of self and talk with them.

Be an observer of yourself. This will help you be more attuned with your inner self. When a situation occurs, take a step back and watch your thoughts and feelings without reacting immediately.

See challenges as a way to know yourself better, accepting we are always changing and willingly accept the challenge.

And, just maybe, something good can come of this.

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