In the last month, our lives have drastically changed. We are no longer enjoying comforts we often take for granted: stability, routine, relative certainty, and, in some cases, financial viability. We are exposed to constantly changing information and guidelines that quite literally involve life and death. Some of us are finding ourselves continually overwhelmed by the increased demands of our jobs and our personal lives, while others may feel lost in a sea of canceled activities and work commitments. We are all concerned about what the future may hold. These sources of stress accumulate. Trying to understand and cope with this pandemic life has stretched most of our resources. As a result, you may feel as though you are on the verge of emotional, psychological, and physical depletion. (I often do!)
The scope, scale, and intensity of this particular situation is truly uncharted territory; therefore, there are no clear directives regarding what we should be doing. However, research on resilience may help us to navigate this difficult terrain. In psychology, resilience is generally thought of as individuals’ ability to bounce back after experiencing serious life stressors. Here, I want to highlight two resources that my research suggest are worth investing in during this pandemic period: identity and relationships.
Identity. The current situation is forcing all of us to adapt. My research with individuals across a variety of fields suggests that in order to act with agility, we need to think about ourselves flexibly. We all have multiple identities that are tied to the various roles and social group memberships we hold. The extent to which we can move fluidly in and out of these various identities, and perhaps even evolve these identities, is critical for us to adaptively respond to our “new normal.” Recognize that what you do on a day-to-day basis may look different from what you were doing last month, and perhaps what you will be doing in a couple of months from now. Because who we are (our identity) is so tightly connected to what we do (or are not currently doing), this leads to an inevitable identity shift. While this may be an unwelcome change, it is important to realize this is not permanent.
While the human psychological tendency may be to retreat and restrict ourselves to the identities that feel most comfortable when we feel threatened, try challenging yourself to broaden (rather than narrow) your understanding of who you are and what you do. This may mean relaxing the rules guiding the roles you currently hold (e.g., good parenting during a pandemic may require more screen time). However, at the same time, this disruption may also prompt you to reconsider and even refine the purpose and meaning of your job. In some cases, you may even find the space to experiment with a new role or explore a new skill, that may enrich your career portfolio. By combatting the tendency to restrict, and thinking more broadly about our “possible” selves, we can help ourselves to become more agile. This identity flexibility will not only provide us with a way to “bounce back” from the current challenge, but it may even help us to grow our capabilities as a result.
Relationships. The general uncertainty and pressure we are facing in addition to social distancing restrictions complicates and strains one of our most valuable resources: our relationships. If we want to withstand and bounce back from this pandemic effectively, we need to invest time and effort into repairing and strengthening them. To do this effectively, we need to lead with compassion. When you feel as though you are reaching a boiling point in an interaction, take a moment to remind yourself that we are all under an enormous amount of pressure and uncertainty even though we may each be experiencing slightly different situations. As a result, we need to anticipate and accept relational miscommunications and breakdowns. These points of tension may be uncomfortable, but they are also the natural result of our circumstances. If we anticipate and expect them, we can create a safe place for ourselves and our friends, family, and coworkers to process their negative emotions. In fact, the experience of confronting and then working through a relational breakdown may benefit our relationships in the long run. Through this shared experience, we can learn more about ourselves and others in a way, that may allow us to work and live together in a more functional way even after our world returns to something more familiar.
Dr. Brianna Caza is an Associate Professor in the Department of Management.