This article first appeared on Joana's blog here.
Joana Breidenbach holds a PhD in cultural anthropology and is a well-known social entrepreneur and author. She is co-founder of betterplace.org, Germany's largest donation platform. Together with Bettina Rollow – an experienced facilitator, executive coach and senior advisor – she has recently launched the course "The Future of Work needs Inner Work", based on the book of the same name, which offers various online resources helping you design your future of work. You can sign up for the course here at a significantly reduced rate, or by using the code TBDCOMMUNITY.
I don’t know about you, but after just two weeks of home office, I’m already sensing the onset of cabin fever. Wikipedia defines cabin fever as “the distressing claustrophobic irritability or restlessness experienced when a person, or group, is stuck at an isolated location or in confined quarters for an extended period of time”.
I hear from my colleagues at betterplace that they, too, feel confined and trapped (even though Berlin is not, as of yet, under complete lockdown like many other places). It is now becoming apparent to what extent public spaces contribute to our sense of wellbeing: the Café where I buy my morning coffee, the small encounters and lively interactions with my colleagues, and the concert where I get to switch off and tune in to an entirely different frequency. Who would have thought that I miss even the train rides through Berlin, the hustle and bustle of so many different people?
That we can be reduced to our physical body is an illusion; the space which we experience as part of ourselves is often much larger. This space contains everything to which I can relate, everything that touches and reflects me.
Another aspect of cabin fever is uncertainty about when the confinement is going to come to an end. While I love silent meditations and can endure even extreme conditions for several weeks without too much difficulty: they are always fixed periods of time; I can count on there being a given end. But who knows for how long we’ll have to slow the spread of the coronavirus, when a cure or vaccine will be developed, herd immunity will set in, or the virus itself loses its virulence?
Individual fears and personal clarity
Many of us are currently tense, nervous or afraid. Fears concerning the future are especially common, and rightfully so, given the effect the pandemic is having and will continue to have on the economy. Much can be said about how things are going to be very different after the coronavirus.
But even those of my colleagues who are not directly at risk of losing their jobs are asking themselves big questions: “Am I doing something that’s really important?” “What is my contribution in all this?” Against the foils of life and death, concern for relatives, and a violent shock to the entire system, the importance of many professional activities appears relativised.
Many of the fears we’re experiencing right now, however, are only partly fears of TODAY. Many of us have, as of yet, little to worry about from an “objective” point of view. To some of us, our own reactions appear out of proportion to what’s really going on in our lives. It’s likely that the current events are triggering preexisting fears. If I currently feel helpless, lonely and trapped, this may be connected to my own past as much as to the situation at hand. Unintegrated experiences from my childhood, during which I felt overwhelmed or alone, are reactivated, and with them the helplessness of the child that is unable to face complex challenges on its own.
I am then flooded by intense emotions and lose the critical distance necessary to realistically assess the situation. In this state it’s difficult to have recourse to our “grown-up” competencies with which we’re usually able to master taxing situations.
Our society finds it difficult to distinguish between what’s happening (on the outside) and what I as a human being (on the inside) am experiencing. Often we lack even the language needed to discuss these experiences with each other. So we feel isolated in our fears and uncertainties…
An example: When we introduced New Work to the betterplace lab, it was very helpful to reflect about the balance between two fundamental psychological needs: our need for safety one the one hand, and our need for freedom on the other. The new forms of work, without fixed hierarchies or clear role descriptions, with free choice of place and time of work, deprived employees of many heretofore given securities. Many employees retreated into themselves. To deal with this, we had to foster stability, orientation and safety from within. We did this by getting to know ourselves better. We explored questions such as: from where do I derive safety? For what can I use my freedom? What are my needs? And – particularly relevant to the corona crisis – how do I feel when my freedom and autonomy are restricted?
If I have an inner map upon which I can locate my own feelings, experiences and needs, I can stay cool even in times of crisis.
Mastering tensions and fears as a team
In the corona crisis, our individual experiences meet with a deep collective insecurity. When everybody is unstable, there is a limit to how much we can support each other. Different team members will have different reactions to the situation, some retreating into themselves, others lashing out and becoming demanding. This fragmentation is reinforced by company hierarchies, because people in different levels of that hierarchy will be dealing with varying fears and foci. A well-earning top manager will be concerned with different problems than an employee afraid of losing their job.
To stick together as a team in times of crisis, we need an exchange and mutual understanding of how we experience the crisis and what we need in order to master it.
Can we come together and share our fears, the stress of working from home with our children and partner, reflect upon how this affects our work and determine our current needs? Can I show myself with my worries – about my personal situation, the economy, the future of our political system, about dependencies that are now becoming visible? Especially now that we’re all stuck in our home office and are cut off from most conventional communication channels, it’s important to create a sense of interaction, community and solidarity.
Staying connected to myself and the world
This pandemic is driving something home, something we’ve theoretically known for a long time and have had an intuitive inkling of since we first saw our blue planet from afar, from the perspective of the first astronauts: earth is ONE ecosystem and everything in it is connected. Not just since the 20th Century, but for thousands of years the world has been a scene of mass migrations and intercontinental contact. But this fact is difficult to grasp, we being humans socialised in local communities. COVID-19 forces us to engage with the fact of global interconnectedness. Global complexity is currently clashing with predominantly local mechanisms of stabilisation, political and medical institutions, and world-views.
How can I encounter this complexity without becoming overwhelmed?
Learning to integrate worries and fears
It’s draining to keep our worries and fears about the virus and its effects at a distance. Resistance is exhausting. So how can I integrate my tensions and fears into my daily work life? How can I stabilise myself when the things that usually give me security – colleagues, routines, coffee machines – are absent in my home office?.
Do you know your needs in this situation? And can you talk about them not only with your family and friends, but also with colleagues, clients and partners? In our experience, worries and fears change when they are “moved”, that is, when we, instead of encapsulating them in ourselves, transform what was frozen fear into energy through communication.
Something that has proven helpful to me is presencing my own goals and priorities by, for example, writing about them. That way I can connect to myself, drive the fog away and become rooted in something concrete. Even free spirits are often thrown back on elementary levels of consciousness in times of crisis, and find it helpful to create order in the outer world. Many people tell me that they’re currently cleaning up their apartment, decluttering their cellar or doing other activities that build up outer structures.
If I succeed in connecting to myself, grounding myself and getting a sense of what motivates and attracts me right now, my daily life feels meaningful and charged with energy again. From the contact with my inner movement, the next step I need to take usually follows quite naturally. And through all this I can learn to be with my tensions and fears – to ground myself in them. (For example, after one such reflection, I started – after decades of not practicing – to play the piano again, and I’ve noticed how good it has been to learn something new during these past few weeks.)
Such an inner practice can help me hold and ground myself in the tension inherent to such moments of crisis (instead of collapsing from being overwhelmed).
Key to this is the competency of holding tension and ambiguity.
Cultivating a culture of exchange within your community
In our experience it’s essential not to attempt to master difficult emotions on your own. In teams, conversations can loosen up, ground and regulate rigidities. The goal is to bring our worries and fears into connection, not necessarily to resolve them.
Of course it can also be counterproductive if team members wildly trumpet out their fears. In the current media landscape dominated by fake news, collective panic can easily arise. Make sure to tune in to each other when sharing; attempt to speak in such a way that you can stay connected to your emotions. And listen to your colleagues in just this way, paying attention not only to their words, but tuning in to them holistically.
The following series of formats suggest themselves for fostering a productive exchange:
- Check-Ins and Check-Outs at the beginnings and ends of meetings
- the Iceberg-model, to make visible the root causes of our behaviour (in this article you can find an illustration and a short description of the method)
- Sharing Circles, for example, in triads, to create space for deeper exchanges
With all these exercises, but also during the meetings themselves, it’s important to include the body. Especially those of us that work digitally are often so stuck in their head that it’s easy to forget all about the body. But only through the body – when I feel my feet and legs, am conscious of my breath, etc. – can I relax and ground myself. Now is the time to practice those well-known tricks – regularly getting up from behind your desk and walking around or, given that no one will see you do it, engage in even wilder activities like jumping around or hula hooping.
In your virtual team communications, expand your range of subjects to include things you usually wouldn’t talk about: remind yourself of what connects you with each other, what collectively inspires you, what goals you pursue. What do you have to offer each other under these exceptional circumstances? In your attempts to support each other, however, don’t level your differences. Stand by your individuality and your own perspective. Attempt to hold the conflicts and ambivalences that may arise from your diversity.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to realise that, after this crisis has passed, you as a team have significantly broadened the range of what can be said and shared amongst you?
Next time you’re overwhelmed by anxiety, remember: get in contact with yourself and your colleagues. Observe what’s going on inside you without attempting to avoid it. Connect to your body and ground yourself in your feelings. Try to connect with what’s important to you, with what unites you with your colleagues and is meaningful to you.
You are interested in the topic and would like to find out more about it?
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Joana Breidenbach holds a PhD in cultural anthropology and is a well-known social entrepreneur and author. She is co-founder of betterplace.org, Germany's largest donation platform. In 2010, she founded the betterplace lab, a think tank researching the use of digital technologies for the common good. The betterplace lab has evolved from a hierarchical organisation to one which is radically self-managed. In line with her interest in digital-social innovations, she supports initiatives such as the ReDI School, CRCLR House and TEDx Berlin. Joana invests in impact-oriented startups such as Clue, DeepL, nebenan.de and The Next We. As a European thought leader she is a highly sought after speaker and advises ministries, foundations and companies.