I spent the first eight weeks of Lockdown 2020 in Quebec City. I am sharing here what I learned about self-compassion that helped me through anxiety and the emotional pain of isolation. This essay is an updated piece from my Facebook post in May. For people’s comments and reactions please visit here.
Stuck in Quebec City during Lockdown
We own a small condo on the edge of the old city just across from the train station. We visit La Belle Province every summer. In the winter, we rent to students. It needed an update, so I was there in March to complete a renovation during spring break
The day I travelled there, I heard some unsettling news that alerted me to the seriousness of the developing pandemic. The NBA halted their season. In Quebec, Montreal looked terrible, but Quebec City appeared to be weathering it better.
We had a contractor to prepare the apartment for the installation of a new kitchen and bathroom. Everything appeared to be proceeding normally. Our contractor, with my help, had gutted the place. The bathroom had a new surround tub. There was no kitchen. Crammed into my bedroom were furniture, fridge, microwave and an unplugged stove.
Then everything came to a sudden halt. Premier Legault announced a cessation of all non-essential business activity on March 30th. The sub-trades left. The place was in a shamble.
This surprise came as a significant shock to me. The reno was half-finished. Thinking that it was going to be a short pause, my wife and I agreed that I would stay. But what I thought was going to be a three-week hiatus turned into a two-month stay under trying conditions.
The problem was that I was unprepared for an extended stay. I did not have groceries, and the messaging from public health was Stay Home Stay Safe! I tried to book a grocery delivery, but they were already overwhelmed, and it looked like I could not get delivery for several weeks.
The news on the internet was grim. Older men died from the virus more often. Some family’s lost their fathers and husbands suddenly in the prime of their lives. Here I was, alone in a clutter away from my family with little contact with the outside world. That is when my anxiety began to set in.
Ellen’s advice: “Be kind to yourself!”
At the start of the lockdown, I listened to an Instagram Live event sponsored by Brittney Andreesen of Wildfire Women. She was interviewing a Kelowna Life Coach, Ellen Reimer of Inspired Counselling & Coaching, about her advice during the pause in life activity brought on by the government’s effort to “flatten the curve” and prevent hospital overcrowding.
Ellen had practical advice about maintaining a routine and getting a good night’s sleep, etc. She also emphasized the importance of self-compassion. “These are unprecedented times. Life is not normal, so be kind to yourself,” she said.
Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the suddenness of the changes and the difficult circumstances, anxiety was a problem for me. My nervous system was telling me there was danger. Older men with a specific blood type and underlying health conditions were more at risk. I fit the profile. I have struggled with anxiety over the past year during my return to faith. Now it was back with a vengeance. Being kind to myself was a nice sentiment when life is predictable. My situation felt more precarious than predictable.
Fortunately, through the power of online tech, I was able to connect with my friends at our local church in Kelowna. Interacting with them via Zoom and then watching the online Sunday service was helpful. Kudos to Matti and Jodie Koopman, the pastors at New Life Centre Kelowna, who have poured themselves out being present online. It was a real lifesaver for me.
Sue (my wife) and I connected daily on the phone. We had a family Zoom call every Sunday. I had some “spiritual juice” during the weekly New Life prayer meetings and some encouraging words from the prophetic team as well as a prayer from Alexander’s Life Group. But overall, I felt I was sliding into a deep dark well.
Laura Duncan’s Story
Pastor Matti Koopman reached out to me and asked how I was doing. I told him it had been a rough time and that I was struggling with anxiety. He sent me a link to some YouTube videos featuring a woman named Laura Duncan.
Laura Duncan is from Redding, California. She has a life consulting business that helps clients get to the root of life problems. In a podcast at The Connected Life (episode 24), she shares her story (Spotify Podcast link).
The defining event in her story is that her 31-year-old husband contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease and died after 18 months. During her seven and half years married, they had produced four children. She shares her experience of his slow decline and death. It was a hard story but inspiring.
One point that particularly struck me was her emphasis on the importance of “processing the pain.” For her, there was the emotional pain of the sorrow of losing her husband. Then there was the pain of missing his presence in her life. It was the ongoing pain of loneliness. The memory of her husband and her life with him became wrapped in this pain of loneliness. Every time she came to reflect on his life, she felt the pain of being alone.
Getting through her pain of loneliness, was important not only for herself but also for her four children who had lost their father so early in their lives. Unless she could take care of her pain of loneliness, she could not appropriately memorialize him. Once she processed the pain of her loneliness, though, she could create space in their lives for the positive memory of her husband and the children’s father.
It struck me that emotional pain was a problem for me in a similar way. Over my 60 years, I have accumulated a lot of emotional pain. As a child, my parents did not teach me how to process my emotional pain. Emotions and the feelings that came with them were not welcome in my home. So I have always had trouble identifying and describing my subjective feelings. Without the ability to express these feelings, my emotional pain never got grounded adequately in a healing process. Alone, in a tense situation, I felt the weight of all my unresolved emotional angst. I needed to process my emotional pain.
Stuck in my emotional pain
Listening to Laura Duncan, I realized just how stuck I still was in my pain. Whenever I would think of connecting with someone, I would first check my “pain ledger.” If there were pain unaccounted for in that relationship, I would defer connecting with them to avoid bringing up that pain. In this way, I protected myself from further pain, but I also disconnected myself from essential relationships.
I remembered an incident in my family of origin when this all began. It was Monday, November 17th, 1975. I was 16 years old. A classmate named Charles Taylor had been killed in a car accident two days prior. It was announced at a school assembly the Monday morning. I brought the news to our family dinner table that evening. Since it was my mother’s birthday, my father told me to keep the news to myself so as not to disturb the event. I could not. I broke down, weeping at the table. All the accumulated grief of previous emotional experiences piled up, including another death of a classmate the previous year from leukemia. I made a scene, and I ruined my mother’s evening.
Later in life, when painful events occurred, this pattern repeated itself. An untoward incident happened. I became emotional, I told myself to control my feelings, but I was not able to, and when they erupted, I felt ashamed, so I stuffed my emotional pain.
Thus, I developed a “shutdown” reflex. This “shutdown” reflex was there to protect me from potential pain or embarrassment, but it also meant I did not have permission to have emotions nor feelings nor even needs since they all came wrapped in the shame of a potential meltdown.
This problem was playing itself out during my time in Quebec City. The emotional pain of my isolation and the loneliness had bound itself around me, such that I had difficulty reaching out for help. For those who could help me, each had their own “pain ledger.” This problem was the pain that I had not dealt with regarding them. To connect with them, I felt I had to deal with the pain first. But I did not know how to do that since I had trouble identifying and describing it, so I avoided asking for help.
Laura Duncan’s Big Solution: Self-Compassion
Laura Duncan’s big solution to this problem is self-compassion. She teaches her clients how to be kind to themselves. She helps people find a way to process their pain by practising self-compassion with themselves. According to Laura, self-compassion is how we are with our feelings towards ourselves. It is the ability to practice understanding, acceptance and love towards ourselves.
Self-compassion was a foreign concept for me. Honestly, I was ambivalent towards myself. I did not indulge in self-contempt, but I also was not enamoured of myself. I recently grew a beard so I could look different in the mirror. I felt I was looking more like my dad as I grew older, which was not a positive thing. He had always shaved, so I decided to change my look by growing a beard. Yet, seeing myself in a beard did not give me warm regard towards myself. I was kind of “meh” when I thought about myself.
For people like me, Laura recommends getting a picture of yourself as a child. I found one in an old photo of my grade seven class. I was the youngest boy in the class, so I looked smaller in comparison with my classmates. I liked it because even though I was smaller than the other boys, I saw myself as “plucky.” The point is that seeing yourself as your child version generates a feeling of warm regard towards yourself that enables you to extend compassion to that younger you remembering your moments of disappointment, shame, and rejection.
Next, you “visit” your younger self in the form of an adult you remember who was kind to you as a child. For me, this was my teacher in my grade three class, Mrs. Westmacott. She was a kind soul, always there to listen to me. She would say things like, “I can see you are trying so hard, Michael. Take all the time you need. I am so proud of you!”
A thought experiment in Self-Compassion
So, I decided to try practising self-compassion by using a thought experiment. I was going to see how Mrs. Westmacott would deal with a younger version of me who was experiencing the loss of his friend.
I imagined Mrs. Westmacott sitting at her desk in my grade three-room. I come up to her in tears. My classmate and friend has just died. I am so sad. She reaches out and takes my hand. She looks into my eyes. She says, “oh dear, I am so sorry for your loss, Michael. What a shock. Your friend has died. You must feel so sad,” she says. “He was my best friend!” I cry, “we were playing together the other day. I miss him so much.” “I understand, Michael,” she says. “I know it hurts. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to miss your friend.” I spend some time crying as she holds my hand. She quietly pats me on the shoulder and stays with me as I grieve.
With this thought experiment, I offered understanding and comfort to my younger self via the memory of Mrs. Westmacott. I feel validated in my feelings. I feel comforted. I feel understood. I feel like Mrs. Westmacott gets how I am feeling. I feel felt. And when I feel felt, I can let the feelings go. I can resolve the emotional pain. I can forgive. I can trust again. I can connect again.
This support is what I needed from my mother and father at that moment at the dinner table. They had no concept of the importance of the validation of emotions. Disconnected from their feelings, it is no wonder they were unable to attune to my feelings. There was no compassion at that table.
Now, however, I have a new memory. A memory I created to extend that compassion to myself. I still have the old memory and the pain associated with it. But now I have a new remembrance of how that pain looks when processed by a caring, compassionate person. The two memories overlay one another. The pain has been “grounded” by the compassion I was able to extend to myself through this process. This experience empowers me to release forgiveness to my parents, who wounded me in their need to avoid their pain. It unsticks me from the unresolved angst of that moment.
Soft Emotions versus Hard Emotions
Laura Duncan has a video on her Facebook page about blame-free parenting. Much of what Laura teaches on that video applies to general emotional triggers, not just those that children generate. She discusses the “hard” emotional reactions such as anger and frustration. It is common to react out of these emotions, but Laura counsels parents to resist responding emotionally. Instead, practice connecting to what is going on inside of you first. These are the softer emotions of feeling lonely, sad, and scared.
Getting to these soft emotions is what I was having trouble doing. As per my family of origin, I get triggered, I get emotional, and then I shut down. Being stuck in Quebec City by myself during a pandemic provoked my anger and my anxiety, and I felt shut down by it.
Following Laura’s instructions on how to process emotional pain, I asked myself what was going on inside of me. Recalling the compassion of Mrs. Westmacott towards my younger self, I was able to connect to that tender spot in me that was in emotional pain from previous traumas. My heart was telling me I was feeling sad, alone, and afraid.
What I needed and what I did to get those needs met
Once I knew what was bothering me, I was able to accept the current situation without being harsh or critical with myself. Acknowledging my feelings empowered me to do something about them. I asked myself what it was that I needed, and then how do I get those needs met?
My heart told me I needed to feel safe. I needed to feel comforted. I needed to feel I was not alone.
Understanding what my heart needed, I acted to address those needs. I stayed in my room so I could feel safe. I booked some Zoom sessions with my Pastor to receive his comfort. Then I shared my predicament on our church Facebook group page so that people could pray for me, which many volunteered to do.
At the start of my lockdown, I heard Ellen Reimer’s advice to be kind to myself, and I wondered how to do that. After listening to Laura Duncan’s story and her teaching, I learned how to do that with self-compassion.
Learning to practice self-compassion is a profound lesson for me. Without it, I would continue to be shut down by my emotional pain. Now there is hope for a way out of that pain. Through self-compassion, I have permitted myself to validate my emotions, to acknowledge my feelings and to give expression to my needs. This lesson in self-compassion is how I will process my emotional pain.
This lesson will change my life. I came to Quebec City for what I thought was a condo reno but has become a renovation of my interior life, an “update” I desperately needed so I can better connect with myself and bring healing to my emotional pain. It will also empower me to better connect with all the essential people in my life.
Postscript: Justin and Abi Stumvoll, who do the Connected Life podcast have an online course called the Compassion Project, I highly recommend it if you want an in-depth approach to learning self-compassion.