Natalia de Barbaro - Psychologist and trainer, she conducts workshops for women entitled “Own Room” as well as communication and leadership training for the company House of Skills. She has published two books of poetry – “Ciemnia” (“Darkroom”) and “Tkanka” (“Tissue”).
Some time ago, Harvard and Virginia University conducted an experiment. The participants’ task was to sit in a chair for fifteen minutes without a phone, without any company. All they could do was... apply electric shocks to themselves.
When asked if they wanted to do it, they said they were even willing to pay to avoid it. In the end, however, two thirds of men and every fourth woman decided to apply the electric shocks to themselves.
What was it they could not bear that they preferred this questionable form of entertainment? Themselves. It’s because there was nobody else there.
Our so-called inner world is no picnic. Even if you optimise your performance with unspeakable precision, even if your timetable is as tight as a corset, it’s there all the time. If you don't believe it, enter a room, sit in a chair, set the timer on your phone for fifteen minutes and put the phone out of your reach.
I bet that over these fifteen minutes you'll feel boredom, tension, anxiety, pleasure, relief and then tension again, maybe anger, sadness and some other things. After fifteen minutes when you enter the room where your partner is, all these feelings will still be inside you. The difference is that in this case, when the other person comes in “handy”, we can start telling ourselves that they are the source of all the tension and the fights.
I remember a drawing: two guys are facing each other; you can see that they’re arguing. A number is drawn on the ground – the guy on the right clearly sees a six, the guy on the left sees a nine. It is clear to everyone that their argument makes no sense and that each of them has their own unquestionable perspective. And yet, they’ve become stubborn in explaining to one another how wrong the other guy is.
On an intellectual level, it is trivial to say that every person has a different point of view – everyone is different, has experienced different things, has a different personality, different DNA, different people held them in their arms when they were babies, etc.
But it’s really hard to accept that somebody feels differently than I do, especially when I love them. Why are these scissors lying here? What do you mean, where are they supposed to be lying? In the top drawer, next to the gloves! Should I turn off the TV? So you don’t care what’s happening around the world? You don’t want a vegetable salad? But it’s healthy! What’s wrong with you? How can you not want a salad! Every normal person eats a vegetable salad, look at me, I have a full plate!
Who cares about Harvard and Virginia? It’s quarantine! It’s a bit of an experiment. Under the pandemic microscope, if we just want to take a closer look, we can see a lot more: limited space, our loved ones, and us.
What do you see under yours? If it shows the faults of others and your absolute innocence, adjust the eyepiece. Take some time observing what you bring home yourself. Just as in a mathematical equation with several variables, each of them influences the final result.
When we realise that we are not only bringing peace, gentleness and love to our homes, we can be guided by the beacon of our values. Take a piece of paper. Write down what you believe in: three to five things that matter most to you.
It is a very personal task, you have to admit. And only one person can do it. When I’m asking what’s most important to you, I’m not asking your mum, your dad, or your partner. I’m not asking teachers at your school, a priest in your parish or your boss. Only you know the answer. We all breathe air that is dense with other people’s expectations, duties, stereotypes. Even more so, in spite of this smog, it is worth looking for our own answers.
We’re made of layers. You’re in a certain mood, you’ve had a good night’s sleep or you haven’t, you are tired of sitting at home to a greater or lesser degree. You also have a personality, habits, a particular way of talking to your loved ones, your favourite dance moves.
And you have values – inside your very core, your heart, your head, your stomach. We are happy, with ourselves and in our relationships, when on our Tuesdays and Thursdays, we live according to what we believe in.
No one will write down that they believe in aggression, impatience, and inequality. And yet, let’s see how our ideas stand up to our everyday lives.
I did this exercise. I wrote “respect” in the first spot. I believe in respect understood as accepting the other person and the fact that they are different than I am. But when I’m telling my teenage son for the fifth time to get dressed because I’m cold, am I being faithful to what I wrote down?
I also wrote down “freedom”. But didn’t I betray that value during an argument with my husband when he said he didn’t want to talk about something and I pushed him to talk about it anyway? I wrote down “openness” – but when I keep silent about something that is important to me, or mince my words – am I being open?
Of course, it is easy to hold others accountable: our ego feeds on the sense that we are cooler than they are. But change for the better in our lives will not start this way. As long as I believe that I am the victim of other people’s faults, I do not give myself any task, but I also deny my own influence.
Susan Scott, the author of “Fierce Conversations”, a book worth reading especially these days, writes that when we lack something in a relationship, it is worth providing it ourselves.
Give what we’re waiting for – feed the other person what we’re hungry for ourselves. Do you want to be heard? Listen. Want more understanding? Try to understand. Want more straightforward conversations? Say it in a straightforward manner.
There will be no better time to look at ourselves, our relationships and what we bring into them. What is the everyday quality of us being together? What does it look like now, when you see everything clearly, in a greater concentration than before the pandemic? Look at your home, look at your relationship. Is it a field in which what you have written down takes place?
If your note contained “equality”, check. Who prepares meals? Who cleans up after them? Who calls people to the table? Who remembers about birthdays and reminds others? Who keeps an eye on the money? Who remembers about the bills? Who asks, oh, what are we going to do now, and who answers? Who takes the car to be serviced? Who remembers the date of the next car check? If a box of masks that was bought online at a dizzying price lies in the middle of the floor, who will pick it up? Who helps the child with homework? Who talks to the child when they failed at something or are sad? Who notices that the child is sad? If there’s an argument, who makes you agree again? Who pours water in the dog’s bowl? Who remembers that there’s a large-size waste collection tomorrow? Who knows first that the dishwasher is broken, who fixes it or calls a professional to do it?
I have asked these questions, but I could have asked different ones. I imagine that the answers should somehow reflect the belief in equality – if you do believe in it. It’s the same with the other things on your piece of paper. Put it in your pocket and carry it around with you. I bet you’ll feel it when you need it at least a few times today.
We’re good at talking. Our macro scale is easier than the micro scale. It’s easier to shout at demonstrations and get angry at the hypocrisy of politicians when sitting on the couch in front of the TV than to laboriously weave the fabric of your everyday life together with those you love. What is it like inside our homes? Freedom? Equality? Democracy?
If it turns out that there is still something to be done in these matters, we always have the revolutionary concept of conversation at our disposal: this time two chairs and a little longer than the fifteen minutes used in the Harvard experiment. What do you need from me, my love? How are you doing in this quarantine, sweetheart?
What can we do to make us better together, not only now, but also when we come back to what we used to call a normal life?
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.
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