I am talking with Joanna Chmura, a life coach, about how to go through this process. To inspire changes, we have prepared some exercises that will get you going. In the right direction, of course.
A change in relationships. Sounds interesting, but where should I start ?
With yourself (laughs). I would begin with a self-diagnosis. In any difficult set of circumstances, it is good to know exactly where I stand. It is a bit like with a GPS: in order to move and get to where you want to go, you must first know where you are.
Self-diagnosis is important, but what seems even more important to me now is tenderness. Olga Tokarczuk, our Nobel prize winner, has revived this word and given it a new life, for which I am very grateful.
In the present situation, we can no longer avoid self-reflection. All we can do now is escape from the living room to the bathroom and from the bathroom to the kitchen. Defining our emotional, physical and mental state is a beautiful, but often difficult starting point. We can approach it either with tenderness or with severity. I recommend tenderness, as it provides more of an interesting perspective, though I am warning you that it is not easy.
How would you describe the present situation? Apart from being difficult and unusual.
Let me use a metaphor. We have a bucket filled with water, mud and sand, and all this has intensively been whirling around us in our ‘normal’ life. School, work, home, chores, parents – thousands of tasks and duties. Isolation has stopped all this whirling. The mud and sand have fallen to the bottom and now we can see what we actually have in our bucket. What we find there some will consider exciting, others paralysing, and some will experience both those feelings.
That moment of stopping may entail nice findings, as I might realise that the most important thing for me is my family and, in consequence, I plan that after the quarantine I will reduce my working time or change my job so as not to waste so much time on commuting.
We may also find something difficult: that we don’t want to spend even one more day with the person we live with. Or that the risk to my own, or my beloved ones’ health, is difficult to stand and is triggering a spiral of fear in myself that I can only cope with by using alcohol, food or burying myself in my work.
We experience new things, but many people cannot name what they feel. They thrash about, not knowing where this has come from and what to do with it.
There are two tools that will help us answer this question. The first one is to answer bravely and with tenderness: “What is the most important for me now?”. It may be health; it may be family. If we don’t know where to start, we can find a list of values on the Internet. While reading it, pause at those items that are close to you. Choose five of them and then from those five choose only one that is the most important.
But we are not done yet. It is not enough to just conclude: “For me, the most important thing is love”. This is only a shallow finding. We must dress it with specific behaviours or actions. Which behaviours get me closer to that value or further away from it?
If I enter my child’s room, see that they are playing Minecraft instead of learning history, and burst out, this is not a sign of love but quite the opposite. This may be a sign of fear, as in a flash we may trigger some opinions about ourselves as parents, such as: “I’m not a good father”, “I can’t build trust with my child”, “What am I doing wrong?”, etc. Maybe it would be better to leave the room for a while, take a few breaths and then enter again and ask: “What happened? Why are you playing instead of learning history?”.
So, we have the first tool. What is the second one?
A good solution may be to write down what we are feeling at a given moment, that is to create a so-called emotional journal. We can do this during or at the end of the day. It involves writing down those events that made me feel the most intense emotions. Both pleasant and unpleasant. For example, the breakfast was nice, as we learned that our daughter’s favourite character was Elsa, not Anna as we had previously thought. Plus, now we better understand what fascinates our child.
However, events may occur whose intensity will make us lose our temper. If two people are working from home and there is too little space, then clashes will occur sooner or later. They both meet at dinner and the one who had to work in the bathroom, as it was the only quiet place, bursts out.
So, we mark the event which caused the greatest emotions and name it, and the next step is to consider what caused these emotions. What did the event affect inside us? These are the instructions for further work.
We may have to work on our self-esteem, the feeling of security or openness in expressing our needs. Be aware that this is not about working on what our partner must change in themselves or what I have to change in them, so they do not get angry. We must answer the question: “What happened that their reaction hurt me so much?”.
How do you define a friendly approach to yourself and to others?
Gentleness and tenderness may be directed towards ourselves, and then we are talking about self-compassion. Sometimes it is directed towards another person, and then we are talking about empathy.
Empathy is a beautiful phenomenon composed of four sub-skills. The first of these is the ability to refrain from judging. To give an example, when our sister calls us and says she is afraid she will be fired, don’t go: “See? I told you not to change your job”. Just listen to her.
Second is to step into the shoes of the other person, which many of us find damn hard. We are so in love with our own point of view that taking a different one is sometimes infeasible.
Third: try to understand what the person must be experiencing. Or just ask straight up: “How does that make you feel?”.
Four: express your understanding, so, when talking to your sister on the phone, don’t judge her decision but try to recall how you might feel in similar circumstances. Ask her how it makes her feel and express your understanding by saying: “I can see it’s difficult for you. Can I help you in any way? What do you need from me?”.
And I swear to you all: in 99 percent of cases, empathy is not about giving advice or telling someone what to do. Even if the person needs that other 1 percent, they will ask us for advice, but in most cases they just call in search of a sympathetic ear and to have a safe space to show their true selves and express what they are facing.
What does self-compassion look like?
Focusing on ourselves is associated with pejorative egocentricity. But this is the only possible starting point. To teach our children to love themselves and others, we must first know how to do it ourselves. In other words, to be friendly to others, I must first be friendly to myself.
Self-compassion has three components. The first is self-kindness, that is being gentle with yourself. The second is something that we are now experiencing in particular strength, that is common humanity. It is the awareness that I am not alone in the world and that I am not the only person affected by things I don’t like. It is the awareness that we live in a great community of experiences. The third is mindfulness, that is being in the here and now.
Working on self-kindness is, I hope, something we are all working to improve at this time. We are doing our best to show our understanding to others, but we should also be understanding towards ourselves.
We are already prepared, theoretically: we know how to be affectionate to others and to ourselves. And now, while doing our routine chores we suddenly figure out that we have too many of them and that we feel bad about it. What’s more, this has always been the case. We don’t like it and wish to do something about it. Where should we start?
The first major step has already been made: we have realised that we don’t like it. The next thing is to find the courage to tell it to the other person. To express how we feel about it, not to shift the blame to the other party.
These discussions are a very important moment, which allows us not only to make it through hard times but also to set our relations up for once those times have passed. As stated in the “Tenderness and Freedom” campaign: “to create a new post-pandemic world with a new energy”.
Let’s sit down in peaceful, secure conditions, not necessarily at a family dinner but for example in the evening, when the kids are already asleep. And talk about how we feel about something and what we believe can be done to change it. It is also important to ask the other person how they feel about it and what they need. Then we create a plan and try to stick to it. But, so as not to idealise it, we must be aware that our plan is fragile when faced with the unpredictability of life. There are a few traps we may fall into when carrying out the plan. The first of them is that our arrangements may fall apart after only two hours. I’ll forget about something; the other person will have misunderstood something... and the whole plan has gone to hell.
That’s life. What else should we be aware of?
The inability to let go. Yes, we will gladly let our partner prepare dinner, but only if they do it as well as we do. “But I always cut tomatoes into slices, so why is he dicing them?” And here comes the frustration. It is directly followed by our conviction that “nobody can do something the same way I do it”. And then we are only a second away from the old pattern, that is to just do it ourselves.
Paradoxically, even if we declare we want to be released from the responsibility for a given chore, we prefer the feeling of bitterness coming from “having to deal with everything” to the feeling of frustration that comes from an “imperfect” job done by someone else. In other words, I will keep suffering, but I will do it best, my own way.
That’s why it is so important that when we settle the new order of things, we should give up on our idea of what it should look like. It is the other person who is making dinner, not me. And they do it their own way. Well enough.
I would call this the difficult art of letting go.
Well, it is hard but if we don’t, we will gradually slide down the slippery slope, and end up tired out,“you don’t let go, you end up tired out”. But when we finally master that art of letting go, then we must appreciate ourselves in the fact that we refrained from bossing someone around and appreciate the other person for doing their best.
Overwhelmed with our chores, we are often no longer sure about whether we do something because we want to or because we believe we should do it. How do we distinguish these two things?
The answer lies in emotions. If I agree to bake two cheesecakes and four puddings for Christmas and then I am swearing in the kitchen that I got conned into doing it again, this is a sign that I don’t want to do it. I gave in to a sort of obligation. Growing frustration, sorrow and anger: these emotions tell me I am doing something contrary to what I want to be doing. The awareness of my emotions is one half of the job, while the other half, probably the more difficult one, is telling this to others: “This year I will only bake one cake or maybe even none”.
The others may not like it or may not understand our decision.
This is probably what will happen, so we must be ready for that. Our decision may not be popular and may even be openly criticised. We may also get hurt by the criticism. This is the price we pay for our courage to live at peace with ourselves. This is where empathy shows up again. If we don’t want to bake the cakes for Christmas, someone might not like that we break a long-established family tradition, and that person has the right to express their disappointment.
What you are saying seems important. We are often not prepared for criticism or astonishment expressed by others. Here I inform my family that I have baked Christmas cakes for 10 years, but I no longer want to do it. But I’m shocked that somebody is surprised about it, or I feel offended that someone doesn’t understand me.
It may be a surprise for my family or friends. Firstly, they don’t know our inner thoughts, and secondly, we break a certain pattern that they know and cultivate. It is important to know that the more we are convinced we are right, the easier it will be to accept the possible disappointment of others.
We must have the courage to face this disappointment. It is a job we must do. It is impossible to be brave and not to disappoint anyone.
Have you got an idea how not to be afraid of such disappointments?
The best way is to go through with them. We cannot hide them away or suppress them. Let me reiterate: the more we are convinced that we are right, the easier we will stand the bitter words we hear from others. The others may not like our decisions. It’s their right. But I may also feel sad, confused or misunderstood, but at the end of the day I know what I am doing, why I am doing it and why I find it important.
It is a hard-internal process, especially at the beginning, when we gently crush a pattern we have been building for years. Those initial confrontations with someone else’s disappointment are particularly painful.
How can you deal with your inner critic?
Only with tenderness. There are two parallel paths for working on it. The first one is about not suppressing our inner critic. After all it developed to provide a feeling of security. It says and does everything to protect us against pain, sorrow and disappointment. It whispers: “Don’t go out, don’t speak, not now, hide”. That inner critic is often a consequence of the voices of our parents or guardians, of what they would say to protect us, for better or worse, against pain.
The other force we already know it’s called self-compassion. Try to talk to yourself with the voice of your best friend. With sympathy, without judgement. She would perhaps tell you: “You work hard, you may be tired, you do so many other things, so maybe just tell your family that you are not going to bake the cakes this year. Give it up, it’s not the end of the world”. Then adapt the image of that advice to your internal monologue. It first sounds artificial, but it’s possible to learn.
Then, in difficult situations we will spontaneously listen to our inner friend, not the critic. However, to put it bluntly, it won’t just happen by itself. This skill must be built, maintained and worked on.
So far, we have talked about the costs of being brave. What are the benefits?
At the beginning, the idea of the potential benefits is often quite unclear and difficult to grasp, as the costs seem to be clearer, louder and terrifying. What helps is a list of things I will gain or recover if I break a pattern that I no longer like. Maybe my decision will make me feel happy, proud or relieved. Maybe I will gain some time and space for something I have always been putting off. Deciding about myself gives me strength and a feeling of agency. This is a fuel that makes it possible to take off on a long journey.
Would you like to look at your thoughts with tenderness? You can use the questions, which are worth asking yourself.
“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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