Just this week, the first doses of vaccine to inoculate against the COVID-19 pandemic- which to date has resulted in the deaths of over 300,000 Americans- began being administered to front line healthcare workers, and will be offered to citizens over the coming weeks and months.  For many, this development is the “light at the end of the tunnel” we have been yearning for since the beginning of the pandemic nearly one year ago. 

Along with the hope for a definitive victory over this virus which has necessitated extraordinary preventative measures (social distancing, wearing masks, working/learning from home, avoiding travel, being apart from family and loved ones), many are asking themselves “What have we learned?  What is going to be different?  What does ‘normal’ mean anymore?”  As a therapist during this stage of the pandemic, I have joined my clients in an almost giddy practice of fantasizing and planning for a not-to-distant future filled with travel, experiences shared with family and friends, and filling our lives with experiences that seem to have been put on-hold during the past year. 

There will also come a time, however, for us to acknowledge that despite the very real and tragic toll of the pandemic and the hoped-for future, we have likely learned and developed skills and have experienced growth that may have lain dormant and neglected if not for this collective experience.  While many editorials have been written about self-care, how to “cope”, and finding the silver lining from the pandemic, this piece will take a stark look at how- under the worst of circumstances- we as human beings can adapt, grow, and otherwise embody resilience. 

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of the most misunderstood ideas we share with clients is that of acceptance.  During our work in therapy, we teach and encourage clients (and ourselves) to develop the capacity to be open to the experiences that life presents to us so that we can respond flexibly and in accordance with our most cherished values.   However, for many of us, “acceptance” often feels synonymous with “surrender”, and much of what brings people to therapy is the uncomfortable felt experience that life and the world is beating up on us.  In relationships, we feel invalidated.  At work, we feel unappreciated.  In our relationship to ourselves, even, we can be painfully harsh critics.  How does one practice acceptance under such conditions?  An alternate term I have often found helpful to share with clients who struggle with the idea of acceptance is willingness.  That is to say, when life presents us with difficulties, we have the choice to wrestle with or become entangled in an unpleasant or unwanted experience, often increasing our discomfort; or we can instead be willing to meet the experience openly, and attempt to move through it skillfully and flexibly.  The pandemic itself, I have observed, has provided us with a unique opportunity to practice acceptance/willingness, even if we have not been consciously aware of it.

In reflecting on the elephant in the room with my clients for the past 9 months (namely, coronavirus), and as we approach the end of the year, it has been interesting to notice how we talk in therapy about our experience at this stage of the pandemic (going on a full year).  I have observed clients who initially panicked at the idea of working from home describing how they are currently navigating their jobs with skill and resolve.  There are clients who struggle with high-conflict households, and were given no choice but to learn more effective ways of communicating, setting and enforcing boundaries, and otherwise negotiating with one another to keep the peace during the long-months of lockdown.  Clients who experience health-related anxiety were confronted with a new and very real threat to their wellbeing, and have had to adapt to constantly fluctuating public health protocols while also continuing to maintain their day-to-day responsibilities, rather than withdrawing from life.

While the development of these new skills most likely happened over time and with much trial and error, it is worth noting how profoundly we have changed in the past 9 months.  COVID-19 imposed itself upon us, and we were forced to accept its reality, not on our terms, but on the virus’s terms.  The virus demanded that we accept the conditions of its existence, which involved responding with innovation, flexibility, and creativity.  Our personal growth and resilience was, in reality, a choice we made once we had taken time to mourn the loss of “the way things were”. 

It is in this realization of our inherent resilience that we can learn a powerful lesson: a pandemic is not a necessary condition for us to identify opportunities to change our lives in meaningful ways.  The opportunity to practice acceptance/willingness is always available to us, as is our capacity to return our awareness to our present experience, and to align our actions with the values we hold most dear.  Even when we feel we are lost or out of synch with where we would like to be in our lives, we can return to these anchors: acceptance, mindfulness, and values.  Believe it or not, the pandemic- in all of its ruthless cruelty, may have been our most important teacher when it comes to understanding and embodying these principles now, and as we begin to emerge from this experience. 

By Charles Small, LCSW

Staff Therapist, Cognitive Behavioral Associates of Chicago

December 17th, 2020