The Quarantine Void: A Reminder of the Central Role of Being By Matthew Martin, LPC on 4/16/21 - 4:10 PM

COVID-19 has radically arrested the ethos of American life as hundreds of millions of people have been forced out of their jobs and into their homes. This loss of everydayness has inevitably set into motion an involuntary reflection of what constitutes a meaningful life. In the emptiness of this pause, traditional American values of progress, work ethic, and profit have become eclipsed by the felt importance of human connection and meaningful engagement. I, along with my clients, have begun to realize that the jobs, activities, and tasks that once filled our daily schedules were partly distracting us from truly living our lives.

In my clinical work, I’ve noticed that the pressure my clients have felt to constantly be doing something with their lives has paradoxically hindered their ability to “be” in their lives. This emphasis on doing has led to lives that seem externally busy, but feel internally hollow. The slowed-down and socially-distant world of quarantine has inevitably exposed this absence of being. However, the acknowledgement of this existential void also contains a powerful opportunity for change. The pandemic has offered the pause needed for my clients to better understand the difference between being and doing so that familiar maladaptive patterns do not follow them into a post-quarantine future.

The doing mode is characterized by future-focused actions. My clients occupy this mode when they see their reality and decide that it needs changing. The American dream is a glorified example of the life-changing power of the doing mode. Its underlying belief, that a strong work ethic is the key to unlocking an idealized future where all of one’s dreams will come true, is deeply rooted in America’s emphasis on doing. The central fear is that laziness, a term used to describe any action or experience that is not firmly rooted in the doing mode, will jeopardize progress, which is seen as the ultimate ideal.

The doing mode has created astonishing advancements in technology, while also providing the modern world a multitude of successful ways to orient towards practical problems. However, problems continually arise when doing is seen as central. Doing does create potential frames for practical living, but it doesn’t do the living for us. My clients are realizing that they must be in their lives if they hope to acquire what makes their lives worthwhile. As the classic saying goes, we are human beings, not human doings.

The being mode is characterized by present-focused experiences. My clients occupy this mode when they are experiencing their reality without the desire to change it. The being mode redefines the term laziness as existence itself. Existence doesn’t desire to change, judge, or label itself. To exist is simply to be. The being mode lets go of progress for the life-giving sacredness of the present moment. As the current pandemic forces my clients to bear witness to the present moment, their emptiness and suffering are reminding them that their vitality, center, and reality are found in their willingness to regularly cultivate moments of feeling, or being, truly alive.

This dichotomy between being and doing emerges frequently in the therapeutic setting. My clients typically attempt to satisfy their being needs with the investigative, externally-focused aspects of the doing mode. For example, a middle-aged woman set up an intake with me due to her desire to learn coping skills to manage symptoms of her anxiety. We began treatment by discussing diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness exercises, and grounding techniques. However, I kept my attention centered on her unspoken being needs by noticing the possibility of their existence during each session. Over time, she came to realize that her anxiety wasn’t a problem that needed to be fixed. Rather, she learned that her anxiety was a reactional fleeing from her deeper unmet emotional needs. As I provided a space for these needs in session, she began to realize that her emotional pain was valid and worthy of being heard. Her ability to receive my validation of her pain in session, represented by her sobbing, motivated her to share these experiences with others outside of the therapy room. Her anxiety dissipated and was no longer needed as an alarm call as she received validation within herself and from others. She cured herself by choosing to allow for love.

An emphasis on the doing mode also tends to pull my clients towards relying on external objects rather than internal states for solutions to their problems. For example, a man in his early twenties reached out to me to help treat the anxiety and depression he started to experience after the death of his best friend. He explained that his house was also robbed shortly after his friend’s death, which resulted in his deciding to pick up more hours at work to make up for the loss. However, he continued to pick up extra shifts even after he had financially recovered from the robbery. He told me that he just wanted enough money to feel safe, but that desire quickly turned into an addiction. As we compassionately explored the possibility that money wasn’t helping him fill the void of his grief, he slowly began to allow himself to acknowledge his being needs. He gave himself permission to inhabit the pain of his grief, represented again by sobbing, which allowed him to begin to let go of the anxiety and depression he endured from his belief that money would cure his pain. As he continued to inhabit his grief by being present with his pain during our time together, his anxiety and depression eventually faded altogether. He also decided to change careers to pursue something more meaningful and authentic to his interests. Being with his grief gave him the chance to replace the external intentions that harmed him with the internal sources of meaning and connection that eventually healed his broken heart.

My responsibility as a therapist is to persistently attend to the heart of my client’s experience, while choosing not to get distracted by their attempts to flee the being mode. I’ve learned that I must continually be willing to point my clients back to their being, so they can learn to stay with themselves to find healing. Explaining the difference between being and doing to my clients has also helped to increase their understanding of which mode to implement in any given situation. My therapeutic hope is that their decision to voluntarily inhabit the being mode will provide them an ability to act authentically when the time for doing naturally emerges in their lives. This hope has expanded to a general belief that those individual decisions will then have a positive ripple effect on the greater world as a whole.

As an example, I worked with a middle-aged man who used alcohol as a means for expressing the being needs that he didn’t feel important enough to express without it. However, he tended to express them with rage and accusations due to the impact of the alcohol. He also had a strong tendency towards co-dependency and self-negation, which often resulted in anxiety and depression. After a year of my attuning to his being needs in the safety of the therapeutic environment, he finally felt ready to soberly share his needs with his wife. His fears of sharing were not irrational, for he was forced to stand his ground in the relationship for almost a week to undo the patterns he had created during the previous years. However, after the week ended, his wife came to him and apologized for not validating his pain and suffering. He was amazed by how much better she treated him after his sharing. He was also surprised to notice his anxiety and depression becoming replaced with a deep sense of grounding and hope. Even his children started treating him with respect. They took better care of the home, attended to their responsibilities, and even began asserting their own desires to have a better relationship with their mother as a consequence. His wife became more vulnerable and loving with him and their children as well. This butterfly effect of positive change extends well beyond the family sphere, as my client continues to share how his shift in orientation is positively impacting his relationships with friends and coworkers. I continue to be amazed at the positivity and love that extend outward from each of my clients’ willingness to authenticate the importance of the being mode by inhabiting its transformative power.

COVID-19 has given my clients the chance to reorient toward being. In turn, their shift in orientation has reinforced my belief in the significance of the being mode. However, the gravity towards doing is a powerful force. My clients and I hope to remain mindful of the importance of letting go of the need to do something (to become better, safer, stronger, happier) to allow ourselves the opportunity to inhabit the nourishing depths of our being. My therapeutic aim is that my clients and I resist our need to change the present moment, so we can be brave enough to embody it. Increases in vaccination distribution and reductions in positive COVID-19 cases are beginning to present the possibility of returning to a new normal, but the pull towards doing will follow in their wake. How my clients and I choose to respond to this new normal has the power to restore the centrality of being, along with our shared humanity, or bring us back into the dizzying energy of a doing-centered world.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, COVID-19 Blogs