Last weekend a bit at my breaking point, I found myself walking through a cavernous, multi-floored Target in Brooklyn looking for what was apparently an elusive object. The mission I was on in Target broke me a bit further at first, but mercifully—thanks to a young sales associate with a good heart and a little extra emotional bandwidth to give, I got glued back together. And that’s the point of this tale: in tiny moments, with just the smallest amount of care, we connect. Especially in these ongoing times of stress and loss and tragedy happening near and far, when we are running on the thinnest of threads, that connection is how we heal each other. That’s the higher vibration message here, but first, if you’ll allow me, I must complain. I mean, elaborate. Here’s how it went.
It was a stressful week, a lot of things piling up, a family member with COVID far away, feeling the sorrow of the shape of this time of division and pain, and also just tired. Bone tired. Wandering anguished through the aisles of a big box store, I had one of those out of body experiences that one has… you know, while wandering anguished through a big box store, suddenly the fact that you are you are in a store with aisle after aisle of things—do we really need all these shiny things that it feels like we do? —sets off existential angst. You’re not looking for a HEPA Filter, you are lost in a labyrinth of hopelessness. Not like a “in five more minutes when someone either helps me or I leave the store in a fit of frustration, I will be out of this ‘misery’ kind of hopelessness,” but like (yes, irrationally, but momentarily) everything is hopeless. End of story. How quickly we can plunge int despair! I know I am not alone in these feelings. And I know the experience I’m conveying is not an epic tale like the Odyssey, but I’ll tell you, if Odysseus had lived through the last three years of pandemic fear, loss, and depletion, and been in my state of strain and walking through an unfamiliar Target—who knows.
So as I am trying to find the HEPA filters to try to keep my family safe, in this huge totally unfamiliar Target—I was asking and asking for directions. Two different agents brought me to two DIFFERENT vaporizer aisles (at opposite ends of the store) “Ah, no, no, that’s not it,” I said, trying to get a grip and keep it together. “Oh, it’s upstairs on the far left,” said the second person.
But…. nope not up there either.
A third person pointed me in another wrong direction. I had nearly searched the four corners of the earth—if the earth was in this Target. I had walked so far journeying to the far recesses, the forgotten sections of this Target—the thought did briefly occur as a small bright crack in the dark sky of this errand, that at least I was getting my steps in for the day…
But then despite walking against the blizzards of frustration past, present, and future, this private nightmare blinding my resolve, there in the HEPA vacuum cleaner aisle (!) I came to find what would be the fourth and final agent for this increasingly interminable mission. She was different. She didn’t just direct me with the multi-step instructions instantly forgotten—”turn left at light bulbs, right at the water bottles, then …” glaze over. She said three words: “Come with me.” She proceeded to walk me across the entire store, like navigating the seven seas and brought me directly to the exact right spot I needed. There I found, not one, not two, not three—but a whole ENTIRE aisle to choose from of virus killing HEPA filtering air purifiers. I was elated. “We did it!!!” she said, just like a perfectly attuned co-regulator of my very soul. Then, out of nowhere, to put an even finer point on her kind heart and her understanding implicitly the gravity of this task, she then reached out and high fived me. This young person, maybe just twenty, decided in that moment to make it a moment, a moment of connection. Her putting out that energy in that moment kind of changed everything in an instant. Yes, my love language is acts of service, but how did she know?? I instantly regained perspective; I wasn’t going to lose it in that Target. It was even funny to me, and just overflowing with good will and care. I loved seeing that in a young person. She took care of me when I needed it most. Bolstered by that moment, when the nice young guard stopped me as I was walking out of the store with my cart as I always do in the burbs (this is not how it works in the city….) instead of going into another amygdala hijack, I was able to say jokingly, “Can you tell I’m new here?” to which he graciously replied—”No, no you fit right in,” and proceeded to help me try to locate where my husband was on my tiny iphone. IN NEW YORK CITY!! I do ❤️ New York.
If you’ve walked along with me this far, first of all—thank you. And second, you might be scanning this article, scratching your head and thinking—wait, did I miss something? What happened? What was the big deal that Dr C felt moved to write about?? But that’s it. There was no big deal. It was a little deal. And it is in those little deals between us that we find connection that speaks right to our nervous system achingly eager for some sign that it’s OK to downshift—through a smile, an expression of kindness, a tiny little extra help. These are the gifts that tell our nervous system it’s safe. We can exhale. The impact of these micro- connections ripple out and keep giving. These micro-moments of good will allowed me to downregulate and then I didn’t freak out at my husband, circling with the car, about why were we even doing this ill-thought out mission in the middle of the city. A speech that had been winding up in my head with great intensity as, fuming, I did my three-quarter mile walk through Target. As miracles sometimes happen, my husband too, was able to keep it together and not freak out in return about how it had taken half an hour to simply go around one block in the city on that busy Saturday afternoon… (though it would have been warranted!). Thank you, humanity for coming through, yet again, on an ordinary day.
Connection. It’s what we long for, it’s what we are built for. But in these ongoing complex times of heightened fear, loss and uncertainty when unthinkable tragedies strike close to home and far away week after week, where we think—everything should stop just so we could process what happened in 2020, but here we are in 2023 and the stressors just keep mounting, we tend to cope with that overwhelm by distraction and shut down. While it may feel (and even be) adaptive (and happens without our choosing), it also can leave us feeling disconnected—from others, but also, simply from ourselves. That’s because we aren’t built to selectively shut down from just the overwhelming things, when we are shut down, we are muted, numbed, everything is a bit more in shadows and outlines than in technicolor. Or at least it’s harder to feel those bright feelings the way we might.
It may sound paradoxical—how can we be disconnected from ourselves especially when that feeling of “disconnection” is something that we’re so, well, connected to. We try to release ourselves from it, lose it in an activity, lose it in sleep, in conversation, and yet when that activity stops—we didn’t lose the feeling—there we are—there it is. Painfully disconnected.
Before we get too far down this road of disconnection—let me assure you. It is normal. And also, there are many things to do about it.
Here are some ideas that I talked about this past week with Amanda Stern, author of Little Panic, in our monthly Instagram Live conversation about the paths into connection. As you’re reading through, see what ideas strike you that you want to try out this week.
Quick Ways of Connecting with Yourself:
No judgement Suffering is part of any human journey, but let’s face it, these last years have continued to redefine what coping looks like in the ongoing un-precedentness of this time. We are all strained in universal and unique ways. Have compassion. Give yourself credit. If you had coped with one hard day in the before time, you might have marveled at your resolve. We’re going on four years.
Name it to tame it; feeling is healing it So—rather than trying to outrun whatever feelings you’re having, or the stress that you are soaking in– slow down and stop the chase. Ask yourself what you’re feeling—even just saying, “I feel unsettled,” or, “ I feel disconnected” locates you—as the saying goes, you have to name a feeling to help tame it. To further the settling process and the connecting yourself give your nervous system the signal that it doesn’t have to keep saying “SOMETHING IS WRONG” by saying “I feel unsettled, and THAT’S OK,” or “I feel disconnected and THAT’S OK.” Saying “its OK” to feel these uncomfortable feelings, actually helps you to feel less uncomfortable.
Maybe there are multiple feelings you are having at once—name them. This is just now. You don’t have to “feel them” though it can be good to tell yourself that feelings are like waves—and they will come and go. It would help if we could monitor our feelings like we do contractions for women in labor—there’s something powerful and reassuring in knowing it will pass, but we can tell ourselves that. Here’s a big one; we can have grace with ourselves and remind ourselves that it’s OK, and breathe and ride it out. Feelings are temporary—they always do pass.
Centering is another way that helps to feel connected and reset the nervous system out of fight or flight. It might sound strange that simply naming things can feel calming and connecting, but think of it as locating yourself when your nervous system is disoriented. Say who you are, where you are, look out the window name what you see, smell a spice or an essential oil or lotion—name that smell. Name the sounds you hear around you—the birds chirping, the traffic whizzing, the music playing. This counterpoint to anxious or numb talk, helps us feel settled.
Get physical we sit and sit and think and think about how to help ourselves feel better—but often thinking serves to wind us up more instead of finding the off button or dimmer switch to our emotional discomfort. Slowing your nervous system can happen in different ways. We can sit and get still and quiet by just following our breathing—making sure to focus on the exhales—that’s a nervous system re-set. But another way to get to stillness paradoxically is to get up and move. Shake your arms and chest to shake off the adrenaline, dance , do some jumping jacks, give yourself a butterfly hug with arms crossed on your chest and alternately tapping one side and then the other.
Let something else do the heavy lifting—humor and levity lift the most: we don’t have to do this alone– music, television, nature, pictures of kittens—or visit them in real life!—if you can get yourself to some other activity step outside and observe—watch your favorite episode of whatever it may be—my current fave: Ted Lasso. (I know, I’m about three years behind on that one…) it’s not “distracting” yourself as if you need to get back to what you’re feeling—you’re deciding to give yourself a break and engage with something else that moves you. You don’t have to do all the moving yourself. Actually levity and comedy reset us out of fight or flight faster than anything. Find something very funny? Bookmark it and keep it on hand to revisit when you need emotional first aide.
Awe helps too—there’s the kind of awe we feel seeing beauty—a sunset, but there’s also “awwww” that is powerful too. Keep a bookmark tab handy of kittens and puppies, animal pictures that you find you have the immediate head tilt, softening of your eyes, and in a millisecond your whole body eases.
Quick Ways of Connecting with Others:
Reach out Tell someone something about you—whether it’s reaching out to a friend and saying—Hard day here, or Monday mood is not so good here, or even the kind of small talk with a smidge more depth with a stranger—Mondays are hard. Have we had it with winter yet? Just putting that little hook out often is enough to catch the buoyancy of humanity—we all like to feel connected with each other.
Ask for help or directions! When we are feeling disconnected, any opportunity you can give to someone to help you is a big boost—biochemically and emotionally. Two people get what they need. Whether that’s directions, or even asking someone’s opinion about a purchase you are considering making: Does this seem like a good color for me? Does cauliflower pasta actually taste good? Is the entrance over there? Give people a chance to feel helpful. Being helpful feels GOOD!
Love the one you’re with, sort of… Be willing to go for “good enough” socializing: Maybe you’d like to be in a different place in your life—either the world circumstance of the ongoing pandemic complications and risks, and/or your personal coordinates of that kind of life you want where you’d like a friend group like on, well, Friends, or a romantic partner like Colin Firth in well, anything. But the perfect is the enemy of the good. “Amazing” connection will happen when it does, but what will keep our spirits afloat in the meantime are good enough connections.
It starts with you We want others to reach out and connect with us—if we can, we can be the starter on that one. If you have any bandwidth to write a little note of appreciation to someone, do a favor, smile, hold a door open, be helpful there’s nothing to expect in return, and as His Holiness the Dalai Lama states—the first recipient of compassion or even generosity—is the self. You will feel connected through your act of kindness, and that spark to your heart.
We can star in each other’s every day heroic journeys, just by being the little quark, the tiniest sign of life, the beam of light, the spark of helpfulness or simply acknowledgement of our existence that keeps each other going. In Target, on zoom, anywhere. Together, this is not just how we will make it through, this is how we all rise as a collective.