I is for Intimacy in Isolation

Some days online dating feels impossible. It’s strange enough, perusing potential partners like so many shiny toys in the Sears catalog. These days, I feel estranged from even myself after 14 months in relative isolation. How can I possibly bring my full person to a relationship if I feel like I’m losing my grasp on who I am?

As humans we rely on others to mirror ourselves back to us. Those smiles from the barista, the attention from the grocery clerk, the smiles and nods from casual acquaintances that we used to get throughout the course of our days all serve to remind us that we are okay, that we are seen, valued, known, important.

We are not getting much mirroring these days. Even now, as we are out and about more, we still have masks. We can’t see smiles or subtle shifts in expression. For those who live alone (like me), we have limited reflections. Those who live with their partners or families probably feel trapped in the same recurring roles—parent, spouse, cook, caretaker, a Zoom square in a field of Zoom squares.

Granted, I have not been as isolated as some—I spent the first five months of the pandemic alone at home with only a couple of others “in my pod.” And, two of my best friends were trapped on the east coast until June, while several friends of a certain age understandably pulled far inside their shells, shutting out most of the world, and many still remain there, unsure what the vaccines mean in the long run.

Once I started dating in July, I kept it appropriately socially distanced—kayaking, getting together outdoors—for a while. But when I started seeing someone seriously, we didn’t stay isolated from one another for long. We both worked at home, alone and felt safe enough to be close. By August I had reached the limits of my tolerance for isolation. I needed hugs and touch, kisses and hand holding. Someone to embrace in the morning. That intimacy certainly made a difference. For a bit.

Don’t rely on a broken mirror for an accurate reflection

But the isolation had taken a toll, and it definitely made dating weird. I’d not dated in 20 years, and here I found myself meeting virtual strangers and relying on them for mirroring. After years of circulating comfortably amongst a wide circle of people, suddenly, I was primarily with one person who didn’t really know me or my world fully. 

No longer could I get the reliable feedback I’d come to rely on from my people—my primary mirror became someone who I’d known only a few weeks. In The Before Times, I would have had both the familiar old as well the new reflections. In The Before Times, my people would have gotten to know the woman I was dating as well and could have given me informed feedback. I may not have lost myself as I did. I may not have relied so heavily on a broken mirror.

A good friend often reminds me that we can’t know what we don’t know. Once we know better, we can do better. As I continue to forge new relationships out of the thin ether that is the internet, I must remember that I am known and loved by many, even if we’ve not seen much of each other this past year. I must remember that the reflections I get back may not be completely accurate. I must not lose myself in my quest for intimacy during isolation.

L is for Listening, or Oh? How Do You Feel About That?

LI can’t think of anything better than having a conversation with someone and really being heard. Walking away from an intimate exchange with another human being and leaving with that warm, fuzzy feeling that not only did that person give me the time and the space to express what was on my mind, but they really listened to me.

How do I know if someone has listened? Well, they reflect back to me what they heard me say. They ask questions related to what I’ve said, and they engage in active listening skills—nodding when appropriate, making sympathetic noises, maybe reaching out to touch my arm, hand, or leg in empathy and understanding. I had a therapist once who would get teary-eyed when I told a particularly poignant story about my child custody struggles. Her tears made me feel heard and validated.

One of the most challenging aspects of training to become a therapist has been learning to listen in a way that will help my clients not only feel heard, but helped, assisted, valued, and worthy. I remember when I used to think that being a therapist would be so easy—how hard could it be to sit and listen to people all day, throwing out only the occasional, “how does that make you feel?”

I didn't have a happy childhood, I was often misquoted.
I didn’t have a happy childhood, I was often misquoted.

Ha. If only. At school we practice on each other quite a bit. I’ve listened to my fellow students in nearly all of my classes thus far, learning to hone my listening skills, learning to take in what they say and ask relevant, useful, insightful questions in an effort to help them move forward. It’s not easy. There’s so much to hold in my head and pay attention to. Details to notice. Key words to focus in on. Facts to track.

We’re learning not how to give advice, but how to ask good questions, open-ended questions, questions that will encourage our clients to explore their feelings. For example, if a client were to tell me they’re anxious about a weekend outing with their partner and the partner’s family, what might I say in order to help the client better understand and deal with the anxiety?

If I were practicing gestalt, I might ask where in the body the client feels the anxiety and if they could talk to it, what might they say? What would the anxiety say? What does the anxiety look like? What color is it? How big is it?

If I were practicing narrative therapy, I might ask the client to give the anxiety a name and to imagine a world in which the anxiety no longer existed. What would that world look like? I’d ask the client to tell me about a time they didn’t experience the anxiety and ask them what was different about that time.peanuts-cartoon-about-listening

I have so many theories and approaches rattling around in my head, sometimes I think it might explode. What theory to use? What words to zero in on? And then, in one class, the instructor told us to not work harder than the client. And, yes, that makes sense, but oy vey.

The best approach might be Carl Roger’s—he believed that the therapist should always give the client unconditional positive regard. His approach, Person Centered Therapy, came in response to psychoanalytical models popular at the turn of the last century. He believed the therapist should be warm, genuine, and understanding.

He said, “It is that the individual has within himself or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes and self-directed behavior – and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”

I no longer think that being a therapist will be an easy job—in fact, I’m pretty sure it will prove to be one of the more difficult I take on. Listening to people, actually hearing them and reflecting back what I’ve heard, will take practice, time, and focus. I can’t afford to space out or daydream halfway through a session.

Maybe Stephen Covey said it best: “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

My success as a counselor will not be measured by what I have to say, but in how much I understand.