Back in the late 1980s when I was a young financial analyst at a New York bank, I’d leave the office at five and go home to my little Upper West Side studio. With no cable, internet, or cellphone, a landline was my only connection to the outside word till I went back to work the next day.
What was it like? Tranquility is the word. Surrounded by Manhattan, I was as isolated as a monk in a cell, with uninterrupted hours to read a book, cook, or listen to an album. And of course I could go out on the town without a work crisis reaching out to ruin my plans.
I’ve been thinking back to those days a lot, lately. Working as a psychologist, I’m hearing more and more clients complain lately about how much time they’re putting into their jobs. Folks have been working from home for a year now, and as the months have gone by, many of us are spending more and more hours on the job.
What’s going on? I hear a few justifications.
First, many people tell me that they don’t feel they have an excuse not to reply when they get a text or email from a boss or colleague after normal work hours. After all, what else would they be doing? This is especially true of my single clients who don’t have children. Even dinnertime isn’t off limits.
Second, as the pandemic drags on and most of us have so few sources of fun and stimulation, people are turning more and more to their jobs for something — anything — to keep them occupied.
And, of course, there’s the reality that we’re working from our homes. There’s no physical boundary keeping work at work.
So while it’s great not to have to commute or wear pants, working from home is making it even easier for our jobs to take over our lives than they already were. Put bluntly, this sucks.
We all need a break from work. Every day. Your job likely isn’t paying you for 16-hour days. Even if it is, you need to have some fun, rest, and recharge your brain.
Of course we can’t shut ourselves off from the world as completely as I did in those pre-internet/cellphone days. But we need to draw a boundary, even if it means disappointing our employers and colleagues by doing so. I’m not talking about not doing your job. I’m just talking about setting a limit on how much of your life you are willing to give to your work.
Standing up for your own well-being can be scary. There may be real risks in terms of job security and compensation. Only you can decide for yourself when it is vital to say “no.” But advocating for yourself is necessary at times. To quote Hillel, an ancient Jewish sage: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”
Taking action on your own behalf is also a skill you want to develop, because it will help you in all areas of your life. If you can’t say “no” in order to eat dinner uninterrupted, watch a movie you’d like to see, spend time with someone you love or get a good night’s sleep, you’re going to get chewed up and spit out by others, quite a lot.
Recently, I’ve been reading that D.C.’s downtown is in danger of financial ruin. As many people may not be be returning to the office after the pandemic, some believe that the whole web of service businesses may collapse.
I’m hoping that the doomsdayers floating this theory are wrong, and that as the pandemic ends many of us will head back to the office, at least much of the time. We need to get back to setting a stronger boundary between work and the rest of our lives.
Yes, we’ll be helping our city rebound. And we’ll also be making a big step toward taking care of ourselves, by re-constructing a life that’s about way more than work.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com.
ADVICE: Despair vs. resilience in trying times
Coronavirus lockdown has many down but you’re stronger than you think
As the COVID-19 crisis goes on without our having any clarity about how or when this crazy situation will improve, most everyone I know is super-anxious about getting sick, fed up with being locked down or both. Is there a way for us to get through this any easier?
Here’s a start: Acknowledge that there are no guarantees in life.
When we accept that life is going to throw all sorts of challenges at us and that there is sometimes nothing we can do to stop these challenges from coming, that leaves us with one great option: Work on becoming more resilient so we can better deal with the hard stuff, including the very hard stuff.
This is called resilience. Being able to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep going forward. Cliché, yes, but it’s what we need to do if we don’t want life to beat us down.
Good news: resilience is a trait we are born with. As I’m writing these words, I’m watching my 4-month-old, who recently learned to turn from his back onto his belly, trying to turn from his belly onto his back. He’s been at this for days, and has succeeded just once. He keeps crying and trying. He won’t give up. That’s resilience.
Further good news: If you’re LGBT, you likely have already done some work in this area. All the difficulties that we experience as we grow up — struggling to accept an identity that’s stigmatized, teasing, rejection and worse — and here we are. How? All of us found a way to keep moving forward in our lives rather than letting circumstances defeat us.
Of course, this is pretty much true of anyone who has been through tough times and survived. Many of our elders who experienced the Depression, wartime, or worse tell us that they aren’t fazed by the virus or having to stay at home. Having endured previous struggles, they know they can do their best to endure this one.
That’s what all of us must keep in mind now. Knowing that we have had the resilience to get through past difficulties can support us in getting through this new hard time.
Another important point to keep in mind: When we give our suffering meaning, it helps us endure the suffering. Reminding ourselves that striving to endure this tough period will make us even more resilient can actually help us to more easily endure it.
Other ways we can strengthen our own capacity for resilience:
Do our best to take care of ourselves, of course. When we eat well, find a way to exercise, get adequate sleep and take breaks from virus-worrying through meditation or just focusing on something pleasant or uplifting, we’re less anxious and better able to keep calm. The ability to soothe ourselves is key to being resilient.
Stay connected to people around us so that we don’t wind up feeling isolated and alone, which can deepen feelings of hopelessness. We all need supportive friends and family whom we can ask for assistance when we really need it to survive. Knowing that they are there is part of feeling resilient. And if we’re able to help others in some way — dropping off groceries for an elderly relative or neighbor, or simply being willing to listen — we’re likely to feel stronger and more able to cope.
Appreciate what we have. This can include a roof over our head, food to eat, people and companion animals we love and simply being alive right now. Doing will serve us much better than lamenting.
While none of us will live forever, we all want to stay in the game as long as we can. Striving to be resilient can help us keep going forward through life with the belief that if it’s possible to survive, we have a good shot at doing so. And that belief can give us hope, determination and a positive outlook.
ADVICE: Nerves easily fray while social distancing
Look within to avoid unnecessary tension with your significant other
For many years, I’ve told couples I work with that being in long-term relationships is like taking a long journey by ship in a very small stateroom. You know, the kind where the couch unfolds to be a bed, you have to step over your partner’s legs to get to the bathroom and there’s no place to stow the suitcases. You have to find a way to stay calm, not drive each other crazy and enjoy the voyage.
I’d never actually traveled by boat, so this was just my theory. So when my husband and I were lucky enough to take a journey by ship up the Norwegian coast a few years back and had a cabin exactly as I’d envisioned (i.e. teeny), I discovered I was right. Despite the unbelievably gorgeous scenery right out our porthole, after a few days we could see how easy it would be to get irritable with each other.
Now here we all are in a much more difficult situation. We’re stuck at home, on top of each other, trying to do our jobs while taking care of companion animals and children, attempting to avoid an invisible enemy that could be anywhere. We can’t go out on deck to watch Norway float by. Instead, we’ve got the television to look at, keeping us posted about all the bad and scary news.
So it’s natural that as our nerves fray, we’re going to get irritated by our mates. They’re in the way. We don’t like their tone. They aren’t doing enough or responding when we ask a question. We feel like we’re the one doing everything.
It makes sense that we react like this at such a stressful time, but when we do, it’s all downhill from there. In our current predicament, we don’t have the usual escape outlets that let us take a break and come back to our spouses calmer and with a refreshed attitude.
What to do? Here are some simple strategies to help you, your significant other and your relationship through this extraordinarily miserable period:
Don’t point fingers: Think about what you can do to make the situation better rather than focusing on what your spouse should be doing. And then do it. This is a great strategy even in normal times. Remember, we have very little power to get another person to do something, but lots of power over our own behavior. So if we want things to change, we should look first to ourselves.
Be generous: Does your spouse feel strongly about something? Now is likely not the time to get into a struggle over whose say goes. Unless you have good reason to go in the other direction, be generous. Again, this is a policy worth adhering to when we get back to normal (soon, I hope!).
Take responsibility for soothing your own anxiety: This is always a great idea, but especially now. Yes, when we’re worried about something it feels great to get a hug and be told everything will be OK. But right now, your partner is just as anxious as you are and likely without the bandwidth to soothe you. Moreover, none of us really know that everything will be OK.
So the best thing you can do when you’re anxious is look to yourself to find ways to keep as calm as you can, under the current circumstances: Meditation, slow deep breaths, whatever exercise you can find to do, striving to be in the present, working to accept uncertainty — these are all ways you may be able to help yourself feel even a little more calm.
And if you’re able to reach out and offer your spouse some loving reassurance — even if none of us know how this will end — so much the better. Giving your partner emotional support is always a good move.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to [email protected].
A hookup isn’t worth your life in COVID era
Find other ways to pass the time in quarantine
Holding my infant son to soothe him at 3 a.m. today, I thought about how important the touch of another human is. It helps us feel safe and loved and cared about and connected. And not just when we’re teeny. The feel of my son’s chest rising and falling with his breath soothed me as well, in this grim time.
No wonder this social isolation feels so terrible. Without touch, we really feel alone.
Of course, once we’re past a certain age, sex enters the picture as a form of touch that has the power to make us feel amazing in all sorts of ways. Having sex gives many of us the feeling that we’re attractive, desired, even valuable. And those feelings are pretty awesome.
While this is true for people of all genders and sexual orientations, I often hear from my gay male therapy clients in particular how important sex is to their identity. This makes sense. We’re a group that is defined by and organized largely around our erotic and affectional preference. Much of gay culture encourages the message that to be a successful gay man, we should be sexually desirable, open to sex, and have frequent conquests. I’d also posit that many gay men have grown up feeling defective because of their sexual attractions. Sex and its companion feeling of being desired can soothe this wound.
So my heart has been going out to some of my gay male therapy clients this week as I listen to their descriptions of how they’re struggling not to have sex in the current coronavirus situation. “I have to keep hooking up or I won’t feel good about myself,” one man told me. “I’ve had sex a few times this past week, but only with guys I know and they didn’t have any symptoms,” said another. “Hooking up is what I do for fun,” said a third. “I don’t know what else to do in my free time.”
Well, now is the time to learn. It is not worth impairing our health or losing our lives for sex.
Taking a risk with your health is not actually a route to feeling good about yourself or improving self-esteem. Sadly, it is likely to reinforce the belief that you aren’t worth much.
What to do instead? It is for each of us to discover what else we care about, to look for what intrinsic value we have other than our attractiveness as sexual partners, to find additional ways to connect with others and to respect ourselves.
And just as we have had to struggle against the larger society telling us who we should be and how we should act, some of us may want to challenge ourselves to transcend the expectation that as gay men we “should” always be interested in and ready for a hookup.
Expectations and shoulds can be restrictive. When we decide for ourselves how we want to behave, we have a lot more power over our own lives.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m certainly not “sex-negative.” I’m just concerned that many of us are now putting our lives at risk to keep hooking up.
My bottom line: This awful crisis is giving us an opportunity to keep our pants zipped and discover some other ways of taking care of ourselves that don’t endanger our health and our lives. And when we behave in ways that are respectful of ourselves, our self-respect increases.
Hoping all of us get through this!
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay individuals and couples. Reach him via michaelradkowsky.com.
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