After more than a year of fear and uncertainty, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention largely dropped federal mask mandates about a week ago. You'd think we'd be dancing in the streets maskless, right? Instead, many Americans are operating more like turtles, slowly peeking out, then returning quickly to the security of their shells. And trust me — it's not just introverts who already are pining for some aspects of the solitary pandemic experience. What is going on? I turned to Kirsten Lind Seal, a Twin Cities licensed marriage and family therapist, who assures us that it's normal to be feeling a bit of whiplash. She also weighs in on mask shaming, "cave syndrome" and how we turtles can best move forward.
Q: So, "cave syndrome." The second I heard the phrase, I knew what it meant. You, too?
A: I had not heard it but I looked it up and it referenced "hikikomori," a Japanese term referring to young people who refuse to come out of their rooms. The phrase also hearkens back to when we lived in caves and a growl outside might mean getting eaten. It's not surprising that we're hanging onto this fear. It totally makes sense. The CDC guidelines are very, very confusing. We're in a really tricky transition period. We can't come back in a snap.
Q: So, in some ways, the lockdown was far less confusing?
A: It was so much easier with the lockdown, so black and white. Stay in the house, don't see anybody. Sometimes, we long for the simplicity of childhood, where the rules were clear. There's massive amounts of research about this. Our natural inclination is to go with the simplest route.
Q: What are your clients sharing with you, in a general sense?
A: My more introverted clients tell me, "I feel kind of bad saying this, but I wish we were still on lockdown." It's more conducive to their own sense of serenity. Many of my more extroverted clients are excited, yet still not sure who they can believe. While not impugning the CDC, I don't know too many people who are raring to go. I'm fully vaccinated but still not going to indoor restaurants or the movies.
Q: I think the underlying theme here is trust, trust of the CDC and other institutions. Trust of our neighbors and friends and family members. How do we regain that trust?
A: My specialty is relationships. When people come to me, it's because trust has been broken. I think of trust like the wind. It's hard to see but we know when it's not there. It is integral, it is crucial for relationships. The thing about trust is that it can be rebuilt — however, we have to have patience. With family and friends, we just have to navigate slowly, not assume anything and continue to have these important conversations.
Q: Aside from cave people getting eaten, is there an event in more recent history that mirrors the struggles of post-COVID re-entry?
A: I'd say 9/11. That was a foundational attack on our sense of security. Even with two world wars, where people died or were missing, it was all "over there." The 1918 flu epidemic was so long ago, but I would imagine that people still struggled in the aftermath.
Q: You talk about "shared traumatic reality" related to COVID. Please say more about that.
A: It refers to a catastrophic event, like 9/11, that is experienced by both therapists and their clients. Some of the boundaries blur a little due to this. It's not just clients who weren't sleeping or eating, or who were experiencing stress over the past 15 months. I found that I had to really kick up my meditation practice, make sure I was exercising, in order to show up for my clients the way they needed me to.
Q: So, the big question: How do we navigate now?
A: A few ideas: Work on self-calming practices such as meditation, prayer or listening to soothing music. Be intentional that you're doing it to calm yourself. Get vigorous exercise. Go out in nature. Play with pets. If you don't have pets, see if there's one on your block. Practice going out into your normal routines little by little. For example, gather in your backyard with friends and take your mask off and see how it feels. If something feels too dangerous, such as sitting in an outdoor café without a mask, keep your mask on. Try it again once case levels are down. With all of this, weigh the benefits of social interaction vs. the drawbacks of social isolation.
Q: Anything we should not do?
A: Feel shame. Have compassion for yourself. Accept that this is going to be difficult.
Q: Thank you. But do you expect some mask shaming in both directions?
A: We're so tribal as humans. We like to be in our little pocket of righteousness. I think it's possible there will be mask shaming. Try not to do it because it's not kind.
Q: What's the best way to respond?
A: Thanks for your opinion. I will certainly consider that!
Q: What aspects of pandemic life do you expect will stay with us?
A: We've just had a crash course in experimenting with new social norms. People will hang on to some of this. If I fly, I'll double mask and bring my own snacks. All of it will be to our benefit. If you find that the great scrum of your old life was too much, then claim aspects of the quieter routine. Ask yourself: Who do I really want to spend time with? Prioritize. That is going to be a very useful thing going forward.