At the start of the year, The New York Times asked a question that seems still to be on everyone’s mind: Why, exactly, is everyone so angry?
There is no question that COVID-19 has taken a toll on our psychological well-being. Pandemic-related stress made headlines with stories of short-tempered customer service agents, conflicts over masks and vaccines, exhausted healthcare workers and weary teachers walking off the job, and anxious parents staging public demonstrations.
The wear-and-tear has been evident in ordinary, daily life, too. Spats with partners or spouses seem to come out of nowhere. Children exhibit more restless, unsettled or even angry behavior. Once-close relationships with friends, acquaintances or co-workers are strained and distant.
After more than two years of disruption, almost everything about interpersonal relationships feels out of sync, at home, at work, and in public venues.
All these things are interconnected. No matter how much we like to think that we keep things separate – such as by “leaving work at work” – none of us lives in a silo, and our feelings don’t exist in isolation either.
How, then, might we start to reclaim a sense of balance and order in our relationships, whether we’re in our own living rooms, an office conference room, or a busy store?
How to build healthier connections
There are several individual practices that each of us can adopt in response to tumultuous times. These simple behaviors are equally appropriate with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers alike. One suggestion is to master these approaches at home or in close personal relationships first. Once they become habits, they will likely flow outward into every relationship and encounter.
- Taking time: Regardless of how busy our schedules are, setting aside time to talk and connect is important. If you’ve gotten in the habit of “doing your own thing” at home, perhaps try scheduling time together with your partner, child, or roommate. The topics don’t need to be heavy, and the time interval does not need to be long for the interaction to be a meaningful way of reconnecting.
- Reflective listening: We hear a lot about active listening, but reflective listening – listening carefully and then repeating back what another person has said to you – can particularly help in situations of conflict. The goal is not to be a parrot. Instead, repeating or restating what the other person said can allow us to hear their perspectives in our own voice, and better understand them. This simple act can change the tone of an interaction.
- Assume positive intent: It’s easy to think otherwise, but there are volumes of social science research behind this simple truth: People most often intend to do right by others and themselves, even when they say or do things that may seem hurtful, insensitive or selfish. When encountering someone whose behavior comes across as callous or hurtful – particularly if that person is a close family member or friend – how might the situation improve if you paused to consider positive intent?
- Be honest with yourself about relationships that are unhealthy, abusive or no longer working as positive forces in your life. Friendly compromise, based on mutual respect, is healthy in relationships. Abusive behavior is not. When you bow out of conversations or interactions that are going in a negative direction, you are investing in your own well-being. If the conflict or negativity is with a close friend, colleague, or family member, perhaps a cooling-off period, giving everyone a chance to breathe and calm down, will, in time, lead to restoring the connection later.
- Accept things and people as they are. As the often-quoted Maya Angelou line goes, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” Although these words are frequently cited in support of recognizing and ending an unhealthy connection, the true meaning behind the words is deeper. Acknowledging people as they are, not as we want them to be, is the foundation of trust in relationships. This kind of acceptance takes time to master. But even if we want situations to improve, we need to begin with reality.
- Know that self-care isn’t selfish. Just as a car can’t run on an empty tank (or battery), human beings cannot function well – physically, mentally, or spiritually – from a place of deficiency. While our “surge capacity” can get us through short-term, temporary situations, this adaptive response to stress is not only unsustainable in the long term, it’s also depleting in its own way.
Rising to an unexpected challenge (e.g., losing sleep to care for a sick child or partner; making time in an already-full schedule to comfort a grieving friend) is part and parcel of being in relationship with others. However, routinely denying one’s own needs in favor of serving or caring for other people is a losing proposition for everyone. Taking care of your own needs – physical, mental, and spiritual – ensures that you can and will be available to others when they need human support and companionship.
Remember: Adult relationships are two-way partnerships. Suppose any romantic, platonic, or familial relationship requires always giving more than you receive in return. In that case, the imbalance will limit your ability to engage in other, healthy and supportive relationships, including yourself.
How to build healthier communities
After mastering these relationship skills at home and with close friends, consider expanding outward with additional practices that are focused on community:
- Practicing patience can help us meet others halfway, even in tense situations. We do not necessarily have to agree with or fully understand them or their behavior. But when we sense ourselves getting angry or feeling stressed, a 10-second budget is often enough to breathe, allow ourselves to confirm our own feelings, consider the other person’s perspective and assess our next steps in the situation. This concept is as true in the grocery store check-out line as it is at home.
- Step in for others if it’s safe and appropriate. In some situations, it’s okay to help broker peace between two people (colleagues at work, for example), perhaps using the reflective listening skills you’ve been practicing at home. Sometimes a neutral third party — you, in such a case — can help others understand one another.
- Get involved in organizations doing essential work to create peace in your neighborhoods, starting with where your talents are most needed and can make the most difference.
Recognize the power behind small steps
The pandemic’s aftereffects are likely to last longer than any of us would choose. And while the at-large impact is greater than any single person can address alone, our individual behaviors contribute to our collective society. Each of us holds the power to affect our own behavior, which in turn affects those around us. With patience, we may find that the small, daily practices we employ to improve our personal relationships eventually make for a more peaceful community everywhere.