"I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself." DH Lawrence's famous quote is one I've tried to come back to several times during this never-ending lockdown when I've lost all perspective.
Faced with a feeling of hopelessness and living like a prisoner, I have often felt sorry for myself and exaggerated my misfortunes in the last six weeks. Then I look over at my dog, a 10-year-old spaniel. He hasn't felt sorry for himself a day in his life. Just like Lawrence's bird, animals don't have that emotional response. It's a uniquely human experience.
Yes, animals like dogs mourn when they lose one of their own. They can have anxiety just like the rest of us, too. But feeling sorry for oneself in the sense of self-pity? That's something only people do.
Yet during a pandemic, feeling sorry for yourself is inevitable at one point or another. You can remind yourself "at least I'm safe and healthy", when putting any Covid-era woes into perspective, but sometimes that mantra doesn't cut it. While safe from the virus at home, you can suffer in many other ways, especially psychologically, putting you in a deep hole of unfairness and pessimism. You may truly start to believe you're a victim and wonder, "what did I do to deserve this?"
With this feeling of self-pity, for me at least, eventually comes self-sabotage. Case in point: last week's mental breakdown, which I am now affectionately referring to as a "Menty B". On this day, Auckland's Covid infections were stubbornly sitting around the 20-mark, leaving me to feel like level 2, yet alone level 1, was never going to happen. I started to believe I would never see my friends again, never see my parents in the South Island again, never go to the office again. This weird existence of solitude seemed immutable.
The resulting behaviour, my affectionately-dubbed Menty B, involved sitting on the floor of the bathroom staring at the tiles for an unhealthy amount of time. Deciding not to work out, or even leave the house for fresh air. Assuming all emails came with negative intent and sending ice-cold replies. And then stuffing my face with sourdough, gourmet granola and cookies… basically the kinds of food that might normally bring me a modicum of joy. In feeling sorry for myself, I wallowed in my pity party and took on a "F*** it all!" attitude. The same kind one might take on when ending a very hard week with a bottle of vodka.
That well of pessimism, that Menty B, took me a good day and a half to get out of.
Have you felt like this during lockdown? I put this down to complete social isolation. When you're not seeing to other people in real life (Zoom doesn't count), your world becomes very small. All you can think about is yourself and your immediate problems. Thinking medium- or long-term is very difficult. As are conceiving repercussions, such as feeling sick from binge-eating or hurting someone (and needing to apologise for your frosty behaviour).
If I were my dog, how would I have better dealt with this experience? Well, I wouldn't have dwelled on any concept of anything being wrong. In the mind of animals, when you're safe, warm, dry, and fed, there's nothing else to address.
My mind is never going to be as simple as that of a canine, however. Humans are more complex, and while we can get inspiration from less-intelligent animals, we need some of our own human tools to survive.
When you've been through one Menty B – and most of us have had at least one in the last month – you can retrospectively look back and see there were warning signs of your downward spiral. You didn't start off deep in that hole of self-pity; you dug it progressively. When those warning signs present themselves in the future, you can check yourself. Stop yourself from digging any further with real-time self-acknowledgement.
However, in accepting you're heading down the track of feeling sorry for yourself to the point of no return, you must stop judging yourself for feeling that way. When you tell yourself, "I shouldn't feel like this, I am healthy and safe!" it only creates shame. Holding on to shame creates anxiety, and anxiety prevents you from seeing clearly or towards solutions.
You could them start practicing gratitude and gaining perspective through some sort of cognitive behavioural therapy, but I find – for me – the only way out is turning my negative thoughts into an experiment in mindfulness. Rather than trying to change how I'm feeling, I try to accept how I'm feeling. Accepting it takes away its power. It doesn't turn your thoughts into a self-fulfilling prophecy, but rather, kneecaps them. Paradoxically, this acknowledgement doesn't take you further down an emotional spiral. It gives you the strength to pull yourself out.
I'll never be as laissez-faire as my dog, but accepting this, funnily enough, is a good step towards being just like him.