The coronavirus pandemic has changed our world. Leaders can no longer rely on old ways of leading or thinking.
Psychoanalysis, the most sophisticated method we have of understanding human nature and how our minds work, provides a framework for making sense of the experience. It also provides ideas for addressing the challenges.
The crisis will leave lasting psychological scars. The country, the world, and, to a greater or lesser extent, each one of us has experienced trauma. Whether or not we have lost loved ones, we have all lost liberty, connections with others and certainty. Many people have lost jobs. Many have lost future prospects and dreams.
Easing of lockdown and moving beyond the immediacy of the crisis, brings its own stress. Facing a second wave brings fear and anguish. So does the spectacle of political leaders unable to guide us through the pandemic. Imagining a new normal means that we will continue to live with profound uncertainty and change. And since there is no change without it, loss will continue to thread through our lives.
We know that mental health issues will be paramount as we edge forwards. Most leaders in the sector are prepared for this. They are only too aware that so many of their learners have been particularly affected by lockdown and will be disproportionately effected by recession. But my guess is that while we refer to mental health, much of the preparation will be focused on mental illness. This is necessary but insufficient. Because it excludes all those who are functioning but struggling.
Thinking about mental health, not just illness, means acquiring enough knowledge about how our minds work. Psychoanalysis shows that the starting place is to recognise that we have an unconscious and internal world, as well as a conscious and external world. The internal world is populated by people from our lives – alive, dead, loved, hated – along with different parts of ourselves. The part that tells us we’re not good enough for example. Or the part that insists we work endlessly. Some of our parts complement each other, others contradict each other.
Our inherent contradictions cause us anxiety, much of which we try to keep out of the way in our unconscious. There’s good reason for this; too much anxiety diminishes our capacity to think, concentrate, learn or make decisions. It can paralyse us. But now, the heightened anxiety of the pandemic pushes more anxiety into our conscious mind. The difficulty this poses is increased by the conflation between the real threat of death in the world, and the ever-present unconscious anxiety and phantasies about death in our mind. The collective and individual trauma has added to the psychological burden by suddenly ripping through the protective shield of our psychological defences.
For the most part our defences live in our internal world. We always need them to cope, but when we get caught in their grip, they cause problems. Take denial, a common defence: if we deny the ongoing danger of the pandemic, we risk wave after wave and death after death. If we deny the fact that we will not simply return to normal after it, we risk the work needed to begin to build for the future.
Closely related to denial is omnipotence, which may get us to believe that we and our loved ones will remain impervious to the virus. Splitting and projection are also defences we all use from time to time: we split off aspects of ourselves we find unbearable, such as our envy or aggression, or perhaps our intellect. We often project these disowned aspects of ourselves into others. Leaders are commonly receptacles for projection as in our minds they represent our earliest experiences of authority figures – our parents or carers – and the mixture of feelings we have about those people.
In this context, what can leaders in the sector do? I suggest the starting place is with the person many leaders neglect – themselves. That means making space and time to keep in touch with yourself. We cannot be resilient if we do not know something of the impact of the external world on our internal world. For example, I have been functioning reasonably well during this time. Sometimes though, when my conscious mind tells me I’m not too anxious, my dreams tell me otherwise. Paying attention to them helps me look after myself. I re-balance my days better, putting more time into connecting with others and watching nourishing programmes, instead of over-working, hitting a wall and potentially becoming unwell.
In doing this I contain my anxiety. This psychoanalytic concept means keeping anxiety at a level where people can function effectively. Containment is key to leadership, and never more so than now. It’s about providing a safe enough space for people to talk about their worries and concerns without fear of judgement. It’s about resisting the urge to rush in with false reassurance or solutions or advice and instead, listening. Listening not to what we expect or want to hear, but to what people are really expressing, to what they say and avoid saying. Containing staff and creating the conditions for staff to contain learners, must be a priority for leaders now.
Lockdown can pull us towards inertia, so it is important that, alongside containment, leaders use their aggression healthily and find their agency. Without this, they will not be able to muster their own authority, make decisions and take action in the best interests of their organisation, its staff, learners and community.
At a time when thinking and integrity are under threat, decision making has probably never been tougher. It requires being emotionally present to ourselves and to others, and bringing together feelings with intellect. Only then, can leaders hold onto their love and attachment to the sector and their organisation and act on the basis of this constructive side of us, even when faced by the powerful beat of destructiveness at the door.
Gabriella Braun is the Director of Working Well, a specialist consultancy company using psychoanalysis and systems thinking to develop leaders, teams and organisations. She is a close colleague and associate of FETL.