Self-Leadership in Confinement

What is the difference between being socially excluded, being imprisoned in a jail, being in space orbiting around the planet, or being isolated because of the flu pandemic? Not a big difference… After a couple of days you begin to perceive the magnitude of the confinement. And what strikes you mostly – if you’re reasonably bright – is the loss of freedom. Of course you can have a walk, of course you can go shopping or move a bit around your home – if you’re not quarantined – but the loss of freedom can be agonizing. Those in a space station and those in jails know it better than those who can still go out, so today it is advisable to learn from their experience. Then, there is something that makes the pandemic seclusion really remarkable compared to other confinement situations: the fear. While in jail, in space or in social exclusion, you are not afraid that a virus might come and kill you. In this particular pandemic case however, death is a likely possibility, hence a massive fear of the unknown, of the future, of the ambiguity regarding your life and the life of your loved ones.

Summarizing, in a pandemic like the one we currently experience, you get fear and isolation packed together with ambiguity. A rare combination in anyone’s life.

Now… my opinion is that a rational perspective is better than an emotional one in situations like these. Why? Because we must deal with fear, and fear takes this time the form of true fear, not anxiety. Anxiety has no reason to exist; fear does. So, being driven by emotions will likely turn us into hysterics. The likelihood of death is very real and few people are healthy enough to deal with strong emotions, without becoming impulsive animals driven by lower instincts.

One of the first steps in a crisis is to define what stays in your power and what doesn’t. I do this at the beginning of each counseling session with my patients and I will do it again now. What is under control and what isn’t? From the beginning I will tell you that being killed by the virus is not under your control. Surprised? If your body is vulnerable due to genetic factors or existing diseases or old age, you are likely to die. Worrying about this is pointless. It’s like a Russian roulette: you die or you live. No amount of precautions and no amount of prayers are going to save you. But you are nevertheless free to do whatever you want; the outcome is the same. However, there are things that stay in your power, things that you can do to reduce the odds of being killed: social distancing, enough rest, decent food and shelter, etc. And then, there are mental hygiene habits that might help, so I’ll be focusing on the latter ones.

The first problem that arises when being isolated is the lack of time structure. You might not be aware but our time is mostly prearranged and our lives are profoundly ritualized. We live by procedures and processes, connecting one procedure after another. There is a complex, mostly reflex procedure of waking up and going to work: you wake up at a certain time in the morning, you go to the bathroom, you eat, you get dressed, you commute or drive your car. Then, when arriving at your job, you enact another procedure: prepare your workplace, chat with your colleagues, maybe drink a coffee, hear the latest gossips and so on. Furthermore, you perform another set of procedures linked to your actual job, then another procedure of coming back from work, time with your family, private time, meals, hobbies, etc. Now… everything I mentioned before is being shattered into pieces by pandemic-induced confinement. Those procedures that used to make your life comfortable, familiar, those things that made you feel in control… you fairly lost them. It is similar when you lose your job, move to a different place, or retire… you lose your time structure, your routine, your rituals. And this is known as being one of the most stressful life events, heavily researched by psychologists who have identified many stressful situations related to change. So, going back to concrete examples, you wake up in the morning (probably out of habit at the same hour) and then… nothing. There is a huge day ahead of you and you have no idea what to do with it… or, to be precise, you have no idea what to do with yourself…

One of the most important things you can do with yourself in case of confinement is to create a new schedule for yourself, a new time structure. Otherwise it is going to be hard and you will get disoriented. And confusion leads to stress, and stress leads to immune system feeling unwell, and poor immunity leads to vulnerability in the face of disease. Plus, confusion can lead to mental issues like anxiety and depression, because having a lot of time to ponder on your life might lead to realizing that you’re living in an illusion or a sick game, and maybe it is not such a good idea to psychoanalyze yourself in pandemic times…

So, summarizing, you need to re-structure your time. Even if it might sound completely stupid, do what you used to do in normal times, minus that part with the job-related procedures. Fill that voided time with new stuff that was postponed until now. Spend more time with the family (if there is any), finish that delayed project (if any), get some extra sleep (if applicable).

In parallel with a lot of unstructured time, there is a second problem: bad news. You are getting and you will continue to get numbers, scores, statistics of dead people. On all TV news channels there is only one subject: the coronavirus. How many people got infected. How many people are dead. How many people get fired. High unemployment. Global recession. Economic crisis. Leadership crises. Ineffective measures. And all these news are spiraling in an infernal twirl. Bad news combined with uncertainty and ambiguity have the potential to cause a nervous breakdown. What can be done? Two things.

First, restructure your time in such a way so that you get informed but not poisoned by negative news. Put a shield between you and bad news. Although in this case you can’t stop bad news from striking you (you need to be well informed), you can control the frequency of bad news hits per day. So, schedule information times 2 or 3 times per day, switching off any device (TV, internet) in between. For instance, surf the internet or hear the news in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Don’t stay connected all day long to bad news, including waking up during the night so as to check you mobile phone for the latest bad news. More likely, nothing about this pandemic is truly urgent; it is not like a rocket strike. Bad news can be postponed… that is, they can be managed…

Second, form the habit to ask yourself, after being hit by bad information, this simple question: Can I do something about this new piece of information? If yes, do what you can do, take the precautions, plan what can be planned, make the moves that stay in your power. If not, acknowledge that doing something new is beyond your power, and return to your daily schedule, persuading yourself to defocus from things you cannot control or do anything about.

Summarizing, scheduling the intake of bad news and deciding if something can be done about them or not, is part of the mental hygiene you need to practice during pandemic times.

While there are at least 2 problems with being confined, there is also an opportunity. Think a bit for a moment: you have, suddenly, a lot of time on your hands. After having structured your daily agenda, and after having removed the continuous influx of bad news, and after having partially removed the fear, there is a resource available. Some people know what to do with this time; some don’t. And you may ask: How should I know what to do during this time when, at the same time, I don’t know if I’m going to make it or not? In normal times, knowing what to do in your extra time is easy (although for most people this question never occurs, as they simply waste time). But now, with death as a likely outcome, the stress is huge. So there are 2 steps to be followed.

The first step is to acknowledge again that there are things you can control and things that are beyond your control. If you are going to die, you will. And there is nothing you can do about it. But if you are going to live, then you can do a lot during this free time that has just become available. The first step is to choose: Are you going to look at the possibility that you might die or are you going to look at the possibility that you might live? If you look at death, you will be petrified, frozen, as there is no available option left for you. If you look at life, you will understand that there are things to be done. No matter the outcome, no matter if you survive or not, it is more beneficial to choose to believe that you will survive rather than choosing to believe that you will die. It is a conscious and rational choice you need to make. And it is essential if you want to escape from the parasite fear that is lingering beneath your conscious psyche. So, you must decide which path you take: either you prepare for death, or you prepare to live. You cannot know this, so you need to make a leap of faith, to project yourself, in an irrational manner, into a future that didn’t happen yet.

If at this moment you still believe that you will die, please stop reading and go to write your testament and make the preparations for your funeral. You are no longer benefiting from this lecture. No matter if you survive or not during this pandemic, you cannot make the leap of faith so you will continue to live in fear. What I’m about to write further is of no benefit for you, as you cannot do what I suggest and be afraid at the same time.

If at this moment you gave up believing that you will die, read on. It doesn’t matter if you will die or not (we cannot know that yet, as the pandemic is not over), but from now on the idea of death (and the possibility of dieing) has been excluded from your psyche. You now behave and think as if you are going to live forever. And this is exactly the frame of mind you need in order to mentally survive: act as if you’re immortal. This is using imagination in a positive way, and also using your faith in a constructive way. Lucidly, what you do is irrational; you just created an illusion of the future, the illusion that you will survive this time too. But it is illusion, and not reason, that is going to help you get over your fear of dieing and unlock your potential to use the time left in an efficient and meaningful way. Now you are ready for the second step.

Ask yourself this: What can I do now, during this free time of confinement, so that one year from now I can say that what I did was the best thing I could have done? What can I do now so that in the future, looking back to the past that is now my present, I can say I was a smart guy? How do I organize myself now, what do I choose to do, so that this time can be helpful for the future? (Remember, I believe I won’t die!)

With these questions you are putting into perspective the present moment while looking into (and from) the future. It is only when you refuse the perspective of death that you can see yourself in the future, and from that future you can rethink your present. If death is at the end of this period, you can’t imagine anything; it’s only darkness… or nothingness. So, what needs to be done now, in the present, so as to make your life advance to what you want to achieve? Some might want to meditate, grow spiritually. Others, who are more pragmatic, might learn something new and helpful. Some might plan on the new opportunities offered by the changed world that we will witness after the pandemic (it will be changed). Some will plan how to find a new job, or acquire new skills, as they are freshly unemployed. Some will continue what they like most, such as writing on their blog…

You might notice that I used the term self-leadership in the title of this article. Indeed, people follow leaders, but some of them can also follow their own lead. I am not interested in followers but rather leaders who can self-discipline themselves and self-lead themselves. Once you can lead yourself it is easy to lead others. And what this current crisis begins to reveal, is a profound lack of leadership at all levels. If you can pull yourself together in confinement times like these, you are likely to win in less stressful situations in the future, and perhaps later lead others to a better world.

2 thoughts on “Self-Leadership in Confinement

  1. As always, THANK YOU DOCTORE! I learned long time ago, in a time of personal depression that keeping a disciplined structure to my day will save my life. And I do, I have a set time to go to bed, a set time to wake up, fix my bed as soon as I get up, open the window. Shower and shave to keep an acceptable appearance (I am showing myself to the most important and beloved people in my life: my spouse and my 2 children). And then, finally, I have some time to do the things that I have been forever postponing because my life is so busy with work, commute, administrative things around the house. Get out of the house *** every *** single *** day ***, if only for a 20 minutes walk outside, no headphones, just look around you and give a chance to your thoughts to fly up in the sky. Remember, simple things. And again Thank you Cezar!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice to see you stopped by my blog! I begin to feel kinda lonely now, seeing the website traffic statistics… I wasn’t sure if I’m not the only one reading what I write… But as I said in the past, writing is perhaps the only true passion that I still enjoy as I get older; it is my way of staying sane and it is my only creative activity. If what I write is of any help to others, it is even better.
      Stay safe, my friend!


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