In this week’s episode, we speak with Elizabeth Bernstein of The Wall Street Journal about how to strengthen and nurture our relationships with family, friends, and even ourselves during these turbulent times.
Jeffrey Freedman: Hello, and welcome to the RP HealthCast by RooneyPartners. I am your host, Jeffrey Freedman. It seems that 2020 is the year that keeps on giving. If it was not the pandemic, it was the election or it was one of several natural disasters occurring across the country. Times right now are tough, and it is tough all over. Whether you are a large family all living under one roof and on top of each other or if you are living all alone and trying to deal with the isolation that this pandemic created over the past nine months, holding it together is not easy. To top it off, this past month finally put an end to a very bitter and divided election season. While we are happy, it is over and we can now move forward as a nation. It is really hard to believe how divided our country really is with almost an exact fifty-fifty split and political differences. This election, or should I say political rhetoric has torn friendships and torn families apart. What I want to talk about today is not the divisiveness we are facing as a people, but rather the hope. We have an opportunity right now to move forward and to strengthen and build upon our relationships. We could strengthen and mend our relationships with our families, our friends, our neighbors, but also with ourselves. We are coming into the thanksgiving and holiday season right now with an opportunity to give thanks for the good things in our lives and to move forward and to start anew. To discuss this with us today, I am delighted to have a very special guest, Elizabeth Bernstein. Elizabeth is an award-winning journalist. For the past twenty years, she has been a writer for the Wall Street Journal where she currently writes the Bonds column and that is about psychology, emotions, communication, and relationships. Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining us today.
Elizabeth Bernstein: Thank you so much for having me.
Jeffrey: In my introduction, I mentioned that you write the Bonds column for the Wall Street Journal. If 2020 was not a year for the need to better understand our bonds and personal relationships, I do not know what was. Can you talk to us a little bit about your column and what you cover?
Elizabeth: Sure. I write a column called Bonds. As you said, I have been doing this for the past ten years, this column. I really think of it as a self-help column that looks at our relationships with others and with ourselves. How can we improve both of those things? How can I improve my relationship with anybody else in my life I care about? How can I improve my relationship with myself? I look at a lot of research in Psychology, Communication, Sociology, that kind of thing. Right now, I look back and I feel like, “Wow. I am almost writing this sort of guide book for the pandemic. How are we going to get through this with all of our relationships and maybe our sanity intact?”
Jeffrey: I think this interview is almost going to be a self-help guide for me as well, listening to you. You are absolutely right. These past eight months in this pandemic has been hard. It is been very hard on relationships. Personally speaking, I have been working out of my house along with my wife who is also working from home. We have three kids ranging from grad school to college to high school, and all of which are taking classes at home now with us. So we have five of us. We have two dogs. We have a hamster. We are all under one roof, but I know we are not the only family getting under each other’s feet and starting to get pandemic fatigue. What are you hearing across the country, not just for families, large families like ours but individuals that are isolated? What are you hearing? What advice are you giving to us about how to keep it together?
Elizabeth: I am just hearing every single person no matter what their particular situation, their individual situation as every single person is having a really tough time. From the people who are single and writing this out alone, loneliness is on the rise. People like yourself with a family with a bunch of kids at home all under one roof trying to go to school and work. You have got the parents of young children. That may even be the hardest I think, trying to home school and become full-time teachers at the same time that they are both working it on. There are people like myself. I have a partner I live with but also I take care of elderly parents or help to take care of them. All the stresses of trying to steer your elderly parents through this pandemic, keeping them safe, and checking on them. It is just very very hard. And then on top of all of our stressors, we are all on top of each other. The little things are adding up. We were not meant to just stay in the same few rooms all together all the time, so there is that. We do not have normal. It just goes on and on the challenges. We do not have a normal sort of mental help relief. We do not get to go out. We do not get to do these things we love that are stress release. It just goes on and on. I hear of these people under deep stress. Everybody is under deep stress. We are on top of each other. We do not have our normal stress relievers. There is all of that. But on the flip side, I am hearing something that over and over, too is, “Wow. We are getting closer.” This is sort of a special time even as much. We sometimes want to pull each other’s hair out. We are getting closer in this time. I am hearing both of those things. People on top of each other. People trying to get along a lot more stress, a lot more fear and worry. What I tell people is really to be mindful of the relationship. Sometimes, some of the best advice I believe that I have seen over and over is when someone is driving you crazy, try to stop yourself right there in your head and look at what you love about that person. Yes, your spouse left the light on or left the proverbial towel or sock on the floor, you want to scream again, but try to remember why we love each other. Sometimes, we forget everything that the other person is doing to help us. Try to remember. Try to actively focus yourself on the good in the relationship, the good in the other person, even the smallest things that are good, and that will keep you I think on the correct track. Try to sort of letting some of the other stuff roll off of you. That is one of my biggest pieces of advice, focus on the positives. But another piece of advice would be, “We need to communicate more clearly right now.” This is always the case. We do not always communicate very clearly with each other. But right now, if someone is annoying us and if something is going wrong rather than waiting a week or two till you are about to explode because you are furious, we need to learn to communicate clearly and early about the things that are not quite going right so we can sort of again, get ourselves back on track. That is one, and then I guess another one is just trying to see this time for a very special time like time out of time almost, the stolen time you get to be with yourself. You are with your children. I know it is hard, but if you were not all there, if there was not a pandemic, they would be all off running around doing their school things off at school. I try to tell people, “Remember this, we will miss something about this time. Maybe, not much but we will miss something about this time later and try to stop and remember that now.” Already, I do not know about other people, but I think I do speak for others. I think that we are already missing a little bit of that early pandemic when we are baking bread. It seems like the stress of it and the heaviness of it has picked up. Even this moment now, we will miss it in the future. I sound like a bad country song. But we are going to miss some of this, I know we will. Try to focus. The best thing and really almost the only thing we can do is to keep trying to focus on the positives and build up the positives now. It is really almost the only way out of it.
Jeffrey: Great advice. All right. Let us talk a little bit about families. How can we control our own emotions? You wrote an article for the journal entitled The Art of the Pandemic Meltdown. I thought that was phenomenal. When you give advice in your own words, you called it ‘losing it the right way’. Can you talk a little bit about this and tell us about what this was about?
Elizabeth: Yes, I can. The Art of the Pandemic Meltdown, I would believe most people know about these things too because we have got to all be having them. I cannot be the only one. A meltdown is where you temporarily lose control of yourself. You maybe snap it. Often times, the one that we think of is suddenly the toddler kicking and screaming and yelling and crying and rage. Sometimes these pandemic meltdowns can look like just checking out. I have to go to bed in the afternoon. Oftentimes, men in fact become quieter. Women will be the ones who are crying and carrying on, but they are both meltdowns. I want to be clear about that. This idea of temporarily losing control and often nowadays is the smallest things that push us over. For me, you hold it together for so many big things. Some serious fear of COVID, election stress, homeschooling, any loss of a job, all of the big things. For me, it was the backspace key on my keyboard on deadline that just popped off and would not go back on. The littlest thing just sends you off the edge and suddenly you are just ranting and raving. This is the pandemic meltdown. What I wrote about is that these meltdowns are actually can be good for us if you have them the right way. You do not want to have them too often. You certainly do not want to take out this loss of control in someone else. A good sort of private meltdown can really help you because you are getting rid of the stress and you are getting rid of these really painful emotions of fear and anxiety moving it out of the way and then you can regroup and go on. I wrote, “You need to accept it. Do not judge yourself for it and try to have a good meltdown.”
Jeffrey: It is a lot healthier to do it that way than many other ways. I think that is great. We talk about families and we talked about ourselves. Let us talk for a minute about our friendships and our neighbors. You wrote an article entitled ‘Bring Fun Back Into Your Friendships – Despite The COVID Pandemic’. Tell us about the advice you gave to strengthen our bonds with our friends, even if this strengthening is remotely and we cannot do it in person?
Elizabeth: I liked this article in particular because I had seen research that showed that we are happier with our friends than we are with our family or our coworkers or our kids. Which does sound really amazing if you think about it that we are actually happier with our friends. Part of the reason is probably that we do more fun things with our friends. With our family, with our co-workers again, with our kids we tend to do chores and there is a lot of things that come with those relationships that are not pure fun, and our friends are often mostly fun. I wanted to look at what is special about friendships and why we need them now. I think many of us that are what we are missing. We can see our families, but we are not seeing our friends. We are not even having time to talk to our friends as much. How can we put that fun back? I wanted to look at that and a large part of it because I really miss my friends. A few pieces of advice if you are missing your friends, you want to reach out to them. Do not wait for them. I hear this often, “Well, so and so never calls me.” “Have you picked up the phone? Call them. Take the initiative to keep these relationships going, to keep them again, on track.” Right now, I think a lot of when we do reach out to our friends were rehearsing. We are going over and over all of our stressors. “How are you?” “Oh, well. This happened and that bad thing happened. I am anxious and on and on,” but how about putting that aside for now and trying really consciously to put the fun back into your friendships? It sounds light and silly, but it is actually pretty profound. You want to keep these friendships going and we want to keep the joy in them because that will buoy us up right now in a really difficult time. You could have not socially-distant fun, maybe you could take a hike or ride bikes together or meet in an outdoor cafe if that is something you are comfortable with. You could also have a socially-distant project. I gave an example in the article of my friends and family all got together and just did this resilience challenge to raise money for the Leukemia Association a month ago. We all tried to move 50 miles in one month and we did it online with each other and we had videos. It was actually really fun. It had the added goal that we all got off the couch. You could do that. You could try to have some kind of group thing from afar that is kind of a fun thing. Another piece. When you are doing this, try to call your friends, try to have some fun with them. Another piece of advice is to let us think more carefully now about dialing down the therapy sessions. Let us dial back the anxiety. If I am missing my friends, I am missing that fun. I do not have to call them all the time and just go over and over what is wrong in my life where everything that they are worried about. How about trying to get back to something joyful in these friendships? That is really what I was writing about.
Jeffrey: We have been talking a lot about the pandemic, but another recent event that caused a lot of anxiety and relationship issues has been the election. Even though the election, I want to say, is behind us,
the wounds caused by this bitter partisan divide is going to be with us for quite a while now. We are a week away from Thanksgiving and we will be sharing the dinner table both virtually and in-person this year. You wrote an article last month entitled ‘Loathe Your Loved One’s Politics? Here is Some Advice’. We are going to need this. We are going to need some advice here. What did you share in that article about how to get along with those family members, those friends that you do not have the same political affiliations?
Elizabeth: This is maybe one of the toughest ones right now. As you mentioned, we have a very partisan situation in our country and it has been going on for a number of years. I hear it from people all the time. This is really a very large sticking point for them in their relationships. I hear just heartbreaking stories, politics killing marriages right now, parents not talking to children. It is really a tough one. So I cannot solve all of that but I did talk to some experts and try to get some good advice to people. As we come upon Thanksgiving, it is always whenever agreeing-problem at every holiday meal, “Oh, here comes uncle Bob with his politics and now we have to talk about it.” Here is sort of a quick primer. It is going to be tough. It is tough right now to talk about politics, but we have got this isolation going on where we are all isolated from our loved ones as well. I really caution people to try to dial it back and to try as hard as you can to not let it ruin the relationships with the people you care about. I do get letters all the time saying, “Well, you do not understand so and so ideas are immoral.” I cannot abide by, not just politics, but their values. Let me be clear. If you really find somebody in your life that you cannot abide by their values, that is for you to decide whether or not to have them in your life. What I am talking about is when you do have people in your life and if you have people you care about, this is how you can make it better. Number one advice on politics, for someone you want to keep in your life, do not talk about it. I am really clear that people want to argue with me, “Oh, no. What if no?” Do not talk about it. It is a lose-lose situation if you are going to talk about politics with someone that you do want to get along with. Just let it go. We have this fantasy that we are going to be exactly like every single person that we care about. It is not true. You can have different ideas from your father, and you and your father can be a good person. Both of you be good people. For our loved ones, do not talk about politics. How do you do that? You have some catchphrases. At Thanksgiving, you can say, “Hey, we are just not going to agree on this so let us enjoy our day. Let us enjoy the turkey. Let us enjoy each other. We do not get to see each other much.” You can just have these phrases that are a pivot away from the political talk. You just want to pivot from it. That is my biggest biggest tip for politics right now, “We are not going to do this. We cannot discuss it fruitfully. Let us enjoy ourselves.” The idea is to preserve the relationship. You are not going to win the argument. You want to remind yourself. “Hey, what is good?” Uncle Bob might be a little crazy, but maybe you loved him for other reasons. Remind yourself of the good.
Jeffrey: That is great. Thanksgiving and then, we are going to go into the holiday season, and then it is a new year. We are talking about divisiveness and anxiousness. The New Year is a time for hope and for grace and for moving forward. What are some parting words you can give advice to people that are anxious about heading into the holiday season?. What could we do to expel this fog of uneasiness?
Elizabeth: It is super hard, I think one thing right now is to give yourself some credit. Do not judge yourself. If you are upset, if you are worried, if you are anxious, this is a very hard time. I think just saying that to yourself, “Do you know what? It is a really hard time and I am getting through it,” I think that is one. Another one, “I tried to do it for myself. It is hard, but I try to put as much joy as I can into every single day.” In this world that we are in, we are forgetting that. I try even if it is getting down on the floor and playing with the kids or the dog, reading a good book, calling a friend, and trying to have a laugh, anything that is a joy for five minutes, for one minute for an hour. Whatever you can do, try to build those blocks of joy into your day. That is one that I really am sticking to. Another one. This is a good sort of self-control technique. Think of the future. Think of this time next year. There will probably be good ways out of this, God willing. Think of next year and try to imagine what would you like next year to look like. You got a handle on it. You would like to be with your family, like to have your job going well, maybe you would like to be a little thinner. Whatever it is, how would you like to see yourself in a year? What can you do today to make that next year happen? Play the long game here and try to build joy into our lives right now, including whatever we can for these holidays. I think that that is a good plan.
Jeffrey: I think that is great, little mental vision boards. I am wishing you lots of blocks of joy in the upcoming year. Thank you so much for your time today. Your advice is fantastic, and it was great to have you here.
Elizabeth: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Jeffrey: We hope you enjoyed this week’s podcast. If you have any questions, comments, or future story suggestions, please reach out to us on social media. Thank you, and we hope you enjoyed the RP HealthCast.