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Miss Conduct

Miss Conduct: What the pandemic taught me

In a year that was so bleak, some reasons to be grateful.

Say what you will about 2020, we learned a few things. About cooking, supply chains, our families, Zoom and Discord, our hair, systemic racism, electoral politics, loops versus ties, ourselves.

I want to hear what you’ve learned. Write and tell me, will you? And in return I’ll tell you a secret: For several very dark weeks this spring, I wasn’t sure how Miss Conduct could go on. What’s a social advice column when social interaction is nigh impossible? Sometimes letter writers’ problems have no solutions, and the best I can do is to tell them that, which means it’s not their fault for not having solved them already. Saving folks from unwarranted self-blame is worthwhile. But an advice column’s tone and topics need to balance out over the time, and the idea of unknown months or years of “Sounds dreadful, don’t blame yourself!” ... well, even if you all would have tolerated that, my sense of self-efficacy wouldn’t have. But you found new questions, which led me to new answers. I’m beyond grateful to everyone who took the time to write in this year.

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I’m also grateful for my other job as a research associate at Harvard Business School, where I’ve had the opportunity to study and write about mental health under adverse conditions. Here’s the one thing you should know, right now: Irritability is a symptom of everything. Or rather, (nearly) everything has irritability as a symptom — anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout, sleep disruption, social isolation, chronic stress, vicarious trauma. Sound familiar? It isn’t just you.

If you see yourself in this picture and don’t like it, try to develop the habit of stepping back from and questioning your anger — without letting it splash back all over yourself in the form of negative self-talk. (“Jeez, you short-fused Looney Tune, learn perspective!”) Stomping on your feelings of annoyance is less effective, not to mention less compassionate, than giving your brain what it needs to stay in a more-or-less calm state most of the time: nutrients, sleep, exercise, meditation, and time to creatively wander.

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Focus your 2021 resolutions on this kind of self-care, because this might just be the year those resolutions stick. Habits get activated and reinforced by external cues, so when your normal routine is disrupted, it’s a prime time to make changes. An accountability buddy can help you remember your good intentions, and also provide a nice regular social contact. Nothing elaborate required; a daily check-in or progress report is usually enough. Decide at the beginning how long you’ll do the buddy system — two weeks is enough to make me remember a new practice on my own.

Some of you may be juggling endless tasks paid and unpaid, some of you may be facing long, empty hours. Whatever your situation, let go of expectations, of the mental hustle. You don’t have to write King Lear or get five new Internet certifications or glow up this winter. The winter will bring its lessons, and spring will come. It is enough to survive and be kind until then. It is enough.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

Feeling stressed by situations at work or home? Miss Conduct can help. Write missconduct@globe.com.



Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.