I Am a Proponent of Connection
I have always been more of an observer than a talker, yet I have been having some difficult conversations lately on the topic of COVID-19 and vaccinations, with the people I care about, because I need my relationships now more than ever with friends, family, and colleagues. If I am having challenging dynamics, I imagine others are too, and so this article is intended to help. I think connection it is worth maintaining and therefore speaking up about.
Your unique perspective and coping style during the COVID-19 pandemic will be shaped by a number of things, such as your health history, current age, political views, in addition to where you live (e.g., country, region, or size of city) and what news channel you watch. The decision of whether or not to get vaccinated also depends on many factors. Yet, I see many people thinking that it is not a choice. Perhaps they see it as a moral obligation or even a matter of life and death. In contrast, those who see vaccination as a personal choice risk stigmatization, and perhaps exclusion from situations with friends, family, and co-workers. Where I want to focus my thoughts is on preventing a new divide, between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, even within the same household or family.
I have noticed some connections that previously felt strong have become tenuous. This article is intended to draw attention to the connections we value, and offer ideas to attend to them with an open heart and an open mind which is compatible with the courageous independent thinking that we try to encourage in North American culture.
Imago Relationship Therapy Can Help
I am a Psychotherapist who specializes in Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) which is a very specialized approach to Couples Therapy. What I love about IRT is that it generates therapists who are very kind to each other, and who try to walk the talk of being inclusive and connected. We care a lot about what happens at home with couples and families and especially what happens behind closed doors. We devote our lives to helping people connect in safe, respectful ways. We help people mend ruptures and also help them understand why they happen because ruptures are unavoidable.
Ruptures happen for many reasons, such as substantial fears and disagreements or simple misunderstandings, and yet if we pause and become curious and listen, we have an opportunity to truly understand each other and get back into connection. And with practice at communicating, with curiosity and safety, we can create a connection that is potentially better than before. That is one reason why I love IRT.
What I understand from being an Imago Relationship Therapist is that there is ALWAYS wisdom on both sides of a topic. That is what I see every single time I work with a couple in therapy. It does no service to our clients to take sides (except in rare cases). And in Imago we like to say, “There are no bad people, just frightened people doing their best to survive.” I think that statement has never been truer.
It’s Slow Going
I remember when the pandemic hit. My IRT community was sending out love far and wide, and scheduling times to pray together. Things felt unified at first, as we faced the unknown. Then in the spring, the shocking news of George Floyd’s murder sent things into a tailspin, which caused a lot of soul searching for everyone with the powerful and positive movement of Black Lives Matter and recognizing BIPOC issues. There was also a lot of fear with the violent demonstrations in response to George Floyd’s murder in many cities, and if that wasn’t enough, the US election was looming with great political division and the siege on Capitol Hill. We have been having an intense year and a half!
This summer over 1000 unmarked graves of Indigenous Children were discovered in Western Canada at 3 Indian Residential Schools, and more are being discovered each week. If you have not heard about this, please Google it. It is another example of the intensity of our human pain and suffering plus our efforts to heal.
Things will never stop happening while we are here on Earth and so I strive to help fine-tune our focus to what truly matters; loving each other.
Here in Northern Ontario, the number of cases has been low, the rollout of vaccines has been slow, and the length of time in lock-down has been very, very long. And this is compared to other parts of Ontario, other parts of Canada, and certainly compared to the USA. Here in my bubble of isolation, I have felt relatively safe, had a lot of time to think, and had a lot of opportunity to observe.
Thankfully I have been able to see clients over video throughout the pandemic. What I have witnessed with my clients is that having a stay-at-home order amplified whatever was going on for a person, couple, or family before the pandemic started. For example, someone who was depressed became more depressed, someone who felt alone, felt more alone, someone who had health concerns became more fearful of their health, and the spouse who lacked patience before felt even more impatient. Those are just a few examples.
And yet the slowing of our pace also gave us the opportunity to do our “inner work”, if we chose to do this, to re-assess our priorities, to heal some pain and look beyond limitations, to put the effort in where it could be more effective, to be more boundaried, to care more deeply about others, work on inclusion, etc.
As we continued with the pandemic, many lost loved ones for a variety of reasons. Many faced personal illness with COVID-19 and happily recovered. And we all dealt with varying levels of fear and isolation. Then the New Year arrived with great hope, and with new waves of the virus, the vaccines started to roll out.
The vaccine options have been on the news with conflicting advice, changing daily. As I write this article, I know that I cannot keep up with the news. Just this week in Canadian news they are talking about a 3rd booster shot because of the variants. Next week we can have larger outdoor gatherings of up to 100, and 25 indoors. There is much to decide as we try to find some normalcy and it is confusing. There is so much unknown and everyone is trying so hard to navigate the minefield. Do we have in-person workshops and only accept vaccinated people? What happens with travel? Whom do we hug? Do we shake hands?
I am an American who lives in Canada. I have family, friends, and colleagues I value, all over North America, and in other parts of the world. Because of the telephone and the Internet, I can keep in touch and it is truly a blessing on so many levels for safety and connection during this time. The new topic people seem to discuss is vaccinations, at social gatherings, and even business meetings. It is central in our minds. I understand that many are happy, relieved, and proud to be vaccinated while others are opting out. Choices are very personal and not often shared, especially in group settings.
And of course, as citizens, we have the right to choose, but it is not playing out that way in many circles. What is happening to our Sovereign choice?
What I notice is people assume that everyone is on the same page, and they don’t talk about the reasons they are getting vaccinated. People don’t say, “Why are YOU getting vaccinated?” and sharing their personal reasons. Instead, I see people nodding in agreement when they hear about someone getting a shot. And when someone is courageous enough to share a decision to not get a shot, I see people going into fear and judgment with either backing away with quiet or outward disapproval or saying passive-aggressive things, instead of getting curious and asking, “Why are you NOT getting vaccinated?” The energy ends up in a divide and creates anxiety.
I truly understand how this happens too. The first time someone told me their choice to not get vaccinated, it was over an email. I remember how I felt. I was surprised and immediately went into judgment. Fortunately, I noticed this and took some time to process it, and I gradually accepted it. It was someone whom I respected and so my process helped me to become more expanded, as I came to the realization that not everyone will choose vaccination. Since that time, I have had discussions with several people who are opting out of the vaccine. But I do not see many people who accept the decisions of others when they differ.
I am concerned that there is a fearful polarization in society where:
Vaccinated = good
Not vaccinated = bad
But wait, there’s more….
Stigmatization on Both Sides
I recently went to see one of my health care professionals who is a holistic practitioner. Let’s call her “April”. Happily, when I go to see April, we do not discuss COVID or vaccinations. I trust her to take care of her office space for everyone’s safety. Therefore, I had no idea about her personal vaccination stance. On this day, she was feeling quite distressed, so she reached out to me for advice. She said she got her first shot, as it was recommended for her profession, and that since she generally tries to avoid vaccinations, she has decided she will not get the second dose. So, April is “half vaccinated” and plans to stay that way. I listened to her share her personal decisions. Then she shared that she had 2 clients discover that she was vaccinated and they are now choosing not to see her, as each see her as “unsafe” since she had the first COVID injection. These clients only want to visit “injection-free sites”. That was a first for me to hear such a thing. This was a first for April too, and she was shocked and upset. Her distress made sense. She is losing clients because she chose to get vaccinated.
So apparently there is another category: Vaccinated people are dangerous and to be avoided., i.e.
Vaccinated = bad
Then April told me about her daughter. When she told her daughter that she is not getting the second dose, her daughter became very angry and refused to discuss it. She had no interest in hearing April’s thoughts and feelings. So, April is also distraught because she cannot talk to her daughter about her personal choice to not get shot #2 and the reason behind it. In addition to this, April has fully vaccinated clients who are trying to talk her into getting the second dose. April is in the middle of 2 opposite fear populations! One population is making her “unsafe” because she got vaccinated, and the other side is angry, distressed, and pushy because she doesn’t want the second dose.
April is so good at what she does, she will have no problem filling her schedule and getting new clients, however, what is so distressing for her is this shock of being labeled as unsafe. She thought she was being a “good guy” by initially getting a vaccination. I suspect that she feels misunderstood and wrongly accused by both sides. I heard April’s confusion and distress. I felt her pain. How could she be unsafe for being vaccinated? And on the flip side, how could her daughter be so reactive, angry, and unwilling to hear about her decision? I hope things settle down for April and her daughter, and that they can re-connect.
My advice to April was to step back… breathe deeply…calm her fears…and not take these reactions personally. And then to re-image this as “a great social science experiment”. After all, there is nothing she can do about having that one shot in her body now, and she will get to watch how everyone around her reacts. And she gets to decide what she will say, and how she handles this. If we see that each opportunity put before us is for our personal expansion, then we can loosen the grip on our fears. And April gets to do this from both directions! She can stand strong and be clear with herself.
The reactions of others can be very destabilizing. So, staying strong and centered is not easy. We naturally go into our fears around any number of things; loss of love, loss of income, loss of freedom, loss of life, loss of acceptance in our community. Humans in general struggle to come from Love instead of fear, and look what is happening now. So how can we help with this?
We need to do our best to stay in our personal integrity with our interactions with others. Do we want to create distance and divisions or do we want to create connection and understanding?
Stepping Back to Expand our Perspective
There is so much fear happening with everyone around COVID-19, and I would like to encourage us all to slow down…explore our own motivations… and how we naturally differ from others…while working to care about the person in front of us, and the people around us. If you have Tunnel Vision right now and see things one way, you can back up to expand your perspective, and create Binocular Vision, to see 2 points of view at the same time, and maybe even see things like a Prism, with many sides or many points of view, because they do exist. Be curious and be willing to consider the 2 (or more) points of view in the room or on the video screen. This can help us re-evaluate and prevent the disconnections we may be creating.
We all try so hard and yet we have blind spots. How are we treating each other as we go along?
For example, if you are vaccinated, and you feel good about that, and yesterday you knew I was not vaccinated and you hugged me, and today you find out that I am not planning to get vaccinated, and then you stop hugging me, that is about sudden discrimination towards me, because I have not changed. Your perception has changed, and we both lose out on our previous connection. You suddenly feel unsafe with me, and I feel rejected and sad. And the opposite, if you are against vaccinations and I choose to get vaccinated, and you no longer want to spend time with me and see me as a danger, we both lose.
There is a large percentage of both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in North America, and the world. Unless we move towards a Totalitarian society I suspect this will continue. Will you become suspicious and fearful of others? Will you shrink your world and stay home full time? What will happen to the quality of your life? Will you be anxious and on the lookout for danger? Since the virus is invisible, how will you spot the danger? What are your blind spots and assumptions? We all have them.
Either side can be motivated by “I care and I want the best for you” while underneath, it is motivated by fear, i.e. “I see what’s right and you are not doing what I think you should be doing and that scares me.” This thinking is a type of Emotional Symbiosis.
In IRT we teach couples about Emotional Symbiosis. It is one of the biggest reasons why couples and people in general, have misunderstandings and disconnections.
It is the unconscious belief that “We are one, and I am the one”. It sounds like this: “Of course, you see things the way I see them.” “Of course, you should eat meat (or not eat meat).” “Of course, you like what I like, and see what I see, and hear what I hear, and if you don’t… there is something wrong with you.” “And if you get vaccinated (or not), your reasons are the same as mine.” “You care about people, just like me.” “You don’t want to get sick, just like me.”
The problem with Emotional Symbiosis is that it leads to an imbalance in relationships, where one feels invisible, wrong, invalidated, unimportant, and even unsafe, and ends up hiding their true nature, or arguments happen. The cure for Emotional Symbiosis is a move towards healthy Differentiation, where we slow down and accept that our point of view is just one of many possible viewpoints. It is ok and safe to have differing ideas. And it is healthy to be Differentiated and be able to accept that different points of view exist. Of course, this is not easy, especially when we are in so much fear.
(For a detailed description of Emotional Symbiosis and Differentiation, see the book “Receiving Love” by Hendrix and Hunt)
Differentiation: Let’s Get Curious
What I mentioned above is that when people discuss vaccination, they do not ask, “Oh, why did YOU get vaccinated?” We are just happy to hear that others are like us. You are part of the club now, and that is all that matters. i.e. “Whew, I can relax now. We are safe because we are the same.”
But if we get curious and talk to others there are many possible reasons.
Let’s look at some of the spoken and unspoken reasons or arguments to choose vaccination:
It’s the right thing to do.
People should not be dying.
I am afraid of COVID because I have pre-existing health conditions.
I do not want to die from COVID.
I do not want to spread it to anyone who has a weakened immune system.
I was forced to get vaccinated or I would lose my job.
I want to be able to travel.
I want to be part of “the herd”.
I want to hug my family.
My spouse threatened to leave me if I didn’t get vaccinated.
I do not want to be excluded from gatherings.
The pandemic will last forever unless we all get vaccinated.
Let’s look at some of the spoken and unspoken reasons or arguments to opt-out:
I am against vaccines and see them as unnecessary and/or harmful.
I do not trust the COVID-19 vaccines as they are experimental and may cause vaccine injury or death.
You would have to get vaccinated every year.
They are not effective against new variants.
You can still spread the virus to others even if you are vaccinated.
I have a gene in my family for a serious illness that could get triggered by the vaccine.
True immunity comes from having the virus and recovering from it.
I take a medication that makes the vaccines contraindicated.
I am not in the eligible age group.
If it’s not safe for children, then why is it safe for adults?
Pandemics have been around for centuries. This is just another one.
As you read those examples, what comes up for you? Do you feel defensive or curious? Do you feel surprised, angry, concerned, or ________ ? Take a moment to notice your feelings and your current stance with the items on both lists.
There are a lot of great reasons on both sides, and my list is not exhaustive.
Do we have a new division in society? Are we discriminating against each other? Do we have a new Superior Race? Is the vaccinated or unvaccinated population Superior? Can we allow people to choose?
This whole dilemma makes me think of the “The Sneetches” story by Dr. Seuss from 1953, where a man with a big tattoo machine comes to town. Some of the Sneetches decide to pay money and go through the machine that puts a star on their bellies, and the “star-bellied Sneetches” then become superior, while the plain bellied Sneetches become inferior and sad. Then it becomes a competition to get stars and then to get the stars taken off. They go round and round in and out of machines that put on stars and take stars off. In the end, all the Sneetches get all mixed up and no one knows who is who anymore. Everyone collapses in a big pile, exhausted from trying to be superior. And the man with the machines leaves with all their money. So in the end, who wins? The guy with the money. But the Sneetches win if they learn to love and value one another.
It is a profound lesson in love and acceptance and I think ultimately that’s what our decades are teaching us in this Age of Aquarius. Politics, skin color, sexuality & gender, religion, equal pay, mental health, abortion, medically assisted suicide, carnivore, or plant-based, we have so many topics to work through year after year and decade after decade. We are trying to wake up, and treat each other well. And this needs to happen on all levels, even in our homes.
That can be difficult because we naturally LIKE feeling sure and even superior. And right now, more than ever, we want to feel safe. And we don’t like to get knocked down from our moral high ground. But that is what life brings us over and over again. Opportunities to wake up, be humble, learn to be more loving, accepting, caring, and curious, and leave the fearful behaviors of abuse and exclusion and replace them with kindness and inclusion.
How do we open up conversations and start to become more Differentiated, especially when we don’t want to hear what the opposition thinks? That is a challenge.
In Imago and IRT, we teach a communication technique called Communologue. It was originally created after the 9/11 crisis, for opposing groups to have more empathy for each other, and it was then expanded for opposing cultures such as Israel and Palestine, with peace and understanding being the ideal. It helps us put down our weapons, literally and figuratively.
It is a communication technique where a topic is chosen or voted upon, and then everyone has the same amount of time to speak on that topic, and everyone is guaranteed a voice. Everyone has a turn to talk without being interrupted, questioned, or criticized. And everyone gets “mirrored” and validated by each other. No one is allowed to argue or debate, but can express differing views to the center of the circle. The “Gold” is that everyone gets to share their personal ideas and feelings. Participants get at least 2 or 3 turns to speak, and it is a fascinating experience because as you go around the circle a few times, and share and listen, more depth happens with each round. The conversation deepens and participants open up more and more because it is a safe space. We expand ourselves as we listen and share. It feels invigorating. Yet until you have tried it, you cannot understand the profound shifts that are possible. The safety of the facilitation is what makes this possible.
A softer stance towards others, a deeper understanding of the self, and less fear about differences are all possible with Communologue. This naturally happens when we listen to different perspectives as there is wisdom on all sides. And we can start to see how we are all basically the same deep down inside, in search of love, respect, safety, security, and equality.
But this curiosity and open communication can happen on a smaller scale too, between just 2 people.
Be Kind, Rewind
Depending on your age you may or may not remember the sticker that video stores put on all the VHS tapes; “Be Kind, Rewind”. We need reminders to be considerate of others, and that doesn’t mean we are uncaring or narcissistic, it simply means we are human. We get wrapped up in ourselves and our perspective.
Here is an idea for initiating a do-over with those you care about: “Can we please rewind our conversation? I’d like to apologize and start over. Your decision around the vaccine sent me into fear and I got reactive. I am so sorry for that. I realize there are as many perspectives as there are people, and everyone is afraid right now. I really care about you and our connection, so I want to listen to you and hear about your fears too. Would you be open to talking with me again?”
In Conclusion, Be Kind, Be Curious, Be Inclusive
No one knows yet how this will play out. Let’s help each other. Look at your fears, and be honest about them. It’s okay and valid. But that doesn’t make others wrong or bad. Everyone needs to make their own decisions and be honored for that.
It’s important we accept each other as wise, intuitive, valuable companions on this often scary and confusing journey. We need each other as much as ever. Pause and ask about each other, then validate what you hear. Tell them they “make sense”, even if it is not the same as your current belief.
Remember, there is ALWAYS wisdom on both sides of a topic. And if you cannot grasp the wisdom, then you haven’t listened deeply enough.
I encourage you to get support from a certified Imago Relationship Therapist if you find you are at odds with someone you love. Look for an Imago Therapist who has training and experience facilitating Communologue if you have three or more people who are struggling to connect.
In conclusion, be kind, be curious, and be inclusive. I know we will get through this pandemic eventually, so make your relationships a top priority now.
Stacy Bremner is a Registered Psychotherapist with a private practice in North Bay, Ontario, Canada.
She holds a Specialized Honours B.A. in Psychology and an M.A. in Human Development. She is a Registered Psychotherapist (RP) with the CRPO (the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario), as well as a member in good standing with the Ontario Association of Mental Health Professionals (OAMHP). Stacy is a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist since 2004, with Advanced Clinician status since 2007, and a Certified Imago Workshop Presenter since 2015.
For 2 decades, she has assisted individuals, couples, and groups and has taught a variety of workshops on topics such as relationships, communication, sexuality, healing, self-awareness, creativity, and self-help.
Stacy has a background in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Meditation and Mindfulness, Psychodramatic Bodywork, Conscious Core Transformation (CCT), The DNMS, Discernment Counselling, PACT Level I, and Treating and Assessing Sexual Issues, Level I. She also continues to study and teach in the area of Couplehood and sexuality.
Even before she became a Psychotherapist, Stacy was a spiritual seeker, and passionate about her own healing journey. Areas of study for Stacy include Kabbalah, Buddhism, and ACIM (A Course in Miracles). Because she is so passionate about her work, she cannot resist the desire to upgrade her skills in an ongoing way through reading, attending workshops, and teaching. Stacy feels that all these efforts contribute to her growth as a well-rounded person, a therapist, and a spiritual being.