What do we do with our finite life?’: how Covid reframed our relationship with ourselves

4 January 2022

“Every disruption is a point of potential growth,” says associate professor Terry Bowles of the University of Melbourne. And we have experienced quite a period of disruption.

Unprecedented change overwhelmed us in 2020 and 2021. Enduring the Covid pandemic has meant living through drastic adjustments to social and professional environments, an intense restriction of movement and choice, and prolonged bouts of social distancing and isolation.

“What this disruption does is pressure us to make decisions we otherwise wouldn’t make,” Bowles says. Covid has “literally made us step up” to make changes in our lives that are “quite radical”.

“Covid, for a lot of people, will be a new opportunity.”

Guardian Australia asked readers to share how the pandemic made them rethink their life. Alongside more than 100 reader responses, leading experts on mental health and wellbeing say Covid has transformed people’s sense of self, and the way wellbeing, priorities and identity are being though about.

Experiencing major change that makes us reassess our sense of self is “part of normal life”, says Dr Amy Dawel, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s College of Health and Medicine.

“From divorce to a major move, having children or starting a new job – they are usually personal disruptions that make you reassess parts of your life and identity,” Dawel says.

What is unusual about the disruption of the past two years, she says, is that it has been “forced upon us” on a mass scale.

“There is less autonomy, and a much greater sense of uncertainty.”

At first, Australians felt “distant” from and “unaffected” by the Covid pandemic, Bowles says. “Unfortunately, that slowly changed”

Now, almost two years on, a widespread social disruption caused by Covid still permeates with “elements of distress at a universal level”. Skewing lives socially, professionally and financially, adapting with Covid “grinds people down to fatigue and distress”, Bowles says.

“And it has prompted changes that have altered entire identities.”

Such involuntary change and loss of control has a “massive impact” on wellbeing, says Prof Nicolas Cherbuin, head of the Australian National University’s Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing. “When a person has a sense they can control their lives, they tend to flourish more. And what we experienced with Covid was a generalised loss of control.

“We were told to go home, to change the way you socialise, change the way you work.”

Simultaneously, “the way a person defines themselves” with markers of identity – such as roles in a family, workplace or community group – were upended. Some academics have observed this as “social role disruption”, alongside the more general disruption in society.

“This all has a major impact on our agency, and who we think we are,” Cherbuin says.

Suddenly, one’s perception of self is very different, Dawel says. “Changing dramatically the context we are living in changes the way we fit in it.”

Bowles says that while some adjust quickly, others will need “serious support”. However, amid the disruption has come the potential for personal development. In an attempt to regain agency, Bowles says, “people have been adapting”, albeit at varying rates.

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‘What do we do with our finite life?’: how Covid reframed our relationship with ourselves | Life and style | The Guardian