It’s hard for me to pinpoint the moment during the pandemic where I felt as if something in me had changed, maybe for good. But I think it was on my birthday, so that would have been in July 2020. This particular birthday fell at a time when you couldn’t really see people, but the shops were open. This was the time of banana bread recipes, the 2-metre rule and Thank You Baked Potato.
Anyway, I went especially to a balloon shop, all masked-up and ready for battle, and bought a load of massive helium balloons shaped like drinks, thinking: “I will not be defeated by this joyless apocalypse.” And yet, on this birthday, the inflated margaritas brought no joy whatsoever. They just hung in the air, accusingly. Party balloons for a nonexistent party. I felt stupid and desperate. I knew this wasn’t depression, anxiety or long Covid. It was my confidence. It had deserted me.
Initially, this was anathema to me. I thrive on being around other people and, as much as I love my immediate family, I crave the interactions and unpredictability of being out and about in the world. The pandemic felt to me like being in prison, only you were not allowed to talk to or stand near any prisoners you were not related to. I started swimming outdoors just to meet people. In the early days, fellow swimmers – quite rightly – wanted to make sure we swam 2 metres apart at all times. I complied, and felt more parts of me die. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, whatever “over” meant.
Even as we have emerged from all this, I am still amazed to find myself hesitating over accepting invitations, making travel plans, sometimes even leaving the house. The “old me” forces me to overcome the doubt and be my pre‑Covid, outgoing self. But the Covid-era me is still hanging around, biting her fingernails, glancing nervously and resentfully at the deflating helium balloons.
If there is a hierarchy of suffering, then certainly extroverts turned party poopers should stay at home with their newly found tiniest little violin. But still. There is an unspoken reckoning that we are not having. What has this time done to our sense of self and our confidence generally?
Of course, for many, the effects of the pandemic are unspeakably profound because of individual circumstances: mental illness, bereavement, grief, isolation, overwork, financial difficulties. But what about the more general effects on those of us who didn’t live through a specific horror? Are we all just supposed to forget this happened? Is that healthy?
The temptation to “put things behind us” when we can’t pinpoint a particular trauma (and sometimes even when we can) is huge, explains Prof Lucy Easthope, the author of When the Dust Settles: Stories of Love, Loss and Hope from an Expert in Disaster. “Disasters shake our confidence,” she says. “You will be asking yourself: ‘What did I really know about anything?’ I am seeing a lot of these emotions – especially in senior professional men – where the sense of self is shaken. These are the kinds of people who think that they have everything under control, that if they just get up an hour earlier to do their emails then they will be ‘bossing it’. But a pandemic is no different to a tsunami or any other disaster in terms of our emotional and psychological response to it.”
She adds: “After a drought, you see interruptions in the rings of a tree. Lots of adults will be experiencing implications they will try to bury. If you do that, they will come back to bite you on the arse – that’s not a technical term.”
There is resistance to the idea that a pandemic will produce a similar response to other historical disasters, Easthope explains, “but we know it has the same effect. We were in a heightened state of cortisol and adrenaline long-term, checking the news to see what we could do, checking how many in our community had died.” (Side note: I did this around the clock.) “Already, we are seeing typical after-effects: increase of respiratory issues, fatigue, exhaustion, depression, rashes, gastric effects.” These are all delayed responses to disaster, she says.
Her estimate is that populations begin to recover from major disasters around the 30-year point. She adds: “Our grandchildren will wonder about how we didn’t give it the respect it deserves.”
No surprise, then, that our superficial confidence is knocked. Dr Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist and the author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, is a self-confessed robust person, with hard-fought reserves of resilience, yet she admits that even she felt “used up” by the end of the third lockdown. She is usually able to maintain a positive attitude because “what I’m good at is making sure that I do the small, simple things: dancing in my kitchen; exercising; going for a walk or for a coffee with a friend. They sound silly, but these things are the antidote and they must be done consciously. Otherwise, we hold stress in our bodies.”
Samuel’s concern, though, is not so much for the general population as the outliers. “People with existing difficulties – whether related to mental health, finances or family – have had everything made worse by the pandemic. And their ability to get support is diminished because the demand is so great.”
This is particularly acute for young people and for teenage girls: “I hear it in my therapy room and it’s reflected in the research: adolescent girls were particularly badly affected by not going to school and having those interactions like drinking milkshakes in Starbucks or just mucking about.”
I think most people understand and agree with this. Dr Ian Williams is a GP and the author of the graphic novel series The Bad Doctor. He argues that, yes, of course, we ought to find a way to stop Covid fallout from biting us on the arse, to process it and maintain our sense of ourselves, but there is one problem: “There is an absence of consensus about what the experience was and what it meant. That, in itself, is almost a reason to argue to just forget about it. There’s certainly a lot of anger and suspicion, and that has really divided people.
“What sort of national conversation could we have? Should it be political? Led by the NHS? Or by psychiatrists? I don’t know what it would look like because everything is so polarised. Are we talking about a cross-party commission of truth and reconciliation? Would that be a healing process? Personally, I’m kind of over it. We have other apocalyptic things to worry about now.”
My anecdotal research suggests that it’s no longer fun or sexy to mention the pandemic in social situations, but there are people who warm to the idea that we need to guard our recovered confidence carefully. I have had a number of people tell me that they have found solace in doing things more intentionally (an echo of Samuel’s idea): they have specifically created space for socialising and friendships, rather than just allowing those things to happen, as they might have done before the pandemic.
Kolarele Sonaike, a barrister and communications coach, formed a Zoom group during Covid of about eight “dad friends”; they have continued it as a fixed, non-negotiable weekly thing, sometimes online, sometimes in real life. The group is a big confidence-booster, he says: “It’s built-in now; we are regularly going to take time out of our week to do this. It’s guys being guys. We emote, we laugh, there are tears. The only rule is that outside the group we never talk about what was discussed inside the group. Seeing the challenges and difficulties that other people have … I can’t say it’s ‘curative’, but I think it keeps you sane.”
He says what he realised most during the pandemic was: “When you look back on life, you don’t want to say: ‘I worked 50 hours a week.’ You want to be able to say: ‘I had a laugh with friends.’” Maybe that is what proper confidence is: putting really obvious, human stuff at the heart of your life.
Jane Lindsey is an artist who runs an online community that she started during the pandemic. As the pandemic eased up, the group became more stressed, not less, she says: “And lots of people were assuming their anxieties were unusual, given the whole ‘back to normal’ vibe.” In the group, she could share her fears, such as anxiety about getting on a train again. “It built a kind of: ‘Yes, it’s scary but we can do this,’ response. It’s this long-term wobbliness. That makes me feel that it’s important it remains part of a national conversation. Not dwelled upon endlessly, perhaps, but as a reassurance that it was a period of cataclysmic change that continues to affect us long-term. And that feelings of anxiety, fear and uncertainty are normal – but don’t need to be limiting.”
What helped me regain confidence through all this was finding out about “loose ties”, also known as “weak ties”. We all have an important circle of inner friendships which, during an unusual event like a lockdown, can be easily maintained on the phone or by video call. But we also have an outer circle of acquaintances who we see “infrequently or fleetingly”.
This comes from Prof Mark Granovetter’s work in the 1970s and in particular his 1973 paper The Strength of Weak Ties. For new information and ideas, “weak ties are more important to us than strong ones”, he writes. There is increasing evidence that they also boost our wellbeing.
Just knowing about this phenomenon made me feel less needy and desperate and more reassured and grounded. I still feel a pang of regret about many of the loose-tie friends I haven’t seen since late 2019 or early 2020. People who were work friends I used to see fairly often, but have fallen by the wayside. Or acquaintances who I might have looked forward to seeing often in 2020 and 2021, but who have moved on and whom I’ll probably never see again. It’s reassuring to know that the cultivation of these ties – and the missing of them – is just part of being human.
I haven’t found an official post‑Covid global confidence audit anywhere, but the World Health Organization has been releasing disturbing figures about the pandemic’s effect on mental health. In March 2022, it announced a “25% increase of anxiety and depression worldwide”. It’s hard to know how much of this is the mental effects of the pandemic and how much is a result of physical illness and long Covid, global inequality (itself intertwined with Covid responses) and the increasing acceptability of reporting these kinds of anxieties.
Slowly, I have gone back to something close to how I was before, although I still find I instinctively shrink from certain invitations and commitments. (To be fair, I usually call myself out on this and go to things anyway. No surrender.) As children, a lot of us learn that the world outside is a scary and life-threatening place. I believed that as a child, but I also wanted to defy it. As an adult, until the pandemic, I happily defied it all the time. Now, that feeling of “not safe” – revived during the pandemic because it was essentially true – has resurfaced and may not go away in the same sense ever again. The emotional historian Thomas Dixon talks about “a more resilient and perhaps more reserved, emotional style”. Maybe that is what this emerging, more reticent, confidence is.
Prof Easthope has spoken recently about the importance in disaster situations of “being told the truth even when it’s unbearable”. This factor connects strongly to my own inconsequential, low-key, low-impact experience. I just wanted to know the reality of the situation so that I could accept it.
But there were (and still are) constant disagreements over lockdowns, masks and government responses. There is still no consensus on the unbearable truth. My personal confidence has returned because – largely – confidence is situational and the current situation requires and allows me to be out in the world, interacting with people and getting on with it. But beneath the surface – almost as a sort of inner twitch of the eye – I can feel the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. Even as it recedes from view, like a defeated zombie that has finally stopped attacking, I wonder if it’s really dead and buried or merely dormant. I am confident again. But I have more of an eye than ever before as to what might bite me on the arse.
Happy High Status: How to Be Effortlessly Confident by Viv Groskop (Torva) is out on 29 June. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply