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14 July 2021

Developing through Covid

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I am typing these words on an airplane (!) at the end of my first overseas trip since March 2020. We have had three weeks in the US visiting family we have not seen in far too long. We have hugged and laughed and cried together. We have admired new babies and met new partners and heard harrowing stories of these almost two years away from each other.

As we travelled to this new context, through the airports and the hotels and the restaurants, I have wondered: How are we all different now? And as we gathered in parks and backyards and living rooms, I wondered: How can we see each other for who we are becoming rather than who we used to be? And of course, I wonder how adult development theory can help us with all that.

So here’s the thing. Adult development theory (ADT) can explain some of what has happened to us. Basically, ADT tells us that we spend a lot of our lives acting out of habits, beliefs, and assumptions we don’t even know we have: In the words of Bob Kegan’s theory, we are “subject” to them. They shape who we are and what we do, but without our noticing. Over time, the rhythm of growth means that we begin to see some of these patterns in ourselves, and, by seeing them, discover we can control them in new ways. They become “objects” we can consider and act on.

This “subject-object shift” is not just the rhythm of our development, it’s the story of what has happened to so many of us during the time of Covid. Suddenly there were patterns, habits, and assumptions we had been subject to that became visible. Some of them were about things outside us: Wow we used to spend a lot of time commuting. It’s not that we didn’t know this before, but we didn’t really see it, we didn’t know this as something we could shift. We were just doing it because it needed doing. Understanding this as something we can consider or act on gives us new possibilities for action.

For many of us, our outside conditions weren’t the only thing changing. Many of the patterns, habits, and assumptions that have become visible are about things inside us. You might notice: Wow I used to invest so much of my energy in crafting my image to be acceptable to others. There were outside manifestations of this (the time we put into our appearance, for example), but there were probably also a whole series of assumptions or beliefs you were subject to (like: People won’t like me if they see who I really am). This belief might have become more visible to you over the course of the pandemic as you let co-workers see things about you that you have never let them in on before—and they still accepted you. Your previous belief, now challenged, becomes visible to you, and you alter or change or shape it.

As we accumulate these small subject-object shifts, we grow. And these last 16 months have provided enormous opportunities to see the things we were blind to. We might even have shifted entire forms of mind in a seriously accelerated way.

For example, we can spend a lot of our lives in the “socialized” form of mind, a time when we breathe in—and take as our own—the opinions and perspectives of important people or groups outside us. If our context stays the same, this form of mind is sustainable for years or even decades. But our context has not been the same. As you were locked inside your own bubble, you might have discovered your own voice in a different way. You might have found it impossible to play by the rules of others as life has been so unsettled, and you might have started writing your own rules. You might have used this time to become a “self-authored” version of yourself.

Or, you might have begun this pandemic time already having a more self-authored form of mind. You might have worked for the previous decade to know what was most important to you, to find your true north, to craft an individual set of values and principles that would guide your life. This self-authored set of beliefs and assumptions might have driven your life before 2020, and it might have been shaken badly by the events and experiences of the last 18 months. You might find that values and principles you have been clear about for years have become fuzzy. That disparate pieces of the world have become connected. That shadowy pieces of yourself that you used to try to fix or change have become more acceptable, more integrated somehow. You might have used this time to become a more “self-transforming” version of yourself.

I believe that these larger shifts in our meaning making have probably pushed some serious developmental growth in lots of us. (Or perhaps they have not, but this is a topic for another day.)

Adult development theory, like all good theories, can help us see patterns that might be invisible otherwise.  We can ask a new set of questions about ourselves and others. And perhaps most importantly, we can come to see ourselves and others as we are becoming rather than as we have been.

But the scope of potential changes in each of us requires that even as we celebrate the possibility to be together again, we don’t assume we still know this person we are finally seeing in three dimensions after so long. We need to slow down, to re-see ourselves and others, and to allow for these changes in others. This is an extraordinary opportunity to see one another more deeply, to ask questions like:

  • How have you changed since we were last together?
  • What surprises you about how you are seeing the world these days?
  • How might I have to update the way I make sense of you?

As we begin to fly and hug and share meals together, we will discover new pieces of ourselves and one another. The relationships that will thrive in this period are the ones where we are most curious about who this person has become, rather than the ones where we are so desperate to get back to what we used to know that we miss the person unfolding before us.

Photo credit: Tina Marie Devincenzo

One thought on “Developing through Covid”

  1. Jason Rabinowitz says:

    Covid has been a hopefully once in a lifetime event that has accelerated a lot of these shifts. It is amazing what we are suddenly seeing afresh – but also surprising how we accustom ourself to the new way of seeing things very quickly. Hopefully this does not hide the lessons, but speaks to our incredible capacity to absorb change. Lovely column as ever!

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