You can’t see the water you’re swimming in

By Angela Mutum

“You can’t see the water you’re swimming in” is a phrase which comes to my mind when I think about how our lives have changed since 2020 as a result of the pandemic. There are the obvious changes such as restrictions on where we can go and who we can see but I am aware there are other, more subtle, changes in my behaviour which I confess I find it hard sometimes to understand. I just know that they exist.

I am reluctant at the moment to leave my home and have been since the lockdown was imposed in March 2020. This reluctance has gone through a number of phases and there have been different reasons behind each phase. I am aware that, whatever the reasons have been for my reluctance, they have had little to do with a fear of contracting the virus. The risk of contracting the virus is real but it has never been one that has concerned me unduly. In Gestalt terms, it is a phenomenon which forms part of the field. The risk of catching Covid- 19 is however only one phenomenon in my subjective field when I consider going outside.

This week, I have realised that I do not like going to the shops at the moment because I find the experience somewhat overwhelming. I have become aware that, when out shopping, I am hurrying unnecessarily all the time and just can’t wait to get home. When I am in a shop, I am preoccupied with whether I am following “the rules” (social distancing, one-way systems) and anxious about encountering aggression from others if I transgress “the rules”. I find the rules irksome as they interfere with my ability to go about my shopping my way, for example turning back to a shelf in the greengrocers in order to look at the produce if it has caught my eye on the way past.

To an extent, my anxiety is a product of what psychotherapists call a “projection”, i.e. my unconscious working assumption is that the environment in the shop is hostile and is replete with rules which I cannot avoid breaking. However, our projections are frequently based in reality and the current rules and restrictions on our daily lives are not merely a fantasy. They are real. And breaking them can have real, adverse consequences for us.

As the pandemic unfolds, the constraints on our daily lives wax and wane and the environment, in which we are operating, continually changes. We are faced with decisions in circumstances where we would not have previously regarded ourselves as making decisions at all: whether to visit an elderly relative, whether to travel or book a holiday, whether to give someone a lift in our car. There is, in the midst of this pandemic, a new layer of complexity in almost everything we do. And with all this comes additional anxiety, particularly for those of us for whom “following the rules”, “doing the right thing” or “being good” is our default setting, if you will.

There are no easy answers. We are all balancing our own conflicting needs, and often the conflicting needs of others too, and each of us must work out what factors are really influencing our decisions, and in what measure, in order to navigate the healthiest path for ourselves through the apparent chaos brought about by Covid-19. I do not need to go shopping every day but, if I hardly go at all, I will, at best, end up with a very boring diet or, at worst, may end up with an unhealthy diet which will not best protect me during the winter to come.

To return to my question: how do we go about our lives in the midst of a pandemic? I do not have an answer – we must each find our own answer to that question – but I do have one suggestion. My suggestion is that we treat ourselves with the kindness and understanding which says: “There is no perfect answer or perfect outcome. At best, I will always make mistakes. But I will forgive myself for them and learn from them. And I will encourage others to do the same.”


In Autumn 2020, Angela Mutum changed career to become a full-time Gestalt counsellor. She is a former City lawyer who spent most of her career in the Government Legal Service before moving into locum legal work. She is now working full-time as a Gestalt counsellor with a focus on bereavement and life choices and transitions. She is based in north London and is working online and on the telephone during the pandemic. https://www.angelamutum.com/

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