Letters From Esther #34: How Are You?

by
Esther Perel

Shall We Begin?

I find myself at a loss for words. This is my first letter to you all to kick off the summer. I thought I would talk about a summer of love—of coming together, dates on blankets in parks, sweat washed away in lakes and pools, love and loss and loving again. Many of us will come together and enjoy much of the above, but I find myself fixated on the very first question that will come up in each of these scenarios: how are you?

“I’m doing well. But the world around me is not.” I hear versions of this response often. I empathize with it deeply: 

  • how an event that maybe doesn’t even impact us directly can still impact us profoundly
  • how helpless we feel when helping isn’t enough
  • how we convert our upset into strategic donations and social posts that let others know where we stand and offer suggestions for how to join us in the fight
  • and how strange and guilty we may feel when we try to take care of our own emotions

How could we center ourselves at a time like this? Do we deserve self-care? And how the hell are we supposed to go to work? Are we supposed to talk about the news notification that just popped up on all of our phones? How are we supposed to answer the question that kicks off every meeting, every hang out, every phone call: how are you? And does that even matter? 

Is it any wonder so many of us are feeling numb and disoriented? Alert: this, too, is part of the mental health crisis. In response to tragedy after tragedy, many of us are cycling through fight, flight, and freeze responses faster than we can finish a cup of coffee—myself included. In early May, a leaked draft suggested that Roe v. Wade—the landmark 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion—is poised to be overturned by the Supreme Court. I began constructing my response, trying to figure out how I could help my community make sense of this. 

  • I could provide context: governments, societies, and religious groups have historically regulated sexuality and reproductive rights to control a populace—because these rights directly impact the mobility and agency of women.
  • I could tell you of the deep irony present in the abortion debate: that the “taboo” of abortion is far larger than the practice. Abortions in America have been declining for decades, in part, due to a halo effect Roe helped create. Legal abortions come with consultation about how to protect oneself from an unplanned pregnancy in the future. 
  • I could tell you that, in my home country of Belgium, access to affordable contraception and safe abortion provided my generation with personal freedom and provided me the basis of my career.
  • I could tell you how dangerous it is to reverse Roe; how many people will die trying to abort on their own because they feel they have no safe option. 
  • I could tell you that this imminent decision does not reflect the opinion of the majority of Americans. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 28% of Americans think it should be overturned.

I was still formulating my response to this news when a white supremist murdered ten people—all of whom were Black and most of whom were elderly—in a Buffalo supermarket. And then nineteen fourth-graders and two teachers were murdered by a gunman in their classrooms in Uvalde, Texas. Our grandparents. Our children. I have seen firsthand in my therapy office what this terror can do to families. But I have also seen what this terror does to our collective psyche, even when it hasn’t happened to us directly. In a recent essay by Craig Nason, a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting, he cited a recent study that found that 45% of Americans believe gun violence is at a crisis level. “Nearly half of our nation today is in a posture of crisis response,” he said. “Why assume ‘it won’t happen to me’ when guns are now the No. 1 killer of children and adolescents in the United States? It very well could happen to you.” 

As a European, it confounds me when a government has the confidence to legislate the birth of children but not the death of children already with us. As a mental health professional, it confounds me when a politician behaves as if investing in mental healthcare and reforming gun laws are mutually exclusive. What I do know is that, even as I am trying to make sense of all of this new information, I am also still processing the carnage in Ukraine and what it has done to families there. 

None of these situations impact my personal, day-to-day, life in a concrete way. Instead, they metastasize mentally and emotionally. The surreal nature of our world has lost its novelty. What can shock us now? So many of us soothed ourselves by thinking “if we could just get through the pandemic….” I am writing this letter today to offer my support to all of you facing these tragedies directly as well as to acknowledge all of you who are feeling as I am—unable to separate our personal wellbeing from the state of the world. I want to answer the question I posed earlier: do we deserve self-care? Yes. It is a necessity during times like this. If you want to empower yourself to have the energy to help create a more just and safe world, do not deny yourself the right to feel and to self-soothe. Audre Lorde said “caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

As my friend and colleague, Dr. Alexandra Solomon, recently shared: “Grieve. Rage. Cry. Scream. Rest. Distract. Connect. Vote.” Take care of yourself and, when you’re ready, I’ve included resources at the bottom of this letter.

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

  • Identify and articulate your feelings, whether it’s to yourself, your diary, or a loved one.
  • Don’t just say “I’m stressed.” Try to put your feelings into words. 
  • Otherwise, it can make you more stressed and contribute to a state of Empathic Distress—if you are not aware and accepting of your own feelings, then you won’t connect with the feelings of the people around you. You may even shut them down because you don’t allow your own. 
  • Do small rapid interventions. 
  • Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to: news, arguments, and otherwise.  
  • Get outside the best you can. 
  • Short term strategies start in your body; a bodied-up ritual involving breathing and stretching will help you relax and restore. 
  • Focus on one breath at a time. 

More From Esther

“What Is This Feeling? Anticipatory Grief and Other New Pandemic-Related Emotions” / an article

While this article was written at the height of the pandemic, the lessons therein continue to apply.

“Eroticism in Hard Times” / a newsletter

​​When times are tough, Eroticism is what inspires us to survive—and even to thrive—despite all odds.

“Why Eroticism Should Be Part of Your Self-Care Plan” / a blog

‍Erotic self-care begins with diminishing our inner-critic and giving ourselves simply the permission to feel beautiful, to enjoy our own company, to be more compassionate and realistic with ourselves without vacillating between excess and repression.

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information       

I’m Reading:

Resources for Ukraine: 

Resources for Safe Abortion: 

Resources for Gun Violence Awareness:

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