Esther Perel on how the pandemic affected relationships and her own mental health: 'I began to feel very unmoored'

·4 min read

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Psychotherapist Esther Perel has spent a career studying human relationships, exploring topics like the mechanics of desire to the balance between freedom and security. The past year and a half, however, certainly complicated these topics. The coronavirus pandemic pushed people further apart — physically speaking, at least — than ever before, and forced us to reevaluate how to live, and connect with others, safely.

For the Where Should We Begin? podcast host, who was born in Belgium but is now accustomed to traveling all over the globe for work, staying in one place took the biggest toll on her own personal mental health.

“In the beginning, the focus was on creating a smaller world, staying put, feeling safe and finding ways to stay connected to people after all, but the world was very reduced,” she explains to Yahoo Life. “I have traveled my whole life between a number of different places that I call home. And I have more than one home; I have more than one place where I feel local. And after a while, I began to feel very unmoored because I find my stability from the dynamic inter-dependence of those various homes. And when I have to just be in one place, I start to feel very restless and out of balance.”

Perel traveled for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic just weeks ago — a step toward normalcy after a year that felt anything but. Yet living in the abnormal allowed her to take a closer look at how people operate during a global crisis. She saw how the pandemic brought people together in ways that, for some, was going against the inclinations of a society that prides itself on individualism over collectivism.

“[In the case of the pandemic], resilience is collective. It is the ability to tap into the resources of other people and to amplify the social capacity so that we can meet this adversity,” she says. “People understood that, this year, for example, they needed their neighbor to go shopping for them. The younger person needed to go and take care of the older person, which was a very new transition in many, many families. That is part of some cultures, but in many families, that is not a part of their culture anymore.”

Therapist Esther Perel shares how the pandemic affected our relationships. (Photo: Jim Bennett/WireImage)
Therapist Esther Perel shares how the pandemic affected our relationships. (Photo: Jim Bennett/WireImage)

This transition to relying more on one another than ever is part of why Perel says many relationships were “accelerated” during the pandemic.

She muses, “When life is fragile, when death is possible, what does that do to our sense of priorities, to what we are willing to wait for and to what we're no longer willing to wait for?”

One thing that Perel says remains constant in our relationships — no matter what is going on in the world — is the role desire plays in keeping them alive. She defines desire simply as “owning the wanting.”

“‘I want to feel close to you. I want to travel with you. I want to build the life with you. I want to touch you. I want to hold you.’ I want, and in order to say, I want, we need to feel deserving of our wanting,” she explains. “We need to feel a sense of self-worth that I deserve to want, and that if I want somebody, they will want me in return. It’s very important to understand that desire is that experience that comes with love, being lovable, being worthy and then wanting. If you don't have a strong sense of identity and worth, that feels legitimate and entitled to want, why would anybody want you?”

This focus on interpersonal relationships is why, when it comes to self-care, Perel isn’t so focused on individual actions like, say, which specific exercise to do or foods to eat. Instead, she says practicing the seven verbs — to ask, take, receive, give, share, refuse and play — in relation to other people can help people live their best lives. Assessing how comfortable you are engaging with these verbs, she tells Yahoo Life, can be a powerful form of self-reflection.

She explains, “Can you ask easily, do you feel comfortable asking, are you afraid to ask, do you anticipate rejection when you ask?... How is giving for you? Do you like to give, do you feel enriched when you give, do you feel that you give in order to not have to feel guilty about not giving... [It's the] same for receiving, same for sharing, same for playing, same for wanting and same for refusing.”

“Because if you can't say, no, you can't really say yes,” she continues. “Do a little play with yourself as a form of relational self-care... Which is the one I'm really at ease with, and which is the one that could use some strengthening, some practice. And then make that your goal this week. For example, ‘I want to practice receiving when people pay me a compliment. I don't want to just say thank you. I want to sit with it.'"

—Video produced by Olivia Schneider.

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