Have you locked eyes with yourself in a mirror lately? Could you name your distinctive features, describe the emotions reflected in your expression, or observe the inner workings of your soul? Whether or not we take the time to notice these details about ourselves, our faces broadcast crucial information about us to anyone paying attention.
Facial recognition software uses the distinctive features of a face to match it with an identity in a database. A variety of nonprofit organizations have found this technology crucial in reuniting lost pets with their owners, abducted children with their parents, and even human trafficking victims with their families. However, this technology has been unexpectedly challenged during this season of COVID. The use of masks has become a common sight, providing a layer of protection for our physical health at the cost of masking much of our identity. Facial recognition software is limited by them.
However, the human brain is not limited to the face alone. The ability to communicate via facial expressions and body language comes hardwired in the newborn human. Eye contact and mirrored responses from caregivers in the first weeks and months of life lead to new brain connections that become both the template for and a powerful means of creating connection.
CONNECTING VIA TELEHEALTH?
Telehealth has added extra layers of ambiguity to the relationships between clients and counselors. Is it better to see clients’ faces and allow them the convenience of meeting from their homes – at the cost of reading each other’s body language? Will it benefit clients to meet in person if they and their counselors must wear masks that hide their facial expressions? Both options remove critical information that both counselors and clients rely on to connect. While the research around COVID – and telehealth — continues, we struggle to identify how much counselor and client need to seeto feel connected?
The advantages of telehealth are many. It opens the door to clients who have no local options for mental health care, or who are unable to travel to our office. It also allows clients to meet with counselors when either or both have family or health issues making it unwise to risk exposure. Research has proven that telehealth can be as effective as in-person counseling for some people and some issues.
However, telehealth also has its costs. It requires internet service and devices that some clients cannot access. Other clients have yet to acquire the experience or expertise required for telehealth to work reliably. Frustration in dealing with the technology does have the potential to cripple the client-counselor connection. Are we as a culture taking advantage of these forms of communication to deepen and enrich our connections?
IGNORING MYSELF OR KNOWING MYSELF?
For me, several factors made it hard to acclimate myself to telehealth. First, I was not used to seeing myself on the screen while conversing with a client. I tried turning it off, but soon realized that I needed to verify that the facial expression I thought I wore was really what my client was seeing. It was humbling to realize how worried or sad I usually appeared, when what I was experiencing was simply focusing on my client.
Because mirror neurons in the human brain depend on observing as well as reflecting motivations and emotions, I was frustrated by having to work so hard to sense the emotions and motivations of my clients, especially on phone calls. In the process, I often lost contact with my own inner observations. I have not always asked my clients for their experiences in the moment, thus missing important information that my observations could have validated. This is one major loss of not meeting in person, but I am learning from it.
I had not anticipated how many technical challenges we’d experience in telehealth. Blurred, jiggling, or frozen video, voice-video asynchrony, or having to resort to phone conversations fractured our conversations and cost us time. Surely these glitches, so common that commercials take advantage of them for comic relief, are one cause of “ZOOM fatigue.” Since those of us over 65 have spent most of our lives communicating without internet technology claiming the space between us and other people, we may find it hard to see the humor in its odd inconsistencies.
ARE WE ISOLATING OR CONNECTING?
On her website Brené’ Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
As we wait and pray for an end to this virus that has already robbed us of much, let’s abandon the culture of busyness that cripples our ability to connect. We are alive and breathing for a reason. Our purpose as counselors is to connect with you in a healthy way, and to compare notes in that connection.
If past relationships have failed to connect you with others in a healthy way, come learn alongside one of our counselors. We are here for you.