Filling in the gaps

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
The change from Level 1 to Level 2 in The South has caused emotional discomfort and anxiety, writes Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken
I have the feeling that if this year were a menu, it would read something like the following:

Entree: cold, lumpy, day old porridge

Main: tripe and onions

Dessert: liver mousse

(Apologies to the offal-eating readers and I do love a good porridge, just not a cold, lumpy one. It’s just that 2020 hasn’t been overly appetising so far!)

The change from Level 1 to Level 2 in The South has caused emotional discomfort and anxiety for some. Most of us have known that at some point we’d need to shuffle up the alert scale if/when Covid-19 reared its ugly head again, but the reality of that happening seemed to become more remote each day we remained in Level 1. We all began to believe we had actually beaten the virus, that perhaps we wouldn’t see it again on our shores. Then there was that moment of reality and our hopes were dashed.

Dr Russ Harris, author and psychologist, calls this a "reality slap". We’ve all had them: those moments when life deals us a painful blow.

He says: "The reality slap takes many different forms. Sometimes it’s so violent, it’s more like a punch... At other times, the slap is somewhat gentler... those painful stabs of failure, disappointment or rejection". He goes on to describe the next step: "Once the slap wakes us up, we then face the gap. I call it ‘the reality gap’ because on one side is the reality we have, and on the other is the reality we want."

The bigger the gap between realities, the more painful the slap feels.

Life has a habit of delivering those slaps, and gaps. Ideally, we’ll be able to close the gap. If that’s possible, great! If not, then what are we supposed to do? Dr Harris’ strategy to work through these rough patches

involves four steps: 1) hold yourself kindly; 2) drop the anchor; 3) take a stand and 4) find the treasure.

Let’s look a little more closely at each one.


When we’re hurting, we need to be kind to ourselves, something that is often easier said than done. For most of us, the default setting of our mind is to be harsh, judgemental, uncaring or self-critical, especially if we believe we created our own reality gap.

Self-criticism doesn’t help, but that doesn’t stop it from happening either. We need to learn the art of self-compassion: how to hold ourselves kindly and gently. We need to learn how to support and comfort ourselves, and how to handle our painful thoughts and feelings.


The larger the reality gap, the greater the emotional storm. Painful feelings crash through our bodies and painful thoughts blow through our minds. It’s easy to get caught in these painful thoughts and carried away by the feelings. We feel helpless. When that storm hits, we must drop anchor and ground ourselves, so we can take effective action. Dropping anchor doesn’t get rid of the storm; it just holds us steady until the initial storm passes.


Whenever we encounter a reality gap, it can help to ask "What do I want to stand for in the face of this?" We can stand for giving up or we can stand for something that matters and gives us the will and the courage to carry on. Where do your life values fit in with this, what sort of action can you take that still allows you to keep your integrity?

We can’t turn back time and undo what has happened, but we can choose the attitude we take towards it. Sometimes taking a stand can close the gap, and other times it can’t. We still may not have the reality we want but the moment we take a stand, we experience a sense of control and that helps calm the storm.


Once we have put the first three steps into place, we will be in a different space mentally. From here, we are more likely to be able to find and appreciate some of the treasures life has to offer. This last step may sound fanciful or even downright impossible, especially if you are currently in the midst of great anxiety, sadness or despair — but it is not. The final step is to find the treasure buried beneath our pain. That doesn’t mean we deny the pain or pretend that it doesn’t hurt. Rather, it means we acknowledge the pain is there and we also appreciate all that life has to offer.

Slaps and gaps will turn up in our lives as a matter of course. Life’s not about living in fear, waiting for the next slap. Rather it’s about being aware that unpleasant and pleasant stuff will happen. It’s about knowing that we can weather the storm if we are gentle towards ourselves, hunker down to deal with things, figure out what we stand for and look for the good around us.

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

For more go to



Add a Comment

Local journalism matters - now more than ever

As the Covid-19 pandemic brings the world into uncharted waters, Otago Daily Times reporters and photographers continue to bring you the stories that matter. For more than 158 years our journalists have provided readers with local news you can trust. This is more important now than ever.

As advertising drops off during the pandemic, support from our readers is crucial. You can help us continue to bring you news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter