It’s a difficult time to have goals. Coming out of the turn of the year, you may have been immersed in your efforts to be more organized, working to finally get out of debt, or maybe you resolved to finally work on that body-builder physique. Seemingly overnight, you were forced to shift your focus from long-term goals and self-improvement to things like making sure your pantries are stocked with food, getting your kids set up to learn at home, and trying to simply stay healthy. Suddenly, thinking about the future seems like a thing of the distant past.
We’re stuck. Stuck inside, stuck at home, stuck in the unknown. I’ve talked to a lot of people over the past few weeks who are wondering how to move forward in such a time of immobility. Fear and questions of things returning to normal abound. I hear versions of the same frustration over lost opportunities, repeated disappointments, and a sense that there aren’t a lot of ways to feel ‘in control.’
In times when we feel a loss of control, it’s natural to be extremely uncomfortable. Setting goals, making plans, and solving problems are often ways we cope with or avoid discomfort or unpleasant feelings. As I engage with my own family and friends, as well as clients through telemental health sessions, I’m hearing a lot of one particular theme: We don’t like to feel as though we aren’t in the driver’s seat when it comes to making decisions, solving problems, or determining how we want to feel. This feels bad. And there’s no escaping it.
Being socially isolated at home for an undetermined period of time can carry with it a horror show of emotions—grief, anxiety, anger and fear, to name just a few. You might be someone who tends to focus on ‘projects’ in an effort to avoid tough feelings. Maybe you start making travel arrangements for the dream summer vacation you’ve always wanted to take, or you start on that home improvement project that’s been on your list. These things on their own are not bad. It’s just important to be mindful of where you’re putting your focus and energy, and to know whether doing so will result in positive movement or if you’ll just find yourself worse off.
So how can you know? Admittedly, this is tough to answer—but it’s important. While we have lessons from history, the current generation has not experienced an outbreak situation like the current COVID-19 pandemic. You probably won’t find too many books or manuals to guide you through personal growth and self-help in the midst of a shelter-in-place order. But we can draw from what we know to be best-practices in mental health, commonsense knowledge and reasoning, and maybe a few little tricks along the way.
I’m not exempt from the same problems I’m trying to help others address. Oftentimes, I find that giving people a method or framework to use is much more helpful than input or advice on a particular problem.
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
Unless you are extremely skilled in prolonged meditation—or you’re the Dalai Lama—it’s likely that you devote some type of energy to unpleasant feelings when they manage to creep in. Fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, and grief may startle you a bit, and cause you to scramble. It’s common to quickly call upon anything better. After all, feeling bad is bad, right?
It’s not, really. Often, it’s actually necessary in order to move on to better feelings.
Try this: rather than judging feelings as negative and immediately banishing them from thought, try noticing them with curiosity and acceptance. Doing so keeps them separate from you. They’re feelings, but they don’t have to be part of you or your future. It’s important to put your energy into creating more helpful thoughts so that you have something to replace the ones contributing to these uncomfortable feelings. Once you’re used to doing so, you’ll notice you can actually make decisions, take action, and go about your day even when you don’t feel great. Putting more energy into mindful action means putting less into trying to change these uncomfortable feelings and eventually—drained of energy—they will often go away on their own.
Give up the need to always have a solution
I was talking to someone last week who happens to be coping quite well with the current state of affairs. She said, “I’m fine, as long as I stop trying to solve all my problems and just focus on how I respond to people and my feelings.” Given that she is notorious for her ability (and need) to solve problems, I stopped in my tracks. She was onto something. While we are all facing our own unique circumstances, we are also sharing one common experience right now: the unknown. And with that comes limited control. Maybe it’s actually liberating to not really know the right answer—or if there even is one.
Are you trying to find solutions where there potentially are none? Or maybe there are countless solutions to problems we perceive to have only one. I’ve been observing the many approaches to homeschooling detailed on social media and retold by friends. It’s been amusing to read parents’ humorous accounts and sarcastic rants as they try to fill in as their child’s teacher—creating and enforcing structure and schedules, checking for completion, helping to make corrections. What I haven’t encountered, however, are many happy or positive stories. And this makes sense, given that most solutions being implemented are attempts to mimic a school structure. At home. During a pandemic, when emotions are running hot and the overarching goal is stay healthy. Stress is not indicated here.
What would it look like to accept the unknowns surrounding your child’s academics, in this instance? I wonder if implementing a school-like structure to learning at home is like trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you boycott at-home learning as it’s been implemented. That would be a solution, after all. I’m proposing the idea that maybe there’s not really one solution to this right now. Or any good ones at all. Accepting that means that I can hand my kids a Chrome book, tell them to just do the work that interests them, and try to keep them as happy, healthy and strong as possible. Accepting our limitations around this and having the confidence to reject popular solutions has helped with our spirits at home and our ability to continue looking at the future with optimism, even while we aren’t able to take steps toward it.
Have fun, and continue to plan as if
While you don’t have complete control over the restrictions placed on your daily routine, you will feel like you’re still in forward motion if you continue making plans for the near and far future. And if you keep a simple theme in mind: fun. I forgot how fun board games can be, and it’s been a long time since I’ve found myself looking forward to diving into a card game. I’m actually eyeing up Fortnite now, thinking I’ll try my hand at that next. Because it’s fun, and we laugh.
While you may not be needing your paper planner much these days as obligations have decreased, keep it by your side to pencil in that postponed spring break trip, or those runs you’ll need to do to run an end-of-summer 10k. You’ve already got a handle on those negative feelings that creep in (see #1) so we aren’t talking about planning vacations in order to ‘feel better’ or immersing ourselves in distractions. Having a handle on our thoughts and emotions lends itself to a healthy anticipation of the future—as well as positive ways to cope with having to adjust if necessary.
While you may be putting a lot of plans, projects and goals on hold for the time being, working on accepting situations as they are will inevitably help you long after talk of COVID-19 has dissipated. While your efforts may not look the way you imagined or hoped for, planning with a healthy framework and adjusting as necessary will keep you moving as you comfortably shelter-in-place.