Weathering The Storm From Your Own Boat.
Updated: May 6, 2020
Five coaching questions to help you row to a better place, no matter the ship you sail.
COVID Spring, as some have endearingly named this crazy season, created a new world for everyone: new rules, new social norms, even new hashtags. We've been encouraged to think of ourselves as "separate but together", but in reality, our individual journeys through this crazy storm are not completely aligned. Sure, we're all dealing with the same virus, but some of us ride out this viral storm in a sturdy barge while others fend for themselves from a rowboat.
As I realized lately, it's important to allow everyone to experience this storm without minimizing the impact it has on each of us and our daily lives. After six weeks of quarantined life, I felt like I should be acing this whole stay-at-home-while-working-and-teaching-my-children-and-being-mom thing. Clearly, a month and a half should provide plenty of time for us to find, and fall into, a new routine. I am afforded the luxury of not having to be on the front line and instead, focus my energies on keeping my home and my children safe. Unlike the courageous healthcare workers, grocery store cashiers, shipping industry workers, and other people whose work is truly essential to all of us, I stay home and conduct my business behind a desk or on a phone.
Yet, I struggle sometimes. While most days I keep my head above water, there are days when I believe I'm sinking. My struggle is different than yours, and likely everyone else's in the world. No two of us experience life the same way normally, let alone now in times of chaos and uncertainty. Even if they start small, some negative, judgmental thoughts begin. Even worse, I tell myself what I should be thinking, doing, or feeling instead. These thoughts open an invisible wound that I pick at, scratch, and investigate. I compare myself and my situation to others and sometimes even shame myself, feeling like my actions have fallen short of what I might be able to do.
Just like a healing physical wound, mental wellness seems to come from understanding and honoring your current mental experiences without picking at them. Researchers Brett Ford et al at the University of Toronto and University of California, Berkeley studied this phenomenon, which is called habitual acceptance. As it turns out, they discovered that your ability to habitually accept your thoughts and "mental experiences" is linked to greater psychological health, not only in the moment but also over time. We all know that cuts and scrapes tend to heal best when we don't pick, yet some of us are better than other at just accepting the process without getting involved. Similarly, everyone differs in their ability to accept their thoughts and emotions without judgment.
So, using my knowledge and experience as a health coach, I ask myself some questions that ground my thoughts in reality. Ultimately, witnessing and noting thoughts provides a little perspective and eventually, acceptance for what they are.
What about your experience is different from other people's experiences?
As previously stated, each of us experiences challenging times in a different way. Even though it's not potentially as bad as someone else's situation, it still might not be your "norm." Contrary to popular belief, it's not always a bad thing to feel, well... bad. As Dr. Noam Shpancer, PhD explains in his article, Emotional Acceptance: Why Feeling Bad is Good, "your emotions tell you something about what's going on with you and around you." In avoiding your feelings of sadness, negativity, and loneliness, you're suppressing real, truthful emotions. This tendency, called emotional avoidance, has the potential of causing long-term harm. It's ok to say, "I've got this tough situation right now, and it's bumming me out."
Noticing how you're feeling about your emotions is called a meta-emotion and working through identifying and addressing your emotions in this way also turns out to be helpful, even if uncomfortable. In Acceptance and Cognitive Therapy, this process is likened to welcoming an uninvited houseguest: you can invite them in without being happy they're there.
Bottom line: Give yourself a few moments to experience your emotion, name it, and then move on.
What are you doing to honor the experiences of other people right now?
Your feelings of inadequacy may stem from feelings of guilt as you compare your situation to that of others around you. To address these feelings, try to brainstorm what you are doing (currently) or could do (moving forward) to lighten the emotional burden experienced by someone else. Studies show that helping others provides you with an emotional "rush" -- a feeling of happiness that follows connecting with and assisting those around you. Researchers believe that the benefit comes from "being pro-social, [which] reinforces our relatedness to others." So perhaps the easiest way to help yourself is to help someone else.
What evidence do you have that supports your beliefs about what you should be doing?
When you stop to actually ask yourself for information that supports your feelings of inadequacy, the data often comes up short. "Should" come from your perceptions of what others expect of you, even when those expectations haven't been articulated or communicated. We are innately social beings, and thus put a strong emphasis on what our peers or society defines as appropriate. These social pressures establish themselves over time and help communities develop guidelines of how people should act in society. Our current situation isn't one that anyone in our lifetime experienced previously. Therefore, there's really no precedent, no established norm to follow and measure yourself by. We're creating these as we go and using the daily barrage of social media data to do so. Comparing myself to others is an old and unfortunate habit for me, but the potentially harmful ramifications of this practice even more acutely visible right now. While social media offers many positives (including a way to connect with others virtual when we can't connect in person), people tend to only post the "best" of their lives on social media. In essence, social media creates false social norms and standards.
So, I follow this thought with the next question: "Where do you want to invest all of your energy right now?" With so much to consider in the world, you have a choice how you spend your time and brain power. What would you place at the top of your list of important things in life? Where do these comparisons this rank on that list?
What can you control in the situation?
COVID Spring forced us into a "Brave New World" where we now face novel experiences, emotions, and challenges. Regulations aimed at maintaining public health and facilitating recovery also take control away from you as a person. Over time, that feeling of helplessness can habituate, a phenomenon called learned helplessness. Usually seen in animals, as this article explains, learned helplessness also occurs in humans when someone is stuck in a situation where they lack control. The feeling extends into their lives, leaving them feeling helpless and down. While you lack command over some things, figure out what you can manage. For example, consider finding simple joys that bring you into the moment and remind you of the things within your sphere of control.
Do you have kids who love drawing with chalk on the sidewalk?
Does listening to music help you zone out?
Could you do something for yourself in the morning first before checking your phone or reading the news?
What meditation might help you take a mental break?
Each person experiences this storm in their own way. Therefore, the key is understanding what tools you have in your boat to get you to shore safely.