We all want to get through this crazy time in which we find ourselves as best we can. The question is, how?
We’re all trying to figure out what the new normal looks like while coping with the uncertainty of how long social distancing measures will last and or when they’ll become necessary again. We’re trying to make the best choices we can with limited information.
I think our ability to get through this with our sanity, health, and relationships intact depends on striking a balance between seemingly opposite but equally important things. Among these are structure and flexibility; helping others and protecting ourselves; and acceptance and action.
Structure and flexibility
“In times of uncertainty, your habits can ground you,” says habit expert James Clear. Our routines have a reassuring predictability to them, and healthy habits boost our mood and give us a much-needed sense of control which helps us feel more stable amidst uncertainty.
On the other hand, the capacity to be flexible - always a useful skill - is especially critical now. In his article, Flexibility in the Midst of Crisis, Gil Noam Ed.D., an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School focusing on prevention and resilience, says “I think at this time, the key skill that we need to hone is flexibility. . . Having flexibility is to have the ability to shift perspectives and actions when new or unexpected events arise.”
Putting it into action
How do we maintain reassuring structure but be flexible at the same time? One way is to stick to your routines but be flexible in your standards.
For example, it’s good to maintain a commitment to an exercise routine, but you don’t have to hold yourself to crazy workout standards. It’s perfectly fine to do a shorter or less strenuous workout if you’re not feeling up to your usual leave-it-all-on-the-field standards. This is especially important since demanding more from yourself than you’re willing to give on a routine basis makes it much more likely that you’ll quit altogether. It’s much better to be lenient on the quality of the exercise experience from day to day but maintain the basic routine.
Helping others and caring for ourselves
Achieving a good balance between helping others and caring for ourselves is difficult in the best of times. It’s even harder to achieve during a crisis when emotions run high and needs are greater.
When stressed, we’re more likely to default to extreme behavior patterns. Some might hyperfocus on others’ needs, trying to ease their stress no matter how great the cost to themselves. Perhaps they promise to meet an unrealistic deadline in an effort to calm a panicked boss, or micromanage their kids’ home-school schedules, exhausting themselves in an effort to help their family feel safe and loved.
Others might become so consumed by their own problems and feelings during this time that they get stuck in a downward spiral of self-absorbed panic. They’re unable to step outside their own experience to gain appropriate perspective, or offer support or understanding to others.
“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large,” says Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Matters More Than IQ.
Overextending yourself to ease others’ stress can and will lead to resentment, burnout, and blowups - exactly what we don’t need right now. On the other hand, obsessing about your own needs keeps you stuck and makes you less useful to those who need you.
Putting it into action
It is possible to strike a balance. We can help others manage their emotions by offering empathy, being an attentive listener, and providing an optimistic and solution-oriented point of view. We can manage our own needs by paying attention to our energy levels and emotional state throughout the day. We can take action to honor these needs and replenish ourselves as necessary. You could take brief naps, schedule quiet time to read or journal, put firm barriers around your work schedule, and vow to stay offline and avoid news after 5 or 6 p.m.
For those who are worried that taking care of their own needs makes them selfish, research proves otherwise. Social science researcher Brene Brown discovered that observance of healthy boundaries that protect your own needs helps you maintain compassion and generosity towards others.
Everyone is struggling right now, and that includes you. By all means, offer to pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor and lend a compassionate ear to someone who needs to talk through their panic. But also allow yourself to take breaks when you need to, seek small moments of joy that uplift and energize you, and remember that saying “no” often preserves the bigger, more important “yes”.
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Acceptance and action
The effects of the pandemic are wide-ranging: everything from our emotional state to our sense of financial security to our daily routines has been upended. To weather this storm, we’ll need to revise our expectations and accept circumstances and limitations we’d normally reject.
For a while, we will all be less efficient, focused, and productive. Patience will be in shorter supply. Energy levels will wax and wane as we struggle to cope. Some days, you might feel barely able to get out of bed, while on others you’ll race around the house crossing things off your to-do list faster than you can say “coronavirus outbreak.”
It’s a weird and crazy time, folks. We need to accept that the norms we’re used to at work and home have changed and manage our expectations accordingly.
On the other hand, it won’t do us any good to throw in the towel altogether. We need to balance accepting what we can’t control with managing what we can. It won’t do you any good to simply give up and camp out on the couch, wringing your hands and stuffing yourself with baked goods (mentioning this for a friend), waiting for this crisis to pass.
Getting through this with our well-being intact means finding ways to balance acceptance of what we can’t change with taking meaningful action when we’re able to.
“If people feel there is something they can do in a catastrophic situation, some control they can exert, no matter how minor, they far far better emotionally than those who feel utterly helpless,” says Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
Putting it into action
One way to exercise agency is to find and make use of opportunities the crisis has presented that wouldn’t exist otherwise. For example, can you arrange at-home “lunch dates” with your spouse now that you’re both working from home? Does your work-at-home schedule give you more time to read, nap, or spend time outside? Does the need to practice social distancing urge you to connect with friends you’d lost touch with over Skype, or have a fence-side get-together with a neighbor you otherwise rarely see?
I know that achieving this type of balance is difficult. And, just like the crisis itself, there is no how-to manual. We all have to make our own way through, making the best decisions we can, learning from mistakes if necessary and trying again. Above all, be kind. Be kind to yourself, be kind to your family, and remember everyone is stressed and struggling, and that’s ok.
It’s a brave new world, and we’ll get through this one thoughtful, wobbly step at a time.