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What if Normal Isn’t Normal From Now On?

As states and cities end their stay-at-home lockdowns for COVID-19, there is a lot of talk about what life is going to look like. Will it go back to “normal?” And if not, what will our new “normal” look like, at least for a while (such as until there is a widely available vaccine). These very normal thoughts can cause a lot of anxiety and a lot of mourning. As we realize that the new normal is going to involve new practices such as keeping physical distance between groups of people (such as at restaurants and movie theaters), limiting the number of people in any store at a given time, and trying to avoid the spread of the virus through not shaking hands, etc., we may realize that even though we’re no longer under stay-at-home orders, we’re not going back to the old normal. There is grief in this realization. We are losing what was familiar and what was taken for granted: hugging friends, gathering in crowds for concerts, sports, and worship, and not having to wear face masks when outside in public. For some, those visible reminders like the face masks awaken the grief.

So what do you do? How do you handle this new situation when the new normal isn’t the old normal that we all want? First of all, be kind to yourself. (And, as you are able, be kind to those around you who are struggling with many of the same feelings and adjustments). Acknowledge to yourself that, yes, this is hard. You may find the practice of radical acceptance to be helpful. Radical acceptance is accepting something hard that cannot be changed. This does not mean liking the thing which can’t be changed, or saying that it’s okay. It means understanding and acknowledging that this thing, whatever it is, cannot be changed and then deciding to live your best life in spite of this or around it. So in the case of the new COVID-19 normal, this might mean accepting that gathering and socializing is going to look different. We don’t have to like it, but we can’t change it. And then it’s deciding to look for ways to live a full life despite this fact. For example, during the lockdown, families were meeting by Zoom to each eat in their own homes but to interact by video while doing so. Others would socialize with neighbors by standing on the porch and at the end of the driveway to talk to each other safely. What can you do to live a rich, satisfying life in spite of the new limitations and changes? Do note that radical acceptance is usually not a one-time event. Because these are very hard things that cannot be changed, you may find that you have to accept it again and again because of course our preference and our natural desire to deny and fight those things that are so hard and that we don’t want to be.

Another thing you can do is to realize that there is grief in the loss of the old normal. You will see things that remind you of this, such as all the face masks in public. Recognize the grief and allow it to be there. Grief often comes in like a wave. Like a wave, it will eventually roll out, too. Grief surprises us, though, when we least expect it. It could be that you see a can of chicken noodle soup and this makes you think of your grandmother who you haven’t been able to visit in order to keep her safe, and suddenly you’re in tears in the middle of the grocery store. You might feel crazy, but this is normal. It is grief.

Gratitude can help you as you establish your new normal and mourn the losses. Gratitude reminds us all that there are still good things. A focus on gratitude actually increases our resilience. Alongside this, focus on the positive. For example, if the face masks everywhere you look make you anxious or sad, consider why people are wearing them. We wear masks less to protect ourselves than to protect those around us, so each mask is an act of caring by each person who wears them. And when you find toilet paper on the shelf at the grocery store, you’ve got something to celebrate (and add to your gratitude list!).

One last thing: examine your expectations and watch your “shoulds”. Expectations can cause many problems, such as when we have expectations of people in our lives who have never agreed to those and aren’t aware of them. We feel let down when our expectations go unmet, and they feel angry or hurt because you do. We can have expectations of what life “should” be like; if life doesn’t meet our expectations, we might be angry and disappointed even if our expectations were unreasonable to start with. And going along with this are the “shoulds.” If something “should” be a certain way, you are setting yourself up for extreme disappointment, anger, hurt or other negative outcome. “Should” has a kind of moral weight to it. So if something “should” happen but doesn’t, it can be devastating. When you catch yourself “shoulding” on yourself, try to rephrase it as “it would be nice if ____” or “I would prefer if ___.” For more on “should” and its relatives, see this blog post.

Right now, so many people are trying to protect their loved ones from their own stresses and anxiety by keeping them to themselves so they don’t add to their loved one’s worries. I’m a safe place you can unload all of these things without having to worry about protecting me. If you’d like to talk about your own particular challenges with our new COVID-19 reality, please call or text me at (816) 226-4678 to arrange an appointment.

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