I have a really hard time with the phrase “new normal.” Can I just say that? It implies that somehow after a horrible trauma, crisis, or global event like a pandemic we can somehow get to a “normal“ state again. But sometimes the life we live after such events is anything but normal-and frankly, I have a hard time trying to convince myself or others that it should be considered so.
Ask any parent who’s lost a child, anyone who has suffered a critical illness with lasting effects, or- like my 20 year daughter- someone who suffers daily from chronic illness. There is nothing “normal” about life after or while suffering from these conditions.
The definition of “normal” is “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.”
In today’s world, almost nothing about our day-to-day life is usual, typical, or expected. Perhaps you’ll say, “But, it’s normal for us NOW.” Well, hear me out.
Consider our social lives today with the pandemic. The CDC recommends that we wear a face covering when we leave our homes, stay at least six feet apart from others, and avoid large crowds of people for our safety & for the safety of our loved ones. Despite following these cautions, people can still get sick. Too many of them have died before their time- unexpectedly. This is not “normal.”
We are now facing the prospect of returning to school. Teachers across the country are worried beyond words because they don’t know how they can remain safe and teach our children. Every teacher knows that it’s the relationship they have with the students that creates the learning environment. It’s the “Hello!” hugs, the pat on the back or the high five when a new skill is learned. It’s the shoulder to shoulder conversations in hallways when a student is needing a pep talk or a firm but loving redirection. How will school be “normal” without this?
How will students’ lives be normal without being able to sit in that tight circle on the hallway floor, eating lunch together and gossiping? Or playing basketball at lunchtime?
Or for the little ones without singing in class or small group work? College students learning online instead of meeting their new dorm roommates? Clearly, it will not be “normal.”
My point is not to be negative-just the opposite, actually. I ask you to acknowledge that this time period is anything but normal. To identify it as such by adding the adjective “new” before it does each of us a disservice. It denies the absurdity of what we’re experiencing and the heartbreaking truth of it.
So how, then, do we choose to navigate this time without living in sadness? The answer, I believe, lies in finding the beauty in our current suffering. What beautiful thing does it say about us if we’re struggling with what they call “the new normal?”
For me, the struggle tells me how precious human connection is to me. It reminds me to cherish every single moment spent with my family, friends, and even strangers when we interact. It reminds me to be grateful for every student I’ve taught over the 11 years that I’ve been a Special Education teacher. Each one was a gift- even if I didn’t feel that in the moment. Even those “tough“ kids were part of the patchwork of the experience.
For others, the struggle with this ‘new normal’ might say how much they value their independence. Perhaps they can find ways to express that independence while still remaining safe. Perhaps they can find new ways to be independent and community-minded at the same time.
And finally, perhaps for some of us, the struggle with “new normal” could say that we still have hope; that this is NOT how we want life to be forever. That’s why I like to refer to our current time as “life today” rather than the new normal. It’s how life is for today- not necessarily for always. It accepts that this is "how it is" for now-- with radical acceptance and finding beauty in the now-- while still remaining hopeful for better days ahead.
So, we hold on to hope by connecting with others in new and meaningful ways. We find ways to be close despite distance. We find beauty amidst the suffering, because that’s where hope lives.
What beautiful thing does your struggle with “the new normal” say about you? Find that, cherish It, and create your “life today” around it.
❤️Be well. ❤️
"How do I help my clients who suffer from anxiety about the pandemic when I'm so anxious about it myself?" That question posed to me by a friend and fellow therapist (in one of those, "new normal" conversations by FaceTime) really hit home. As the sole caregiver to two family members who are considered "high risk," I agree that these times can definitely cause anxiety.
Anxiety can be described as worry or stress- usually about some future event. We all know what anxiety feels like. We usually feel it in our bodies somewhere, often before we're aware of the anxious thoughts. It's that pit in your stomach, the clenching of your teeth. I know my anxiety finds a home in my neck and shoulder area- and I can find myself hunching up my shoulders or holding my breath without thinking about it. That's how anxiety works: it finds a home in your body and lives there while you're going about your daily life.
So yes, we all know anxiety, right? Even the 'coolest" among us has had at least a few moments of anxiety in 2020, with the pandemic, fears about their own or their family's safety, financial worries due to lost wages, and the spike in the virus numbers now that we've tried to reopen. Add to all of that the social issues we're facing in our country with the strife communities of color are experiencing and the division caused by political differences and we have a perfect storm for anxiety to live in our collective body as a country.
How do we evict anxiety from its home in our heads and our bodies? Here are some thoughts:
Before you begin to work on your anxiety or your regrets, I ask you:
What beautiful thing does your worry or regret over that failed relationship or sadness that you’re alone, or your struggle with your weight-- or any other struggle... ...say about you?
That’s the first place to start because it’s a beautiful place to begin.
It reminds us of the beauty behind our struggles.
Have any of you seen the TLC series, "sMothered?" The title says it all; it's about mothers who emotionally "smother" their adult children (who eagerly participate). Watching sMothered, it's pretty easy to identify what having seriously impaired boundaries can look like. But what about the rest of us? You know the term, "Good fences make good neighbors," right? Well, having clear and healthy boundaries with the people we love isn't always that easy. Here's a good article on improving relationships using healthy boundaries.
Intimacy: Where Are You?
Have you ever been in a relationship that seemed great at first and then just fizzled? Or, perhaps you’re in a marriage that was once full of fire and excitement, only to now feel boring and unfulfilling? The problem might be your intimacy zone. Often, when we think of “intimacy,” many people think “sex.” The intimacy we’re talking about here is emotional intimacy. Most often, when emotional intimacy is either missing, challenged, or unsafe, the physical intimacy in the relationship can suffer or completely disappear. So, today, I’m going to challenge you to examine your intimacy levels or “zones” with your significant other. In terms of intimacy, where are you?
Zone 1- Safe Communication
This is the zone most used with strangers. You don’t express your opinions or feelings- just the facts. This is “business” type communication. “Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” You have very little vulnerability here. In this zone, couples who are struggling can find themselves talking only about schedules, who’s going to pick up the kids when, etc.
Zone 2- Other’s Opinions & Beliefs
In this zone, we feel just a little safer than in Zone 1, so we are able to discuss the opinions and beliefs of others. It’s safe, because we don’t share anything personal, just reflect what others have said or believe. This is, “I saw on Facebook” kind of communication. We can always adjust to the other person’s reaction to our sharing, which decreases our vulnerability.
Zone 3- My Personal Opinions & Beliefs
In this zone, we start to risk vulnerability at a greater level and we start taking small risks by sharing our own opinions and beliefs. If we perceive a threat in response to our sharing, there is still an opportunity to “back down” and change our opinions or beliefs in order to feel safer.
Zone 4- My Feelings & Experiences
This is the level where we share our feelings; joys, pains, disappointments, grief, failures, mistakes, regrets. This is where we share our hopes and dreams, our goals and ambitions. This is the “Who I AM” level of intimacy where we expose ourselves and our hearts to the other person. This is a more vulnerable level because unlike “lower” zones, we can’t back down; we cannot change who we are.
Zone 5- My Needs, Emotions and Desires
This is the deepest level of intimacy and also the one in which we are most vulnerable. This is the CORE of who we are. This is the zone where we share our most vulnerable parts of ourselves. We share our emotional reactions to things. This is the zone where we share things like “I want to grow old with you,” “I feel hurt when you don’t call.” As humans, our emotional reactions aren’t always pretty. They sometimes challenge our stereotypes of how people “should” act… or they surprise even ourselves… and this places us in an even more vulnerable state. While difficult to risk, the vulnerability of Zone 5 is what can cement a relationship, knowing we’re not judged and that we’re accepted by the other, “warts and all.”
So, where are you?
Imagine you’re back in high school and one of your good friends is giving an important presentation in front of the whole class. Knowing your friend, you notice that they’re visibly nervous, tripping over their words and stumbling through the presentation. As you watch, what are your thoughts? Are you thinking that your friend who was up all night prepping for this difficult task is a total loser? Do you lose respect for your friend because of this one, poor performance? Are you ashamed of them? Or, does your heart go out to them, pulling for them, feeling their pain? When it’s over, do you comfort them and tell them how much you admire them for giving it their best shot? I bet you would.
Now, imagine you’re that friend, stumbling through the presentation. What would you say to yourself? Would you give yourself the same compassion that an outside observer would give you? Unfortunately, if you’re one of the many people who suffer from anxiety and depression, chances are you’ll find yourself saying some pretty ugly things to yourself. In fact, many of us who suffer with anxiety endure this monumental self-shaming regularly in everyday situations.
The culprit is what we refer to as “automatic thoughts.” These automatically-generated thoughts are often painful, critical and rooted in untruths, exaggerations, or fears. When faced with the situation above, we might experience what we see as failure and think things like:
“Oh, man, I’m such an idiot.”
I totally blew that entire thing.
I always screw everything up
They all probably think I’m a moron”
Pretty rough, right?
These thoughts are cognitive distortions- thoughts that simply aren’t true, but they reflect our deepest beliefs and fears about who we really are. The evidence for this is if we ask ourselves a very difficult question: what would it mean about me if all of those things are actually TRUE? What if I AM an idiot? What if I DO screw everything up? What if they DO all think I’m a moron? What would that say about me? What would it mean?
Many times, for people with depression and anxiety, the answer is profound.
It means I’m not good enough.
It means I’m worthless
It means I’m not worthy of being loved.
These core beliefs are just not fair. They hurt us. And we deserve a gentler belief system about ourselves.
If you find yourself suffering with anxiety or depression, a first step in recovery is to start to pay attention to your thoughts. Are you having those automatic critical thoughts? Try keeping a log, maybe in the notes on your phone, over the course of a week or so.
When you find yourself getting anxious or down, tune into your thoughts. What are you telling yourself in those moments of pain? Write them down. Then, look for patterns in your thoughts. Are you self-critical? Are you labeling yourself with names like “loser” or “failure?” Inept? Incompetent? Stupid? Some of the things we say to ourselves are simply heartbreaking. But write them down.
Challenging those thoughts can be as simple as stepping away from yourself for a moment. What would you say to your best friend if they were experiencing this? What would you say to your child? What would you say to your loved one experiencing this kind of stressful event? Chances are you would be really kind to someone you love. You’d tell them something soothing and TRUE about themselves. You’d encourage them to be kind to themselves and to give themselves a break, right? And to keep trying, because they’re worth it. That’s the kind of thing we can do for ourselves. We can develop a practice of listening to those things we say to ourselves-- listening closely-- and challenging the negative thoughts with positive, true statements.
If you need help with negative self-talk, reach out to a counselor who can help to show you some tools to practice crushing those negative automatic thoughts. You CAN feel better.
Chicken or the Egg?
I was recently remembering a conversation I had with a professor of mine in college. He was a very serious, matter-of-fact guy who constantly talked about how our thoughts create our feelings. Everything stemmed from how we think. Events don’t cause us to feel or behave in certain ways, but rather, it was our THOUGHTS about the events that cause us to feel & act. At the time, I thought he was crazy. What if you have a death in the family? Or some other trauma? We’re human and of course that would make us sad, right?
I have to admit after having lived several decades now, that my old professor was right. It’s our thoughts, not events or experiences in and of themselves, that shape our feelings and behaviors.
Here’s an example: let’s say that two people on the same day get laid off from their jobs. Person A is crushed. They wonder how they’re going to survive. They think that they are a failure or a loser because they weren’t good enough to keep the job. They tell themselves that everyone at work is looking down on them for losing the job. And maybe they think they’ll never be able to hold a job because they’ll just get fired again since they’re incompetent. The person spirals into self loathing, anxiety, depression and retreats to their bed. Maybe they start drinking to dull the pain. They isolate from their friends and family out of self-hate or embarrassment. They’re truly suffering.
Now take Person B. They get laid off from the same job on the same day. Sure, they’re sad because they lost their job. They’ll miss their friends. They’re disappointed. But instead of the negative self-defeating thoughts that Person A suffered from, Person B might tell themselves more positive and TRUE things like, “You know...I never really liked that job that much anyway” or “Well, that was a learning experience and now I can move on and use it for the future.” Or- “It just wasn’t a good fit. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me as a person!”
Person B, suffering no anxiety or self-loathing might then take the opportunity to rest a while and have some fun. Or they might be ready to get out there and find a job that they really will enjoy because it’s a better fit for them.
Can you see the difference our thoughts make in how we feel and how we behave? It’s natural to have emotions. But when our self-talk is negative and defeating, our emotions follow, leading to issues like anxiety and depression. We don’t have to go down that path. ❤️
So which came first: the feelings or the thoughts? I think you know what my answer would be.