When do we return to normal?

In the beginning of the pandemic, we all experienced a collective event that hit many people as a trauma. And as a predictable result, many of us got brain fog, lost confidence, experienced physical changes in our bodies, and difficulty keeping up with the rapid changes in policies within our companies and cities.

But most of us expected to be better by now. It makes sense that you’d react to a sudden shift in lifestyle by getting stressed, sleeping poorly, missing deadlines, and gaining weight. After years, it seems like we should be adapted by now. The continued stress and trauma only added up, they didn’t get better. And the longer this goes on, the more we lose confidence in ourselves and our ability to bounce back.

Our inner critic is the key here. It’s bad enough to be stressed and going through a collective trauma, but when your inner critic piles on the shame, you add the sense of ongoing failure to the list. It’s the inner critic who keeps you from being resilient and accessing your strength because it keeps you in the mindset of comparison, shame, and failure. Even when we know consciously that these are normal reactions, the inner critic’s blame and shame tell us the story that it’s okay for everyone else to be struggling, but it’s not okay for you to struggle.

This belief creates a sense of isolation from others. It’s hard to look at someone else who seems to be doing so much better and admit that you’re struggling. And it’s equally hard to be around friends who are struggling and resist the pressure to put on the face of doing just fine. This isolation keeps you from accessing the community, mutuality, and support you need to actually bounce back.

We return to normal only when we can accept what happened, admit to ourselves and others when we are not doing okay, and enter into supportive community in order to truly heal.

The Benefits of Failure

Nobody likes to fail, especially in front of others. But failure carries with it two implications- first that you were willing to try something, and second that you have a chance to learn. These are the benefits of failure.

For some of us who have at least one area in life where we are at least moderately successful if not highly proficient, we are faced with the temptation to stay within our realm of competence. This is a key danger in life because once we develop a core competence and choose to remain within it, we can shut down from novel and difficult experiences. We can keep ourselves safe from not knowing, not being very good, being the worst, but only at the cost of our ability to learn and grow and explore.

So failing in itself isn’t necessarily the benefit. But failing means that you tried something outside of your core set of competencies. It means you were willing to stretch yourself and be open to the many different possibilities that could await you. Any time you want to learn how to paint or try a yoga class or sew your own clothes, you probably won’t be a master the first time you do it.

The way out is through acceptance. When you try something new, you might fail. You might look silly. Other people might form opinions of you and your capability. Let me share a story from my life to illustrate.

My Inner Critic is deeply focused on worrying how I’ll do at physical activities. When I was about ten years old, I thought about asking my parents if I could start taking karate lessons like many of my friends did. I never asked because my mind told me that ten was just too late to start learning karate and I’d be behind all the other kids who started even younger.

Looking back, it seems objectively silly. As an adult, ten doesn’t seem to old to learn a new skill. But in the moment, my mind had convinced me it was way too late. Of course, everything seems more obvious in hindsight. The real trick is to be able to notice in the moment when my mind is telling me an untrue story.

I think of some of the things I was interested in but didn’t do. That cookie decorating class- why didn’t I go? That book group- why didn’t I sign up? I can tell myself that the class was too expensive, but in reality if it were half the price I still wouldn’t have gone because what if everyone else is there with a friend and they notice I’m by myself?

Shame says: I don’t want to be the fattest, weakest, and least flexible person in the Pilates class!
Acceptance answers: You might be! But you’ll be doing something you’ve been wanting to try for years.
Shame says: I should have started ceramics years ago if I wanted to be any good.
Acceptance counters: But you can’t start years ago. You can only start now.

I can choose to think back on some of the times I did go to a class alone. I met new people, and others in the class were happy to include me even though they came with friends. I can remember how it felt to finally try karate in college and I did struggle compared to some of the other students but I got stronger and learned a lot, and nobody was as hard on me as I was on myself.

Here’s your challenge- think of something that you’ve wanted to do but just haven’t managed. Explore your reasoning and question deeper to see if the surface reasons are covering over some internal shame or Inner Critic narrative. And then try it. Just once. Just to show your Inner Critic that you’re strong and resilient, that you don’t want to be trapped by worry.

Exploring Motivation

Motivation seems fairly straightforward on the surface, but when you don’t have the motivation to complete basic daily tasks, it suddenly becomes complicated. And it can be frustrating to know that you’re on top of everything you need to do at work and at home but feel like you don’t know how to get yourself to want to work out every night when you get home.

Motivation is huge in therapy. Many people come to therapy looking to regain the motivation they used to have, to explore why they can’t seem to do the things they want to do, basically how to get yourself to want to do the things you have to do.

Motivation is also a bit of a paradox. My clients who are depressed, lost, and frustrated are all looking for the motivation to get them going in life. But my clients who are high functioning don’t see motivation as a relevant factor. They don’t work out every day because they want to, but because it’s built into their routines.

Structure and habit seem to be the key to bypassing motivation. If you only get out of bed when you want to, there will be some days when you simply don’t feel like it. But if you get out of bed every morning when your alarm goes off, you don’t have to check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling first.

This is why many unmotivated people can do well at work but are unable to follow through on what they would like to be doing with their personal time. The external structure of work creates certain obligations- be up and ready by a certain time in the morning whether you want to or not, do your routine job tasks regardless of how you’re feeling, attend meetings when they’re scheduled even if it’s not your preference. At home it’s flipped. You want to start reading more, take up a new hobby or craft project, do a puzzle. But then the “I’ll just watch one episode with dinner” becomes a few episodes, or you’re comfy on the couch and it feels easier to stay seated than to get up and do some yoga.

How do you motivate yourself? By creating a habit. By creating a new narrative of how your evenings go. By deciding that I am a person who works out every day after work whether I feel like it or not. By deciding that every night at 9pm all the screens go off and I’m going to read until it’s time for bed.

The narrative is the key. It shapes your new identity as someone who does these things instead of someone who wants to start doing those things someday. Identity stories are powerful. When it’s 5am, an identity story of “I’d like to be a runner but I’m not there yet” isn’t going to get you out of bed. But when you decide “I’m a morning runner,” you find that your motivation shapes itself to the identity that you declare for yourself. Of course it isn’t as simple as naming yourself a runner, but that’s often the first step.

Try it on with something you’ve been meaning to start or get better at.
“I’m the kind of person who……”
“I ……….. every night after work.”
“I like to ……….. at least three times a week.”

These decisions are powerful. If you work out every day after work and have that as part of your narrative of who you are as a person, it shapes your schedule. When coworkers ask if you want to get drinks after work, you can draw on your identity story to protect your time and let them know you’ve got to work out first and you’ll join them after.

As you shape these identity narratives into a habit, the action becomes routine. Motivation is not a relevant factor. You wake up early to run because that’s just what you do. Think of other routines you have. Severely depressed people often don’t shower or brush their teeth because they can’t motivate themselves to get up and take care of their hygiene. But most people don’t even think about it. They brush their teeth at certain times of the day whether they feel like it or not, even when they’re rushed or exhausted.

Focus on motivation isn’t helpful because it requires you to be monitoring your internal state which is naturally highly variable. You will not always “feel like” doing things you need to do. Deciding that you want to take on a new habit means that you decide that you will do things regardless of your internal feelings about the new routine.

Here’s the lesson: if you’re focused on motivation, you’re looking for internal resources to create an external structure. Try it the other way instead. Create the external structures- scheduling, habit forming, identity narrative- and don’t worry about waiting until you feel like following through. Because once you’ve created that habit, it doesn’t matter if you internally want to keep going, it’s just something that you do.

Grief at Systems of Injustice

In most grief literature, we frame grief individually- I, or you, have lost something or someone and we have to step forward in life in the wake of that loss. But we also see an undercurrent of a deeper grief, one that reacts to the damage done by injustice and unjust systems as they harm humans both individually and in communities.

This is a pervasive grief. None of us live in perfectly just societies, and if we do not see the injustice in the system it is because we choose not to see it or we are privileged enough that it is invisible to us. We all participate in society, and even as we run into these unjust systems, we recognize that individual action will not do much to change the system itself, we need collective action.

This kind of grief turns readily into anger, both at the system itself for being unjust and at others who are not working to bring justice or may be actively working against justice.

This kind of grief can also turn into apathy, the sense of struggling to move a system that seems unmovable. The sense of being alone in wanting change can wear us down as we do not see others rallying with us in the cause. And a different kind of apathy when these stories of injustice sweep through the culture with a sense of pity, but the energy for change doesn’t last as the next big story comes in.

Choosing a life of activism often feels like grief. It is difficult to remain faithful to a cause when it feels like shouting at the ceiling and pleading to an empty room. And yet we are heartened by stories of other activists who did see lasting structural changes toward justice, often after decades or even a lifetime of work.

Justice is a strong drive at the core of your heart, and grief walks alongside it. You may find it useful to retell your story, even just to yourself, to remember why you believe in justice and why it’s worth continuing to pursue right action through all the struggles. As an activist, you are a modern day prophet, seeing straight through to the heart of the issue and trying to wake up a culture that seems to be asleep.

Your story of justice can be a light when everything around you seems dark. Stories keep us going when we want to stop. Justice is worth pursuing every day, and your choice to sit with the grief of injustice instead of ignoring it will be a beacon to those who come after you.

The Equalizing Power of Grief

Grief therapy is fundamentally different from other kinds of therapy for a few reasons, a primary reason being that both the therapist and the client have had their own experiences with grief and loss. In other therapies, the client may have a problem that the therapist has never experienced, so the therapist is operating purely clinically with no personal interjection.

This different way of doing therapy can feel odd to those who are more comfortable in a therapeutic experience that is more one-sided and hierarchical with the therapist being the expert on treatment and the client bringing the issue to be treated. With grief, we are all in the same boat. Not that your therapist will give great detail about their own story- therapy should always center on you as the client- but there is a different sense of community, a feeling like right now it is you going through this grief, but we have both been there and we will both be there again at many points in our lives.

And so, grief therapy is a process grounded in a horizontal relationship of equality rather than a vertical relationship of hierarchy and expertise. We are truly traveling together on the journey of grief. This is a collaborative process of digging into the meaning and purpose of life in the face of our mortality and limits.

Grieving Body Changes

Whether from aging, medical treatment, or an accident, our bodies change. Like other forms of grief, the story we tell ourselves about how and why these changes happened is the source of our peace or distress.

Body changes are often our most public changes. When we start a new habit or learn a new language, others can’t tell just by looking. But the people around us take notice when chemotherapy leads to hair loss, an accident takes an arm, or aging makes us need glasses at work.

Medical treatments can cause some of the most extreme body changes. Treatments may cause us to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, we may lose a limb or an eye, we may lose our reproductive capability. Even when these treatments were medically necessary and we understand logically that this was the best path, we still grieve these losses.

Aging-related changes can be difficult to accept, particularly in cultures that value youth and appearance over age and wisdom. Even though we all know that we will age every year, some people fight hard against the reality of growing older.

Accidents are the most likely to result in complicated grief for the simple reason that they are not something we might choose (like medical treatment) or reasonably foresee (like aging). And accidents often have someone to blame, whether that’s yourself or someone else.

Blaming narratives lead us down a path of grief that is likely to keep us stuck in a vicious cycle of negativity. Blame helps us hold onto anger at the person or situation that caused our grief and keeps us away from taking productive action toward the present and future.

Grief that keeps us stuck in the past can be resolved through work around changing your story of what happened and why. Even when someone is clearly at fault, your narrative needs to incorporate the facts in a way that acknowledges what happened while still allowing you to accept your present reality so that you can continue to create your life moving forward. We need to balance our natural desire to know the reason for our suffering with the fact that there are some things we need to accept that we will never fully know.

As you notice the changes in your body, try to also notice the thoughts you have surrounding the changes. Notice if you are worried what others might think, if you are missing your ability to do a particular activity, or if you tend to blame someone in particular for your loss. This noticing allows you to begin to be aware of the narrative your mind has already created about the situation. These narratives are instinctively formed from your past experiences and your emotions. Notice with compassion and non-judgment, but also notice where your automatic narrative might be creating additional problems for you.

Once you’re aware of your narrative, you can work to shift it in a way that leads you to peace and mental freedom. Your reality is the same, but your thoughts and perspective can move from a focus on the past and what you lost toward acceptance of your current situation and a hopeful future.