Lessons From the Pandemic: Creating a New, “New Normal”

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by Elisabeth Kee, LPC

Over a year ago, a brave “new normal” began. It started with trickles of news reports on a mysterious virus originating in Wuhan, China, with cases quickly being confirmed around the globe. We became indoor creatures, confined to our homes. At first, we chomped at the bit to get out, cherishing our weekly trip to the grocery store. But as time went on, the novel became mundane. We got comfortable with the new normal, and eventually dropped the “new” altogether.

Now we face a different challenge: the return of the old ways. With millions of doses of vaccines being administered each day, there is now a light at the end of the tunnel. We can begin to socialize again, go to work, or to school. For many of us, the return to normal life brings re-entry anxiety. How will we cope with going back to socializing, small talk, crowded rooms and mask-less faces? 

A parallel thought also emerges: What do we wish would stay in the past as we re-enter society? Maybe some of the lessons we learned during the pandemic are worth taking with us.

For example, it is commonplace now to wear a mask wherever we go. At first, masks were scratchy nuisances that we begrudgingly donned in public. As the months went on though, many found solace and comfort in masks. In the pre-Covid era, there was an expectation to “grin and bear it” in public even if you were having a terrible day. Now, we can wear our emotions as we please.

Do we really want to go back to the way we were? People-pleasing and denying our own true emotions? Maybe it’s time, when we have bare faces again, to go completely naked and wear the emotion we actually feel.

Bringing Emotional Vulnerability into the New Normal

How can we integrate this practice into our new daily lives? First, challenge your own beliefs. Do you feel uncomfortable when you see strangers showing “unacceptable” emotions, like anger, sadness or indifference? If you do, why? Is there actually something wrong with them feeling that emotion, or does it make us uncomfortable for a different reason? Understanding what emotions you’re uncomfortable seeing in others can actually be telling of the emotion you also unconsciously or sometimes consciously try to avoid.

All emotions are useful in their own way, so it can be unhealthy to ignore one altogether. For example, while not ever feeling angry might seem great, it can cause problems when one actually encounters a situation that deserves anger. Anger is a signal that something is wrong with the situation or needs to change, and without it, we might let ourselves be put into worse circumstances due to inaction. 

Once you’ve identified an emotion you’re uncomfortable with (if any), challenge yourself to feel that emotion more. It could start out privately, but eventually, take it out for a test-drive in public. Don’t take out your emotions on others, but just go about your errands with your feelings intact. It can be quite freeing to be able to feel any feeling but still be able to exist and go about our day in society. See that the world was okay with the real you, not just the mask you put on.

In pre-Covid times, the question “How are you?” was one with a correct answer. “Fine,” we would say, no matter how awful our day actually was. During the pandemic, however, we had a shared suffering. We were allowed to answer honestly, and people sympathized with the pain.

Despite how difficult this year was, it certainly was nice to be able to talk about our problems with honesty and receive kindness in return.  I think this is one change worth keeping up in the future. How do we carry this lesson with us? Make sure you let others know it’s okay not to be okay. That means sharing our mistakes, not just our triumphs, whether in person or through social media, not just the triumphs. That means asking “How are you really? I’m happy to listen” instead of “How are you?”. Be a compassionate and empathetic listener when they answer.  Finally, when asked that same question, give an honest response. Maybe your day is going excellently, and you can share how great it was. But maybe your day was plagued with insecurity and doubt, and you’re running on coffee fumes. Share that too. The more we normalize all emotions and challenge damaging societal expectations, the better our collective mental health will become.

So, while we transition back to the “old” way of living, I think it’s worth taking parts of the pandemic with us in the future (But not the virus please!). Let’s continue to allow our honest emotions to be shared and displayed, kindness and empathy extended, and boundaries reinforced. This year posed plenty of challenges to our mental health along with our physical health, but in the process, we gained some insights that can add a layer of emotional richness to our future.

 

You don’t have to go this alone.

*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer telemental health sessions.*

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Modifying or Mortifying? Self-Criticism, Shame, and the Possibility of Change