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It’s NOT Normal

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

This is part of a series of short posts on Covid 19. These are my thoughts, and I wrap them in an acknowledgement that the opportunity to think about and discuss these topics is evidence of an immense amount of privilege. I also know that if those of us with privilege are to use it on behalf of those who have less, we need to be caring for our own mental well-being. To that end, I share these musings.

I frequently have a “Theme of the Week” pop up in my sessions with clients. It’s particularly noticeable right now, since everyone is dealing with the pandemic. My theme this week has been to metaphorically jump up and down and yell (metaphorically, that is — I make it a point never to yell at clients….) “Stop trying to make decisions based on the usual factors. Life is STILL NOT normal.”

One reason I think this is going on now is that the initial panic and effort to re-arrange our lives is ebbing a bit. We’ve begun figuring out how we are going work from home, or educate our children (please don’t call it homeschooling…that’s something else entirely, and a different blog post for later….), or source our groceries. We’ve invested a lot of time and energy to figure out these practical issues, and since our brains are routine-seeking critters, we are perhaps even settling into a new sense of comfort with our routines. And that’s generally a good thing — it means we can spend less energy on the practical issues of living our lives, and worry a little less.

One of the other things that comes along with this “settling in” is that we are free to consider higher-order issues, like “what shall I do with my extra time”, “what slate of activities is appropriate for my child moving forward”, or “what can I do to help others”? Parents in particular are getting back to the business of thinking about what their kids need, and trying to craft the best environment to support them. Again, that’s generally a good thing, and parents, as always, are wanting to do the best for their kids.

But here’s the thing I’m seeing that worries me: people are feeling more comfortable with the new state of their lives, and I think that comfort is leading them to use their usual standards to make decisions, forgetting that we are still in a realm of NOT NORMAL. This is manifesting in situations like a parent worrying that their child is not being challenged enough in their distance learning, and looking for additional tutoring or other enrichment to compensate. I see it in the college student who is judging themselves as “lazy” for dropping a class whose online teaching style is not connecting well for them. I see it in the working-from-home person who is berating themselves for their drop in productivity.

As a culture, we have been conditioned to always improve, always evaluate if whatever we are doing or producing is the best it can be. We are surrounded (still) by messages that suggest that we should be new, improved, better than yesterday and optimized. I chafe at this cultural message in normal times, but in times of a global pandemic, it’s more harmful than ever. I’m particularly worried about the impact of this push to improve on children, and students of all ages. We know that a stressed brain is not a learning brain, and pushing for more performance can actually create a downward spiral of anxiety and make learning even harder.

So how can you approach the decisions you are making in your life in a different way? Here are a few ideas:

Let mental health and stress-reduction be the guiding principle in your choices. When you are evaluating a situation, or making a choice about an activity, consider whether or not it will add stress or reduce it. This is not the time to force a child to keep up with a class or activity that they dislike on the grounds that they “need to learn to finish what they start”.

If you are bothered by lowering your standards or passing up opportunities, consider different ways to compensate later. Especially when it comes to learning content, remember that knowledge is always there waiting for you, whenever in your life you want to learn it (or relearn it…) Remember too that as the pandemic unfolds, new solutions to replace lost opportunities will arise — we humans are an inventive, problem-solving bunch.

Be sure that when you are comparing things, those things all actually exist. In our desire for optimization, we sometimes evaluate something, for example, a decision about how to use our time, against some perfect, imaginary, parallel-universe outcome, instead of a real-world comparison. It’s very different to think to myself “I’m a loser because I’m sitting here crocheting instead of writing the Great American Novel like I always said I would.” versus “I’m sitting here crocheting, which is a darn sight better than not getting out of bed for a week.” Be realistic about what you would otherwise choose, and if you can, do it kindly.

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in your decision-making. Remember that pyramid-shaped thingy from AP psychology class? The pandemic has pushed everyone, regardless of where we each started, further down the pyramid. So it may be that before the pandemic, you were concerned more with self-actualization and your own personal development. Now, however, you may be more in need of a sense of security or belonging. When we try to address needs towards the top of the pyramid without attending to those more basic needs, we create more anxiety, stress and frustration.

Making decisions right now is complicated, frustrating, and sometimes impossible. The information we have changes rapidly, and is not always reliable. We are all still dancing as fast as we can, and making the stuff up as we go. Remaining grounded in what IS, instead of what WAS or what MIGHT BE, is key in maintaining your equilibrium. It can be easy to beat ourselves up for not doing it well — but remember, nobody has done any of this before, and we are all feeling at sea. This kind of decision-making will become easier as we practice it, and it will be a useful skill no matter what the future brings.

May you be well in mind and body,


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