Right now, there is a trending self-improvement message on social media to “come out of quarantine a better version of you.” I’d like you to give yourself permission to expand the definition of a “better you.” Some of you may feel inspired to lose weight, begin exercise for the first time, or enter a 21-day meditation challenge. These can be wonderful aspirations, but they can also put pressure on us to be harder on ourselves at a time when the world is already being so hard on us. So, if you are struggling with the message of “being better,” me too. Maybe instead, you can be “bigger” instead of “better.” When I think of being better, I think of measurable growth and hard work. If you have the mental, physical, and emotional capacity to do so, by all means I have your back one hundred percent. For those of you who are looking for a wider margin of error, for something softer or more realistic for yourself, think of your life on a daily basis as “being bigger” than COVID-19 instead of “being a better version of you.” I am a strong advocate for the humanitarian sentiment that we need to find simple and meaningful ways to be BIGGER than COVID-19 if we want to maintain or reasonably enhance our health during “shelter-in-place.”
A virus hit our global community at a faster pace than many of us could adjust to without our sanity taking a significant hit (think: rational, sound, contented or balanced thinking + behavior). It left everyone scrambling to make sense of our new reality. It became easy and acceptable to sit glued to the television, barely blinking. Most of us had a new, justifiable, and easy excuse to scroll through our phones for hours skipping from one social media app to the next, clicking on all our friends *slightly different* posts containing similar information about COVID-19. Some of us – millions, actually – temporarily or permanently lost our jobs, and when we lost work, we lost a significant amount of time where we focused our strengths, skills, and sense of purpose. This has hit us hard. Worse, a lot of us paused or reduced activities that nurtured our mental, spiritual, and physical health without even recognizing it. Until now.
You Deserve Compassion, You Deserve Space to Learn and Try Again
If you just realized that your mental and physical health have been affected by our national response to COVID-19, you are not alone. The brain is working hard to adapt, but adaptation is a process and not a single event. You deserve compassion for where you are in this adjustment process. There has been a surge in people worrying for their own and their loved ones’ mental and physical health: in what feels like three or four very long weeks, some of us allowed our lives to get very small, to the point where all we talked of, read, or thought about and argued with others over, was COVID-19. We lost our appetites, we forgot to drink water, we slept worse, we stopped exercising as much, we removed our self-imposed restrictions on screen time, we ate whatever foods we wanted so that the discontented and “I’m feeling empty and lost” voices in our heads could get just a little comfort at a highly uncomfortable time. Some of us cancelled therapy sessions because we forgot we had other struggles and types of suffering outside of the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19. The truth is, we forgot we are human beings with daily and weekly needs that connect us to what we truly care about – what we value most about life. We also forgot we had limitations – we forgot we couldn’t adjust to change with the snap of our fingers. Some of us exerted great effort at the beginning, sort of refusing to be held back by the restraints that “shelter-in-place” imposed on us. We persevered to reclaim the life that’s ours, but some of us came to find it difficult to connect to our usual forms of enjoyment. Some of us tried to exercise but it wasn’t as rewarding as the gym routines we mastered. Some of us picked up a non-COVID related book to read, only to find that our comprehension dropped significantly, and there we were reading the same paragraph multiple times, never getting into a groove. Others stopped scrapbooking, gardening, or even laughing. Maybe we gave up a little bit. I’ve heard too many people say, “I’m not sure when I really laughed last.” Maybe we didn’t know why we were struggling, so we did what was easy – we made our lives all about COVID-19. Right now, you deserve compassion, you deserve to say to yourself: “I did not make the most of the last three weeks with any sort of consistency…But that’s because my brain was still re-calibrating, my mind was catching up,” or “My mind, body, and spirit were not in sync and it felt so easy to continue to do the things that made me feel a lack of balance.” We can also lovingly face the truth: Some of us know that there is no new information for now, yet we are still using COVID-19 as our way of avoiding stepping back into our lives. It’s easier to talk and read about a virus than it is to get creative about ways to stay in touch with our values.
I am here to tell you that it’s okay. It’s okay if, at first, you tried to be “bigger” than COVID-19 by keeping a normal routine or maintaining hobbies or interests in your life, but then you stopped. It’s okay if the COVID-blues hit you and you assumed – for a short time – that “waiting to live” would be better or easier than finding a new normal while sheltering-in-place. It’s okay that once you paused your life, your “waiting to live” unexpectedly and all too quickly turned into depression, anxiety, grief, and feeling lost. It’s also okay to get back up and start reclaiming your life again. I don’t mean this in a dramatic way, either. I’m going to say this again: Reclaiming your life is not a level 10 emergency. There is nothing you did wrong. There is no big problem to solve. Being extreme about re-entering your life will feel like too much pressure, too difficult, or too disconnected from reality. And it is. Instead, think about easy and achievable actions you can point to at the end of the day and say, “I did some things today that made me feel more fulfilled than I’ve been feeling.” You’re not looking for total fulfillment. You’re only looking to increase your action by a modest percentage.
Turning Toward Your Values
Right now, being bigger than COVID-19 must be about simplicity, small actions, and small goals. When we keep it simple and small, but meaningful and fulfilling, we are taking our daily energy coins and putting them in the jar labeled “values” and NOT in the jar labeled “fear” or “avoidance.” Now may not be the time to care about exercise when you never cared about it before. If you don’t know how hard it will be for you to go without gluten or sweets, now may not be the time to challenge your ability to be in pain – especially if you’re already in a higher level of discomfort and pain due to the effects of this pandemic. I want you to think about the top five values that are most important to you. If you need help figuring out your values, I found a great list of them here. Once you’ve picked them, ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10, “how much am I living aligned with this value?” Then, write down some behaviors you could do daily or weekly that can help you maintain the number you’re at, or if you’ve lost a few points since the beginning of the pandemic, to bring that number up by only 1 to 2 points. If you’re an overachiever, you don’t have to complete ALL the behaviors you come up with every single day, just pick a few and start there. If it’s easier, pull out your planner, or make one on any paper you have handy, and write down a few behaviors on each day of the week that you can “checkmark” off at the end of your day.
If you’re struggling to come up with different or new behaviors, the internet is ripe with thousands of great ideas. In internet searches, you can type in “easy exercises to do while sheltering-in-place;” “simple ways to nurture my body at home;” “online scrapbooking options;” “free e-cards to send to people who I’m thinking of;” “apps for online games with friends” (ex; Marco Polo, House Party, or any board game you once enjoyed). Or, look on your book wish-list and choose one to begin reading. Do not try to complete this book like it’s a 500-meter-dash. Read slowly. Read the same sentence over again if you get distracted. The goal is not perfection. The goal is to retrain your brain to wade back into your life. Pick a few actions for each day, ones that you know you can do. If you’re looking for mindfulness or meditation exercises but feel paralyzed at the idea of taking on a whole new practice, think of it as “practicing for now,” and give yourself permission to stop if it doesn’t resonate with you. Insight Timer has thousands of mindfulness or meditation exercises that you can filter by the degree that it’s guided and by the topic you’re interested in (inner peace, stress, anxiety, spirituality, self-compassion). They even have “talks” that are similar to podcasts if you want to listen to something on your topic of interest but feel averse to the idea of a mindfulness exercise. You can filter by length of exercise too! If you do want to introduce mindfulness to your life, it can simply be one or two minutes a day. You are not signing up for a lifelong practice or agreeing to get to a point where you meditate for an hour each day. You are just getting mindful for now so that you can help yourself wade back into your life. Another simple thing you can do is reach out to people in your life who you know have similar values as you and ask them how they are staying connected to what they care about. I think the most important perspective for each of us to foster right now is that…we don’t have to do any of this alone. If you need help, ask. If you want a partner to help you stay accountable, have a conversation about it with someone you trust or feel comfortable checking in with.
The Overarching Aim
The only aim here is to play around with different actions that will help you feel connected to your values. By getting realigned with what you care about the most, you are being BIGGER than COVID-19 because the virus and our necessary national response to it are NOT defining what you do and how you think every day, all day. You may still feel like you’re suffering at the end of the day because, let’s face it, most of us need more engagement and stimulation than what we are currently experiencing. AND, there is good news: we are only looking for “what’s good enough for now.” That suffering can be accompanied by connection, hope, and dignity. Or, it can be all-consuming. So, you have two options: You can experience some suffering and know that you’re taking daily, simple actions that keep you connected to what means something to you, even when it hurts or isn’t easy, even when you would prefer other ways to enjoy your values. Or, you can experience the suffering that we are all enduring right now – the suffering I just mentioned – plus additional suffering that’s a direct result of losing touch with what you hold dear to your heart. Today, I hope you start taking small, easy actions to endure the first type of suffering. I hope you join us in being bigger than COVID-19.
Allison takes an integrative approach to providing therapy with the goal of meeting her clients where they feel most authentically themselves. If you’re interested in working with Allison, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 415-632-1010.