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new normal

I have to admit that I am also tired of hearing “new normal” and “unprecedented times.” However, both phrases accurately describe what we are facing.

I first heard the term “new normal” when I worked with the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC). A team of facilitators would travel to speak with community leaders across the country about how military children were facing a new normal and what the leaders could do to help. Many soldiers returned to their families from Iraq and Afghanistan changed physically, mentally, or both. These military families were defining and handling a new normal.

The new normal that we are facing because of COVID-19 can be as dramatic a change as those military families faced. Certainly, frontline workers and people who have caught COVID-19 and their family members have had their lives change drastically. My thoughts and prayers are with all of them.

The rest of us are facing changes that feel pretty big. We are restricted on where we go and whom we see, and we are asked to wear a mask to protect others. None of these are unreasonable requests given the magnitude of the COVID-19 threat. However, we have been moved against our will to a new normal.

Anyone who has been in a leadership workshop with me knows that I like to use metaphors to make things easier to see and understand. I like to think about this new normal as moving to a new house.

Movers have come into our homes and packed up everything that we keep hidden in the back of our closets and under the bed, things we don’t like to look at and would prefer to ignore. These are things like how we feel about ourselves, our abilities, our relationships, and our work. They’ve probably been unexamined for quite some time. Generally we keep busy so we don’t have to look at anything in our lives that makes us feel uncomfortable. Now they’ve been packed up in boxes that are blocking our paths at every turn.

Most of us have moved at some point in our lives. I’ve moved 20 or so times. After the moving truck pulls away, we are faced with a dwelling full of boxes. Walking from room to room is like walking in a maze. I remember having one small space to crawl through to get to my bed that was surrounded by a wall of boxes. It was like sleeping in a tiny fortress.

That’s where we are in this new normal. It’s really the same home, but it’s cluttered with boxes of unexamined items. We aren’t even sure what is in most of the boxes. And we now have a choice.

We can continue to dodge the boxes, waiting for the day when we can escape our homes and go back to ignoring them. Eventually they will make their way back into the closet and under the bed. However, we have a great opportunity to declutter our lives and create more space for living.

The other metaphor that I use for freeing up space in our lives is a garden. We are born with a beautiful, open garden. As we experience life, we decide that certain experiences are painful and shouldn’t be repeated. Many happen in childhood. If someone makes fun of one of my drawings, I rope off the drawing area of the garden and vow not to go in there again. Then I try to cook, and it’s awful. So I rope off the area of creative cooking. After a while, my nice, open garden is full of roped-off areas, and I can hardly walk in it.

Here is the bottom line: What we can’t be with runs our lives. If I am constantly avoiding drawing, cooking, and maybe conflict, I construct a life that avoids those things. I am not free. It can be painful, but it’s better to revisit the area and open it up again so we have space to explore the possibilities of our lives.

So, how do we unpack the boxes and examine the contents? How do we decide what we keep and find a place for in our lives? How do we know what to get rid of?

Before we begin, we have to get brave and strong. I’ve written two blogs on our autonomic nervous system and its three states. We find courage in the highest state, the ventral vagal state. If examining a box seems beyond your capabilities, start with those blogs, and figure out how to get into your most creative and peaceful state, where you have a general sense of well-being. Then you can tackle the hard stuff. Ultimately, figuring out what’s in our boxes helps us achieve and stay in the ventral vagal state.

We open a box by sitting still and asking ourselves what discomfort we are trying to avoid. We might get the image of a person or a certain situation, but we will feel an emotion. First, we name the emotion. Is it fear, shame, embarrassment, or anger? Sometimes it helps to look at a list of emotions. University of California, Berkeley researchers defined 27 basic emotions: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, and surprise. There are lots of lists online.

Relationship researcher John Gottman also has a list: defensive, not listened to, my feelings were hurt, angry, sad, unloved, misunderstood, criticized, worried, afraid, unsafe, out of control, righteously indignant, unfairly picked on, stupid, lonely, and ashamed. Personally, I think they both left off frustration, and I’m not sure what category it would fit under. As always, do your own thing, and find a list – or not – that resonates with you.

Once we have defined the emotion, we can ask “What makes me feel that way?” For example, if I sit quietly I begin to think about all of the things that I feel I should be doing for work. The emotion that I am feeling is hopelessness. I don’t feel like there is a point to do the tasks that would increase my online presence – which is more necessary given I can’t meet with groups in person right now. I remember my failed attempts to do things online. I spent a lot of time on an online class that got little to no response. Now I have defined the emotion and what makes me feel that way.

Now, I have some choices. It’s helpful to step outside ourselves and become an observer at this point. If a friend was in this predicament, what might you recommend? It’s easier to make choices if we aren’t stuck in the muck of emotion, and we engage our neocortex when we shift to observer mode. We can start by asking ourselves where we feel this emotion in our bodies.

The three choices in a situation we do not like are to change it, accept it, or flee from it. Let’s start with change. We can make a physical change or a mental shift. In my example, I can reframe the failure as a learning and try again in a different way. I can change my attitude. I can also change how I go about creating an online presence.

If I accept the situation, I make peace with the fact that creating an online presence is a waste of time. The key is being at peace with it and deciding that there are better uses for my time.

Fleeing in this instance could mean changing professions. Maybe leadership training will never happen in person again. Perhaps I need to learn to code. In reality, it feels a bit early to flee, and I sincerely believe that the concepts that I talk about are necessary and life-changing. I know that I won’t be fleeing.

If I’d been thinking about a relationship or a job, the steps would be the same. I could have defined worry as the emotion that I was feeling, or anxiety, and determined that financial worries were the cause. The steps are the same. I ask, “Can I change it?” If not, can I accept it? If not, can I get out of it and flee?

In general, the same questions apply to people, situations, and beliefs as apply to objects that we own. Do I love it? Is it useful? We want to eliminate things from our lives that don’t bring us joy or are not useful.

Honestly, a life coach can help with this process – defining the emotion, the cause, and what to do about it, if anything. It can be very difficult to see ourselves objectively.

We are deciding who we want to be in this new normal and then eliminating the things that don’t support the new us. We want to hold on to the people, ideas, and things that do support us. I have made some choices concerning my example.

I’ve decided that I need help and expertise. I have a virtual assistant starting in September to handle the technology part of my vision. I am getting the pieces and parts ready now. Analyzing the discomfort led me to take positive action toward a new goal, necessitated by the new normal.

Our new normal can include more peace, joy, and freedom if we are willing to examine ourselves and take steps to support the new us in the new normal.

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