Are You OK? How are you doing?
Every time someone asks me this question lately, I feel a sense of confusion, occasionally followed by a rising frustration. I’m fine. I have food, a job, a support network, and even toilet paper. Nothing has changed since the last time I was asked this question.
Was something wrong? No. But was I really OK? I’m….not sure.
I’m not fine. But my rational brain couldn’t latch on to a good enough reason why I am not fine at this very moment, so I tell others (and myself) that I am fine.
But I have an underlying unease that I can’t fully shake. I have days where I feel completely unmotivated or unfocused, and even small acts of productivity seem like a Herculean effort. Then there are other days where I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude and joy at the sight of flowers blooming. The problem was, I never knew when my feelings would switch.
There were parts of this that were easy to understand. The external triggers small and large that remind us that life has changed— the empty shelves in the supermarket, the irate jogger who yells at us to move, the continuous predictions of economic doom, and the friends who have lost their jobs.
But then there were the days when I would just wake up and feel different. What was that about? The answer is — I don’t know.
What I do know is that our collective understanding of what “normal” is has completely shifted yet we don’t have the corresponding vocabulary to talk about it. The new definition of “normal” needs to encapsulate fluid shifts in emotions — from extreme optimism and productivity to inexplicable malaise. It also needs to contain an element of confusion and uncertainty — “I’m OK now, but if this keeps going…”
Finally, it needs to be blanketed by collective grief — because we’ve all lost something to COVID-19.
So, if we are going to get through this together, we are going to need to be able to talk about this new “normal” and well….normalize it.
Here are some honest answers that I think we should allow ourselves to say:
“I’m Struggling Today, but I Don’t Know Why.”
What you are really feeling is grief.
You are grieving your old understanding of normal. You miss simple things like hanging out with all your friends, going to the gym, and eating out at your favorite restaurant. Even the hardcore introverts are missing crowds.
“But I already grieved it! I was sad for like a week when this all went down! It’s been weeks now!” — you think to yourself. Why am I not over this?
Here’s something you should know about grief:
Grief comes in waves
It doesn’t care that you think you should be over it by now. It doesn’t care that you don’t know why you are still grieving. It doesn’t care that you’ve repeatedly been telling yourself that you’re fine. It doesn’t care that you’re on your 16th straight day of the push-up challenge. It doesn’t care that nothing has changed since you were surfing the top of the emotional wave after baking the perfect sourdough bread. Basically, it doesn’t care what you do or don’t do. Grief isn’t linear. Some days will be better, and then it will just hit you again — and that’s OK.
I loved this answer from my friend, “I’m sad. I don’t know why. But I’m OK with that.”
“I’m OK, but I Don’t Feel Normal.”
You finally managed to buy some toilet paper and the stores are starting to have pasta again. You stocked up on food, had a few Zoom calls with friends, took up cycling or running again, and picked up a newfound passion for baking bread.
You don’t feel bad, really, but…you’re just a little short of feeling like the best version of yourself. You’re not as motivated as you used to be about work, playing the guitar doesn’t give you as much pleasure as it used to, and doing that 50-mile bike ride doesn’t seem as satisfying as it was before — even though none of those things are limited by COVID-19.
One of the real reasons it’s hard to feel totally normal even though all our current needs are met is because we don’t know when this will end and what it will look like when it does. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, David Kessler — the foremost expert on grief — says that what we are experiencing is anticipatory grief. We know there’s more change coming in the future — we don’t know when and we don’t know what it will be, but it likely won’t be all good.
We know that even when the restrictions are lifted, the world we are returning to will be a different one to the one we left behind. Our favorite restaurant may have closed forever, and we may never feel completely comfortable standing in a crowd again.
I was watching a movie the other day, and a scene came up where some friends ran into each other and stopped to chat on the sidewalk. My immediate thought was “That is not social distancing!”
I wonder when my brain will stop doing that.
When asked how I was doing one day, I said, “I feel off.”
To which my friend replied, “ It’s OK, May. The world is off.”
“I Just Can’t Seem to Get Motivated or Focused.”
Almost everyone I know has experienced a total lack of motivation or focus at some point because of COVID-19. They always seem somewhat confused by it.
“I don’t know why, but I just can’t seem to get motivated or focus.”
You shouldn’t be surprised at all. It makes perfect sense that you feel unmotivated. It’s because the illusion of control has been taken away from you. You had built these structures and goals around you to help you make sense of whether you were progressing in life or not. Maybe you had been on a month-long training program and was just about to hit your personal best when the gyms closed. Maybe you were training for the next Ironman and it's now postponed for a year. Maybe you were about to close on a huge client at work when they suddenly announced you had been furloughed.
You didn’t see any of this coming, and you didn’t even realize it was even possible — much less emotionally or logistically prepare for it. We respond by trying to force ourselves to be even more productive in an attempt to regain some sense of control. But it’s hard to get excited and drive towards a goal when you don’t know when things might change again.
The real lesson here is this — that we never really had control anyway. And now you know. Next time you will be better prepared, at least emotionally.
Until then, take a day off from trying to force yourself to be productive and try again tomorrow.
“I’m Not Sure How I Feel.”
Do you feel lonely? No. Anxious? Maybe a little. Restless? Very. Grateful? Yes. But no single word describes what you really feel. There is no dominant emotion, just a bunch of small feelings eroding your energy.
First, there is the cabin fever and boredom. Three months ago, if someone had said you would have all these extra hours of free time, you would be ecstatic. But because you didn’t choose it, you’re frustrated and restless. So, you constantly look for that quick dopamine hit. Hence, the incessant snacking habit you’ve spontaneously developed during quarantine.
You’re also confused because small things can have a larger impact on your mood than it used to. A grey day can get your down more than usual, and finding a product in the supermarket that hasn’t been available for a while excites you more than it should. You’re more anxious when the check engine light comes on in your car because the service centers are closed when before it wouldn’t have bothered you at all.
You feel like you have to give yourself a little pep talk every time you need to leave the house. Can you delay this trip? Can you combine it with another trip? Do you have gloves, a mask, and hand sanitizer?
Then there are all the small decisions that need to be constantly remade — what workout should you do today? Should you buy more toilet paper because it’s actually on the shelf? They are out of the brand of dressing that you usually buy, which one should you buy instead? Are the trails too crowded for you to hike today? How many cars makes it too crowded?
It’s not that these things upset you per se, it’s just taking up more emotional bandwidth than you’re used to, and it’s making you tired.
When you think about it, it makes total sense that we are confused. Not only is the future totally unknown, but we’ve also had to change almost every aspect of our lives — how we work, how we socialize, how we exercise, how we entertain ourselves, and even how we eat. Let’s not even get into the dating world right now. And it’s still changing — before we even had a chance to figure out how we feel about all the initial changes to begin with. It’s a giant mix of emotions fighting to emerge. How are all these feelings even co-existing?
It also makes sense that we don’t have the language to describe how we feel because a disruption of this scale has never happened to us before — much less at the same time as the rest of the world.
I’m going to coin a new word for this confusion. The next time someone asks me how I’m feeling, I’m going to say, “I’m feeling Covish."
So, now what?
If we are to collectively adjust to the new normal, here are some of the things I think we need to do:
1) Re-set your baseline
Every time someone asks me, “Are you OK?” my brain is comparing it to my pre-COVID baseline of normal. So, it’s going, “Yes, well, no…uhm, I don’t know.”
Three months ago, if someone had told me I couldn’t go rock climbing, or see my friends, and I would have to take a pay cut, would I say that was OK? — No.
If instead, it began comparing itself to a post-COVID normal, it would say, “Actually, I’m doing pretty great. The handstands are coming along, I’ve been connecting deeper with my friends, I finally managed to meditate daily, and I picked up the guitar again.”
2) Address the new normal
Try to describe how you are feeling as honestly and as fully as you can, even if it doesn’t make sense to you or you don’t have the perfect words for it. The sooner we start bringing the feelings of anxiety, confusion, and grief to light, the quicker we can start dealing with it.
According to clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety — our culture does not have a great range of words to describe how we feel. Most people only know a few basic terms, like sad, mad, glad. Now is a good time to try to do better.
Then, help others do the same.
Pay attention to your friends and remember that each person can express grief very differently.
If you recognize that someone is struggling, here are some useful things to say:
“How can I best support you right now?”
“I’m here if you need anything.”
“I hear you.”
And this is the most powerful response:
Remind the other person that it is normal to feel the things that they are feeling. More importantly, remind them that we really are in this together. Almost the entire civilized earth is going through this at the same time we are. We will grieve together, we will be helpless together, we will be confused together, and one day, we will all celebrate our freedom together at our favorite bar. Until then, we will all be Covish together.