What, exactly, is the new normal?
Father’s Day and the first day of summer are just days away, and yet another reminder that life does not feel normal. So, maybe it’s time to look at what we mean by normal. As an adjective, the definition of normal is “conforming to a standard, or usual, typical, or expected.” As a noun, it’s defined as “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.” Basically, what this tells me is that normal is whatever we decide it is.
I think we might be using the wrong word to describe what we want. If normal is the usual, average or typical state or condition, that implies that external events create whatever is normal at any given time. So, normal right now is wearing masks, physical distancing, working virtually, marching in protests, or watching civil unrest around the world on the news. On top of that, we want to avoid the discomfort of looking at our own unconscious biases and we’re tired of worrying about getting sick. If that’s normal, we don’t really want that, so what we’re seeking isn’t normalcy, but something that is becoming more akin to nostalgia. We want life to be like it was pre-pandemic. Many want life to be like it was like pre-George Floyd. But that’s the past and we can’t live in the past. We only live in the present moment. We also can’t avoid change.
Change happens every day of our lives and we know we can survive it because we do, every day. The challenge is doing more than surviving change. It’s learning how to embrace it, accept it and thrive from it.
We recently talked about the importance of understanding that change is situational and the transition phases that follow are psychological. The pandemic happened. The murder of George Floyd happened. The protests are still happening. More police killings have occurred in the last two weeks, including Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Cities around the globe are talking about defunding police or dismantling police. Cities are re-opening and some just as quickly pulling back as Covid-19 continues to spread and surge. It feels like we’re bombarded with change, with life not being normal and facing a lot of uncertainty about who we are, where we’ll end up, why we’re here and how everything will turn out.
Isn’t that what life is really like all of the time? Of course, most of the changes that occur in our lives are not as big as what we’re facing over such a short time-span, and I think that’s what is making most of us feel so unsettled. And in these unusual circumstances, we’re going through multiple phases of transition simultaneously. Before we’ve had a chance to let go of what we’ve lost, sit for a while in neutral, and then look toward new beginnings, something else changes. It causes many to stay on high alert for the other shoe to drop every day. But that doesn’t serve us and it doesn’t support us in serving others.
A better approach might be to focus on what we want the new normal to be. We can’t decide that for the world, but we can decide for ourselves. We can’t do that, however, unless we’re centered and calm, so that stress hormones aren’t flooding us with the urge to act without thinking.
In order to adapt to or accept change, we have to utilize two components of our minds. One is the rational side that can analyze, evaluate and compare. But the rational side of our brains can also over-analyze, over-think, and create problems where none necessarily exist. And this aspect of the brain cannot do one very important thing that we need, which is motivate itself. We need our emotional component of the mind to do that. We need to incorporate love, empathy, compassion and loyalty to either ourselves or others to get motivated - and those all reside in the house of emotions. But, that emotional aspect of our minds also seeks instant gratification, pleasure instead of pain, comfort, and certainty.
Consider feeling stressed out and heading for the freezer for that pint of Ben and Jerry’s. The rational side of your brain starts telling you why this is not a good idea. That you’ll regret the extra calories or the high sugar quantities you’re about to consume. The emotional side of the brain says “I don’t care. I just want to feel better, period.”
If that doesn’t’ sound challenging enough, our dueling minds, there’s one more factor that comes into play here and that’s self-control. Self-control goes beyond willpower, as it’s really based on our ability to self-monitor. Unfortunately, both willpower and self-control are exhaustible resources. We don’t have an infinite amount. We tend to start the day full if we’re well rested and fairly content and then it drains out throughout the day. By the end of the day, you may have none left. And that’s certainly not good for making decisions or hearing bad news. “I just can’t take it anymore” is a common reaction to anything challenging that occurs late in the day or evening.
Self-control is draining, from coping with fears, to controlling our spending, to trying to focus on instructions. When people try to change things, they’re usually tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision by the rational part of our brains. The bigger the change, the more it will drain “self-control,” so it becomes much clearer as to why we may be feeling tired and worn down at this point.
When we exhaust our self-control, what we’re really exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit impulses and to persist in the face of frustration or failure. We’re exhausting precisely the mental muscles needed to make or manage a big change! And this is what makes change feel hard. It’s hard because we wear ourselves out.
There are several fairly simple steps to take to reduce our exhaustion and regain our self-control. Self-care is at the top of the list, of course. Get plenty of sleep, exercise, and eat healthy at least most of the time. Practice mindfulness and meditation. If you don’t want to formally meditate, at least practice breathing exercises. There is much in the world right now that has the potential to upset you, anger you and frustrate you. And as your days wear on and your self-control diminishes, it’s easy to slip into reactionary or harmful behaviors. If you shore up your self-control throughout the day by taking care of yourself, your odds are much better at maintaining some self-control even by the end of the day.
Spend some time focusing on what’s going well. I’ve found many aspects of the shutdown that I want to be part of my normal now, including slowing down a little bit, taking more time to appreciate and enjoy aspects of my life that I had let slip to the curb by focusing too much on work. I think there’s much good that may come from the protests and right now, am appreciative and relieved that so many people care and are willing to speak out, which greatly reduced the cynicism that had been brewing internally in me for the past couple of years. What can you shine a light on?
Another helpful step is to avoid discussions and/or consuming current events at the end of the day. If you want to have a discussion about what’s happening, or perhaps even more importantly, if you want to listen to an opposing view, do it early in the day, while your self-control reserves are higher.
As events keep occurring and circumstances keep changing, it’s also helpful to take stock of your own personal changes. Do you need to change something right now in response to the changes occurring around you? Maybe, maybe not. If you do, don’t try to make big changes all at once. Take small steps toward the change and monitor both your emotional state as well as your rationale. Are you over-thinking and making up stories, both of which make everything appear worse than reality? Are you running on anger or excitement without listening to your rational side? Are you trying to plan out every step you need to take over the next two months in order to successfully make whatever change you’re attempting? That can’t work right now because none of us have any idea what might occur over the next two months. So, baby steps. What can you do today to start working toward the change you’re aiming for? Then, do it again tomorrow.
We can’t predict what will happen, but we can manage our own emotions, take care of ourselves and create healthy habits to support us through whatever is coming our way. We can also spend some time considering what we want our "normal" to look like. I encourage you to reframe your language the next time you say “I just want things to return to normal.” That ship has pretty much sailed, as they say. Instead, change it to “what do I want normal to be for me now?” Then you can start making changes to reach that normal, your typical state or condition within the context of whatever changes or challenges you may be facing.