Updated: Oct 5, 2020
None of us expected our lives to change so drastically over the course of a few days when it was announced that we are in the middle of a global pandemic. As one meme put it, it kind of felt like we were all just sent to our rooms and told to think about what we’ve done. All jokes aside, though, adjusting to our new reality has not been an easy task for most, even for the ones who seem to have suddenly been handed a winning lottery ticket.
In my opinion, one telling sign that most of us are pretty resistant to accept this new reality is the prevalent phrase, “when things go back to normal.” I can’t think of a statement more descriptive of our human nature to cling to the past and grasp for the future - the very root of our mental suffering.
Many of us may have started out the year with goals to grow our business, spend more time visiting family and friends, travel the world, social dance, get out there on the dating scene, have a big, amazing wedding, or a host of other notable activities that have undoubtedly been put on hold for the unforeseen future.
Personally, I was betting on this year to be the year I find my soulmate! Okay, maybe that's a big expectation, but I had a lot of plans that involved meeting new people and increasing my chances. Haha. A lot of plans that, unless I want to have a first date in the dairy aisle and practice interpreting the various nuances of smiling behind a face mask, or go old-school and find a pen-pal lover (Any Mr. Darcy's out there?), will simply, not be realized in the near future. Not today, not tomorrow, maybe not even for a few more months or...ugh...more than that!
Whether you are also in a full-on lockdown in single city or not, we've all been left to deal with shattered expectations of what a great year this was finally going to be.
If you're lucky enough to possess an innate quality of rolling with the punches, you may have been able to transform your disappointment into taking advantage of what you can do such as starting a new solo hobby, learning a new skill, or finally making that career switch you always dreamed of. However, others have found themselves less able to adapt, whether for circumstantial or emotional reasons, and this could also be fluctuating as time under lockdown continues.
After 5 months of confronting this new reality, you might be asking yourself if this is ever going to end. The answer I have personally arrived at is that yes, this will end, but only when we are able to let go of the expectations we had about our future.
Letting go of expectations is never easy and even less so when there are all of a sudden MANY expectations to let go of all at once.
I have many memories from childhood, which in retrospect, were all lessons on managing expectations, but there is one that stands out vividly among these because of the intensity of the emotion I felt. I must have been 10 or 11 and my parents had just told me that I would not be allowed to go to the New Years Eve party that all my friends would be at. Instead, we would all be going as a family to a “boring, adult” party where there were not going to be other children to play with except my brothers. Having just had my expectations deeply shattered, I cried and screamed and argued with my parents for what must have been at least two hours. I was relentless.
The fact that I still had so much to be thankful for in that moment of my life was completely irrelevant. To my 11 year old brain, it was the end of the world. They eventually told me “enough” and left me to kick and scream alone until I had no tears left to cry and began to move into acceptance.
Perhaps the only difference between our childhood and adult reactions to unmet expectations is that we’ve had many years to learn how inappropriate it is to throw a fit, but that does not mean there isn’t one going on inside.
Through my practice of yoga and mindfulness, I have become increasingly more aware of my internal, adult fits, many of them wreaking as much havoc on my emotional state as that scene from my childhood did at the time. However, I have noticed that allowing myself to get to know this inner temper tantrum has somehow always set me on the path towards reconciling with my internal anguish. Although, arriving at reconciliation or letting go, does mean finding the courage to first stare down the barrel of the gun.
If you had to describe your current internal fit as a childhood temper tantrum, what would that look like? Is there wailing and heaving? Is your internal dialogue completely incoherent? What expectations are you struggling to let go of the most during these COVID times?
To help you reflect on this, I’ve taken a bit of my personal awareness process and turned it into a brief mindfulness exercise.
*Side note: if you are coping with deep trauma, I would recommend consulting a trained mental health professional first, and know that every stage of the following mindfulness exercise is entirely optional and you can stop at any time you need to.
Try making a list, real or mental, of what expectations you had pre-covid or even during covid, followed by a brief description of what type of internal fit each produces in you. You can take this one step further by separating your description into emotions that come up and physical sensations you feel. For example, does it make you feel angry? Sad? Hopeless? Inadequate? Unloveable? Does it make your mind race? Your heartbeat quicken? Does your temperature go up? Does it turn your stomach upside down? Is it difficult to breathe? Does your chest tighten?
If you can, try to sit with what comes up long enough to get a good look at the demon you’re dealing with. Try to do this without labeling what you notice as good or bad.
Now choose the expectation that produced the least intense internal fit, and make another list of a few ways you can adjust your expectation to your current reality. For example, if you imagined yourself to be extremely productive this year and now every time you try to get something done you are filled with anxiety, perhaps adjust your notion of productivity from accomplishing ten things in one day to three. If you thought you were going to finally put the effort into finding your soul mate, perhaps list a few ways you could put that effort into your self (and become an even more amazing catch when the time comes to date again). If you had plans to travel the world, perhaps take this time to study a new language from one of the countries you'd like to visit.
Choose the expectation adjustment that feels most doable and see if over the next few days you can become friends with this new adjustment. When you feel some progress, go back to your initial list and choose another expectation, perhaps the next least intense one, and repeat the exercise.
Now I’m no expert myself in letting go. In fact, the reason I’m writing this article now is because it’s taken me all these 5 months, and a few not so pretty fits (some a little more external than I would like to admit), to come to terms with the fact that some things are simply not going to move forward for a lot longer. So if it cannot be moved forward, the only choice left for finding some relief is to shift our perception.
If you find it difficult to sit with your feelings of discomfort and anguish, the next time you get on your mat to practice yoga, see if you can first apply this type of awareness exercise in a yoga pose. More specifically, when you’re holding a yoga pose that is fairly challenging for you. Can you hold the pose a little longer while you feel the muscles begin to burn and pay close attention to that sensation of burning? Or if you are doing a yin practice, can you sit still in a pose where you feel some tension and get familiar with the nuances of that sensation?
I have found that eventually, this practice of constant observation of your body becomes a habit that naturally spills over into any thoughts and feelings that come up throughout your day. It’s important to note, however, that you should also try to keep your expectations low on how this will go. Be aware that each of us has developed our own defense mechanism for coping with difficult emotions, and some may find it harder than others to allow themselves to feel. This is why mindfulness is a practice, just like practicing dance or football is.
The sooner we admit that our expectations could be what is getting in the way of feeling joy, the sooner we can find the “normality” in our current reality, and let go of grieving for the past or fantasizing about the future.
Additionally, you might simultaneously make a list of all that you still have, despite the circumstances. Making it a regular practice to focus on what hasn't been lost, in otherwards practicing gratitude, has been scientifically proven to elevate one's emotions because it releases dopamine and seratonin. For real!
It's important to note that I am not saying pretend like every thing is ok when it's not. I've tried that strategy too, and I can tell you, it does not work. Personally, if I am feeling the weight of a negative emotion, I find it best to validate that feeling by sitting with it and getting to know the darkness of it, followed by, "but, I am still grateful that _____." You'll be surprised by how that one little statement, especially when practiced regularly, and even more so when it is said out loud, can keep you from dragging yourself into the depths of despair.
What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment below.
If you’d like to practice yoga and mindfulness with me, I’d like to invite you to check out my online studio membership. Start your free 7-day trial and get access to vinyasa and yin yoga classes, bite-sized tutorials to refine your practice and mindfulness / self-reflection exercises like the one above.