Even during the COVID-19 crisis, regular life goes on, leaving us left to muddle through our daily events, writing and rewriting the story of what’s happening in this strange time. It’s like each normal life lesson takes on a new COVID-19-related meaning.
For example, I recently found myself playing over and over again a stressful email communication. We’ve all been there, right? The story I was telling myself included feelings of anger, frustration and even a bit of anxiety. My thoughts were filled with judgments and annoyances. I was arguing with the sender of the email on long walks near my house. I feel the need to stress here – near my house.
At some point in this spinning, I reminded myself to use the same strategies I recommend for my clients. To pay mindful attention to what was coming up – the emotions, the physical sensations, the thoughts and assumptions. In doing so, I began to realize that one of the most important things I needed to do, was to rewrite the story I was telling myself about this particular event.
This is a strategy that I often work on with my clients and it strikes me that right now, during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, rewriting our story on our own terms is especially important.
What does it mean to rewrite your story?
Throughout our lives we can become firmly entrenched in certain stories. We all do this. It’s normal. Your story may include things like – My parents were too hard on me. I’m not very good at school. I’m smarter than most of my co-workers. Unfortunately, even though there are times when these things may be objectively true – our committed belief to them ends up making if difficult to see another way of being.
While not specifically about rewriting your story, this excellent radio interview highlights one way in which we may be doing this with our response to the COVID-19 situation. You may, for example, be thinking – I’m not getting anything done. I suck at homeschooling. – but when you adhere to these mindsets without taking time to examine them, they can lead to increased stress and anxiety.
If, however, you want to rewrite the story, it can be as simple as shifting the way in which you make these mental statements about your experience. “I’m not getting anything done,” becomes, “I find working from home so disorienting. I makes it hard for me to focus and I worry I’m not getting anything done. It’s challenging for everyone, but I can and am doing some things to stay focused. For now, that’s good enough.”
How does rewriting your story help you during a crisis?
Offering ourselves self compassion and taking the opportunity to become attuned to what we’re experiencing isn’t about putting on rose colored glasses and ignoring the real struggles of the moment (although they certainly have the power to boost your mood). This isn’t about pretending everything is perfect, because let’s face it, things are definitely really, really crazy right now! This practice – of choosing to mindfully see what is actually here in the moment – is about shifting to habits that serve us better during times of stress and during those plain, old regular days (remember those?).
In my own story (from above) I began to ask myself questions like, Is that true? Is this person a threat to me? Is what they’re saying accurate or relevant to my experience? In doing so, I began to see that this person’s anger, frustration and annoyance didn’t need to be mine. While I could have empathy for this person, I didn’t need to take their feelings as my own. My story didn’t have to be their story. I could begin to rewrite my story to see both myself and the email sender from a more nuanced and insightful perspective.
In reflection, I was able to rewrite the narrative in a way that gave me much more clarity about what needed to happen next. And this is the ultimate benefit of knowing you can rewrite your story and then choosing to do so – you see the whole picture – the parts that are objectively true and the parts that may be misguided, inaccurate or tied to habits of thinking that don’t allow you to embody your best self.
How to start rewriting your story
As you make your own way through the uncertainty of the Covid-19 crisis, what are the aspects of your story that may need rewriting? Are you being unnecessarily hard on yourself or those you love? Have your emotions run amok, causing you to live in a constant state of flight or fright? Are you stuck scrolling through YouTube or Facebook knowing you may need to spend time on household tasks, but unable to find balance between stillness and doing?
Once you take some time to consider these questions (or any others that may call you right now), you can then consciously take time to step-back and observe what’s really happening. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “It is not the potential stressor itself but how you perceive it and then how you handle it that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress.”
You can begin this process of mindful observation by tuning in your thoughts, emotions or physical sensations and by cultivating stillness in the moment. What emotions do you notice? Is your body trying to tell you something? What are the thoughts, judgments, or assumptions that are spinning in your mind? What happens when you pause, take a breath and pay attention to what is happening in the moment? Check out this series of videos I did a couple of years ago for a deeper dive into these mindfulness practices.
Every story we tell ourselves about our experience, our relationships with others and the world around us is a mishmash of truth and perception – the key is spending time in the midst of it all to parse out what choice you have in rewriting a few lines.
What rewriting is up next for you? What story are you ready to tell about your COVID-19 life?