Holding space for both positive and negative emotions while revisiting the beliefs behind them helps us make sense of a difficult year
Today’s the first day of March 2021, causing many to pause and take stock of a year defined by loss, sacrifice and necessitated adaptation.
As the anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic approaches (March 11), so too have we surpassed the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths. We all are grieving something: stability, freedoms, or loved ones, lost to the virus or kept apart to prevent the spread. These experiences are not equal nor are they simply defined. The process of naming our feelings (and the emotions that are tied to them) as part of grief will continue to be important as we recover and heal: the work of Dr. Marc Brackett has been an important part of my own.
We miss hugs. We miss dive bars. We even miss office cubicles (some days). The act of processing a global event of this magnitude shouldn’t be ignored or even rushed; we’ll be revisiting its effects for decades to come, both at a collective and individual level.
As we look back to look ahead, can we hold both sadness and gratitude together? Or are we carrying shame for honoring the good that too has come out of a year of overwhelming heartache?
There’s no such thing as a “bad” feeling or emotion, because negative ones are as powerful as any to inform our lives. They serve an essential purpose. But we assign values to our lived experiences based on our emotional response to them, and so negative emotions and “bad” experiences are often inextricably linked.
And yet, a lot of objectively bad things have happened in the past year, so let’s start there: job loss, death, isolation, natural disaster, racial injustice, political unrest. Conversely, even the good things we experienced in 2020 came with negative emotions — like exhaustion, disappointment or anxiety — as we’ve cautiously and even apologetically celebrated our wins for fear of being insensitive to the struggles of others. How do we make sense of all of the ambivalence?
I have found that separating the good from the bad is a challenging undertaking. When thinking about the hard things, negative emotion bleeds over into all facets of hindsight; When reflecting on the good, the difficulty of the year seems to be tragically overlooked. In either exercise, the positive or negative lens through which I’m viewing this timespan reduces my experiences to one or the other— when in reality, both coexist.
In most instances (understandably so), the bad overpowers the good as I process the past year, shoving down the learnings that I could otherwise discover and apply from positive takeaways. And for that, I’m calling upon the reframe as a device to help me learn from all that I’ve experienced. Because where we choose to give our focus, awareness grows.
We’re in a moment where our reflection will prepare us for what’s to come: mass vaccination, a gradual reintroduction to travel and large-scale events, an evolution of work and social norms. Allowing our learnings and our feelings surrounding them to have positive components does not mean we are dismissing the difficulties of this past year; in fact, more thorough recognition allows us to look at them more honestly — however complex, good and bad coincide (and a wide range of emotions across the spectrum tied to both).
It has been incredibly important for me to better distinguish what was truly a negative experience versus what I have allowed myself to believe is negative purely by association to a Hard Year overall. In other words, I’m trying to identify ways where my beliefs about this past year have been disproportionately negative, tainting my views of my actual, lived experiences and the takeaways that I’ll carry with me into the future.
Perhaps this has been a way to focus on what can be controlled, at a time when so much cannot. Knowing where my thoughts have distorted reality — or reduced my ability to see evidence for what it is — reminds me that I don’t always need to be in control, but that it is up to me to notice what’s weighing on my mind and the influences at play. I can control what takes up the most space there, and what that means for the actions that follow.
Because we are finding ourselves again at a precipice for immense change: however positive the direction of things may be moving, with vaccinations progressing and the beginning of the end in sight, we will soon be propelled into new unknowns once more. Let’s use all of the information we have available — starting by better understanding our own beliefs and the ways they’ve shifted from COVID fears or fatigue — to lead with hard-won optimism and a commitment to questioning anything that feels absolute. By recognizing that we’ve been even developing new or modified belief about ourselves based on what has taken place — and what that means for our future potential — we can grow through the good and the bad, without letting the bad things color our judgment of all else.
Here are three things I’m reframing that will help me with whatever may come in March 2021 and beyond:
- I lost so much income (and what does that say about me as a professional?) — becomes→ I started a business and was able to make living wage. The ability to flip the script on what constitutes success provides meaningful perspective in a year like 2020. Moving forward with this perspective top of mind — instead of perpetuating a victim mentality against inherent worth or self efficacy — will help to channel humility and empathy for others who experience hardship in the future. We can forge new metrics by which we define our livelihoods, while understanding just how powerful external circumstances are on one’s ability to pivot in the first place. I was luckier than many.
- I lost so much time — becomes→ I learned critical skills and was reminded of many intrinsic values that I will apply to my future path. Life is not a race. Timing is powerful; timestamps are arbitrary. A year is both an eternity and no time at all. As much as we wished we could have skipped over 2020, nonetheless if we are fortunate enough to have lived through it, we are also able to learn from it. We are not “behind” — life will always throw curveballs (though let’s hope not another global pandemic of this magnitude).
- I lost so much independence — becomes→ My closest relationships were deeply nurtured though tested, and I was able to find solace through interdependency and reliance on community (even via new norms). If I’ve learned one thing from 2020, it’s that hyper-independence is so last decade (for the record, I’m living at home with my parents). We as humans are social beings, and we also rely on care and support from others. Failures to meet the needs of those most vulnerable on a systemic level this past year only further reinforced the importance of mutual aid on a personal and local level. Feed your communities, as they will uplift you when trials once again come knocking.
Certainly, not all things can be reframed to fit a narrative of improvement or positivity: dealing with death and trauma will require time and other coping skills. Reframing the things I have focused on related to #2020 hasn’t in any way minimized the positive and negative emotions I’ve grappled with all year long. What it has done, however, is freed me to see what stories I’ve created in my mind about what is possible for me in a post-COVID world. I can look ahead with both humility and confidence in a future where I can become reacclimated to the things I love most, outside of pandemic conditions. I can begin to imagine what that future can look like more vividly, now, because I can hold onto what has been gained within loss.
There’s power in this insight. Let’s use this moment to take it in.