The Trouble of Making Sense of This Past Year

It starts with releasing judgment and replacing it with curiosity

Get ready for some drama! Have you noticed a few more meltdowns, outbursts and shutdowns? If you haven’t yet, please brace yourself. We are a highly traumatized group of people. What we’ve experienced both individually and collectively throughout the last year has impacted us, perhaps more than we realize. As we re-enter our new normal, we wade through another layer of change, and all that upheaval has created an emotional kickback. You may find that you don’t quite recognize your own reactions and feel startled by those of others.

Why: Making sense of this past year has created some troubling dichotomies.

A cacophony of expectations has been asked of us. Go nowhere. See no one. Teach your children. Be with your family. Work at the same time. Keep in touch with friends and loved ones, but do it through the medium of the same screen that has numbed you for the entire day. Wear a mask. Vaccinate yourself to freedom, but not too much. If this wasn’t enough, be sure to spend time demonizing and judging everyone who isn’t in your echo chamber. This yes-no, stop-go, push-pull has created an environment of repressed emotional reactions.

Except emotions don’t stay repressed forever. The strain of the past COVID-19 year has cultivated the perfect environment to have a BIG reaction to what may seem to be a mundane type of moment. While we may think of it as the last straw, it is actually an acknowledgment of all the feelings and stress that were not expressed or registered before.

Emotions are not good or bad. Emotions are simply information. An internal GPS, letting you know where you are located. Emotions are not the sole basis for decisions, but ALL emotions have a message. If you allow yourself to listen to that message, you are well-informed. If you bury, numb, avoid, judge or shame the message, then it simply finds another path to express itself through. Ever eat a box of cookies and not know why? Scream at your spouse for inadequate dishwasher loading skills? Or send a supremely inflammatory email to your entire team? Oftentimes we don’t even register emotional information. It subconsciously surfaces like water seeping from a fissure. Emotions will always find a way to be heard. If not acknowledged, then they will subconsciously surface.

What: As you re-engage with guests, colleagues and friends, you may notice a few more seemingly irrational outbursts.

Maybe you are shocked by your own behavior or reaction. As a social scientist, this really isn’t a big surprise. Given the magnitude, complexity and multitude of emotions and stressors that we’ve all experienced during this past year, even the most self-aware amongst us probably missed a few, and those subconscious emotions are going to surface. Sometimes they surface in ways that surprise us or feel like they are coming out of nowhere.

How: So what do we do with all these surprising reactions?

How can we support our colleagues, team members, friends, families and ourselves? It starts with releasing judgment and replacing it with curiosity. We begin asking a lot of questions. What’s this reaction/feeling/action really about? Why did this trigger a response? What do I need to do with this? It demands a considerable amount of graciousness. A little more space for questions and a lot less room for judgment. We need to applaud finding answers to these “why” questions. We need to cheer for acknowledging a less than flattering emotion. After all, we were wise enough to allow ourselves to be informed! It also demands strong boundaries that ask for answers based in understanding, not in excuses or a blind eye.

Take a breath and reset your expectations for this time. While our actions may look more like the old normal, we are most certainly NOT the same. We are new people from this experience, and we can be better for it. Our awareness of the process, understanding why it is happening and using it as a launching point will go a very long way in creating alchemy for ourselves and all we touch.