Hey. How are you? How are you, really? I’d like to say that whatever it is that you are feeling, it is OK.
We are in a global crisis. No one has the right to say how anyone should feel about it, because the fact is that this is an unprecedented situation in history. Humanity has faced pandemics before, but none in our specific circumstances. You as an individual haven’t had this experience before.
If you have been finding yourself getting stuck in mental ruts recently (as I am) about how others (and not you) seem to have it all together, staying productive and ‘relevant’ during the coronavirus pandemic, stay tuned for some self-compassionate reminders.
Photo by Jess Bailey
Using this “extra time” to get “extremely productive” is being glorified and pushed on social media. It is not a realistic expectation during the coronavirus pandemic.
I fell into many mental traps scrolling through social media and finding tweets upon tweets and articles upon articles about “staying productive during the pandemic”. YouTube videos proclaiming that we now have oodles of time to accomplish all those projects we have been holding off.
Taken at face value, this content painted a picture in my mind that if I wasn’t being productive at all times, I was just lazy.
Here is the truth: taking on projects does not only require time, but also mental and emotional capacity. This crisis is not a vacation. We all face different constellations of impact on our lives but this crisis is not a vacation.
Some of us have deep financial struggles. Others have kids to take care of while still attending work, or while facing a layoff. Some of us with mental illness are triggered by isolation. Many of us are facing mental health problems in general. Some of us are dealing with emerging mental illness. The healthy coping mechanisms we once had (e.g., hanging out with friends, visiting family, etc.) may not be as accessible.
And we are dealing with all of this on top of the issues we were facing in our lives before the pandemic. So although it can be argued that we have ‘more time’, it is not fair to assume that this time can be cleanly reallocated to productivity. We are, rightfully, using much of that time just to process what’s going on and what the crisis means for our individual situations. And, because we all have different situations, it does not make sense to compare ourselves to others.
“Productivity” may have a vastly different meaning during the coronavirus pandemic than it did before.
I will not try to prescribe one definition for productivity. Upon reflection, just as we would give different meanings and thresholds for success, we may also have unique meanings for productivity. However, I think it is fair to say that during this crisis, the way in which we lead our daily lives has changed. Change is often difficult, which can explain the many ways people are trying to cope.
Some people may find comfort in doing more “work” tasks, and this is how you cope with the situation. That is not more or less than another’s experience who is not doing as many “work” tasks. This is because regardless of society’s label on our everyday activities, we are all doing something.
If we are not taking on more “work”, we are turning inward, or supporting friends, or together with family. We may be coping with a tough family environment, or perhaps we are facing friendship or relationship struggles. All experiences right now are valid, and we are all working on something.
To give my personal example: for the last month, I have been taking some time out of work/school for the first time in years. I recognize my privilege to have been able to continue working remotely through COVID-19, and to have the financial ability to take this time during my seasonal leave.
With this privilege, I allowed myself to take my seasonal leave as a time for internal work so that I can better serve myself and others when I return to the workforce. I am going through Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and focusing on working through my Traumas. (It is another privilege to have workplace benefits that help me afford therapy.)
On the outside, I am doing absolutely nothing that society would say is productive. I am watching shows on Netflix, playing video games, skimming self-improvement books, and spending the rest of my days in personal journalling efforts related to CPT. There are definitely times when I reflect on what I am doing and shame myself for not doing ‘more’.
But then I catch myself – in fact, working actively on changing my deeply embedded core beliefs and cognitive patterns is challenging work. Trauma is no joke, and the impacts have rung through my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.
So although a camera depicting my daily life might see a young, capable woman grunging her life away, I know differently. I am on a mission to better myself so that I can be better to others and the world. And that, my friends, is my definition of being productive, adapted for the current circumstances.
Just like me, you are also working on something during this pandemic, even if your peers or boss or parents or in-laws wouldn’t agree that it is “real work”. I invite you to take some time to ponder this for yourself as well. What we are looking for right now is not “perfection”, but “good enough”. What is your “good enough”?
You are learning how to cope with a new situation, and one of this grand scale! You cannot fairly expect yourself to be coping perfectly to the coronavirus pandemic.
Remember when we were teenagers (or perhaps you are now), and we were labelled by adults as being “overdramatic”? When we had our first breakups, or maybe our first failing grade, or our first HUGE fight with our parents? Well, despite what some adults may have said, these were natural reactions both from a developmental perspective and because it was the gosh darned first time you ever experienced something like that in your life!
According to Arain et al. (2013), our brains do not stop developing their initial cognitive pathways until about the age of 25. So in English, I mean that before 25, our brains are trying to build patterns to perceive the world in a consistent way. This includes how to cope with uncertainty and life’s lovely curveballs. And after 25, these patterns are mostly stabilized, but still subject to neuroplasticity (Voss et al., 2017). Neuroplasticity is a general term describing the brain’s ability to change and adapt its structure and/or function in response to life experiences.
Everyone who is alive today has never gone through a global pandemic of this scale and nature before. Our brains have been wildly processing this disruption, because chances are that our brains were not expecting something like this and have no existing patterns to cope with it.
So whether you are 13, 24, 35, or 50, your brain is trying to figure out what the heck is going on, and where your place in the situation is.
So it is normal to have on and off days. It is normal if this situation is tough on your mental health. If the pandemic pushes you toward doing more work, that is also normal. It’s also understandable if you find yourself immobilized and uncertain of your next steps.
There is no response to this global crisis that people can be berated for, because truly we are all figuring it out for the first time. We are being productive by the simple virtue of needing to adapt to a novel situation. These are all experiences that will help us build our emotional resilience and adaptiveness for other new situations down the line… now, I’d say that’s productive!
Be kind to yourself: the world is with you. We are all adapting as best we can.
Something I have taken comfort in during this strange year is the fact that this is one of the few times we will ever experience a sense of solidarity with humanity on an international scale. A virus that calls humanity to band together to protect those most vulnerable. Everyone in the entire world is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all trying to adapt to a novel situation, and thankfully humans are quite adaptable.
Truly, you are not alone. You may have vastly unique circumstances, and some may have more or less privilege than others, but we are all in this pandemic together. This profound thought brings me comfort when I find myself feeling low – which again, is normal in this situation. Be kind to yourself. Practice talking to yourself as you would to a dear friend.
It is OK to feel sad. If you are feeling happy, that isn’t odd. It is fine to feel frustrated. It’s not a problem at all if you feel neutral. There is no one ‘right’ feeling. Be kind to yourself when you are feeling Not Great, and thinking you should be feeling some other way. Realize that now more than ever, the practice is to find your own thresholds for productivity.
And remember, we are human beings, not human doings.
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),
Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., Sandhu, R., & Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 9, 449. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S39776
Voss, P., Thomas, M. E., Cisneros-Franco, J. M., & de Villers-Sidani, É. (2017). Dynamic Brains and the Changing Rules of Neuroplasticity: Implications for Learning and Recovery. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01657