Thinking back to when our state shut down, I remember trying to engage every single positive thinking strategy I knew in an attempt to try to find some glimmer, some positive, in an otherwise overwhelming and very serious situation. I remember telling my fiancé about all the tasks I had been putting off that I now had a little more time to complete. Spring cleaning? How timely. I hear you Marie Kondo – I’m about to spark joy all over my closet, kitchen, drawers, shoe rack, and under my bed. Random articles and recipes I “starred for later” – I’M COMING FOR YOU. Could there possibly be a better time to cook the zucchini and red bell pepper stuffed mushroom cap with a balsamic glaze? Probably not (please let it be known I don’t even like mushrooms, but here we are). Calligraphy? Cross-stitching? Maybe I could knit a scarf for next winter – after all I did just toss 12 of them into the donate/not-sparking-joy pile. So clearly I should create another one.
Then, weeks passed. Want to guess how many items on that to-do list I accomplished? Probably one. And no, it was not the mushrooms. I found myself last weekend reflecting on all of these big plans, these lofty aspirations, that lengthy to-do list I had verbalized (and we all know if we say it aloud, it means it has to happen) so many weeks ago, and feeling downright disappointed in myself. What HAVE I been doing, after all? I can’t go anywhere, really. I should be less busy, right??? Well, if I want to take a look at my screen time counter on my phone (curse you, technology), I can see I have done a lot of Bubble Blasting and Happy Coloring. I have also done a lot of sitting on my couch. I watched Tiger King, Big Little Lies, and Waco. I made those oldie-but-goodie Instant Pot recipes that I also made before this quarantine thing started. So, I started down that rabbit hole, criticizing myself for my lack of motivation and initiative. My inner-critic voice ramped up, asking (well… more so chastising) “Well BB. If you can’t manage to clean out every single thing in every single closet in your whole dwelling while you are quarantined, when the HECK will you do it?”
This is when Doc B, the kinder, gentler side of my brain that oozes self-compassion and forgiveness jumped up to rescue me. Doc B reminded my inner critic that WE ARE EXPERIENCING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC, AND THERE IS NO MANUAL FOR HOW WE RESPOND. It is okay to binge watch Netflix, if that is what feels good. It is okay to go for a nice walk, not an intense run, if that is what your body is asking for. It’s also okay to just stretch. It is also okay to nap. Listen to your body. It is okay, after a day of work, to zone out and blast a few bubbles on your phone if that’s how you decompress. It is also okay to cook an oldy-but-goodie recipe that helps to nourish both your stomach and your soul, in that it brings a sense of normalcy to a very not normal time. Maybe I can’t go to the Lebanese restaurant I love, but darn it, I sure can have my shredded salsa chicken from my Instant Pot!
I have heard this same experience of negative self-talk, self-shaming, and guilt echoed by my family, friends, colleagues, and clients. I have heard so many folks criticizing themselves for struggling to find the energy (both mental and physical) and motivation to complete tasks on their to-do lists, and asking themselves if not now, when? So what I say back, my friends, is two-fold:
1. That to-do list is for the birds.
It is clearly not serving you if instead of providing structure, normalcy, and alleviating worry it is instead resulting in guilt, shame, and negative self-talk. Let’s change that to-do list into a COULD-DO list. Yup. You heard me right. I suggest each week, write down one, five, or 15 things (whatever feels good to YOU!) that you COULD do this week in furtherance of your mental health, physical health, work, hobbies, goals, or dreams. Put some variety on that list – after all, research shows variety is a key component in overall well-being and happiness! Maybe you do put a new recipe on that list. Maybe a goal is to get in 15 miles this week. Maybe you want to reconnect with an old friend. Perhaps take out from a new restaurant is in your future. Bed before 10pm could be a goal. Bath bombs, anyone? And then set it to the side, and accomplish those goals when you feel you want to. It is a COULD do list. It is for you to do, or not.
2. Relatedly, practice self-compassion.
Self–compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. AKA, give yourself a break! Be kind to yourself. You are dealing with a LOT right now. We are living in truly unprecedented times, and just getting through the day, holding all of the uncertainty, worrying about ourselves, our loved ones, our jobs, our health, our relationships…. Well, that is a lot in and of itself you have accomplished! Whether it is tangible or not, obvious or not, you are doing a lot to simply get through every single day.
We will get through this together. Maybe at the end of all this, you will have some new scarves you have knitted, an extra dresser drawer or three you have cleared out, a new puppy, and 60 cards you have created with your new calligraphy set. Or not. Either way, its okay. It’s a pandemic, not a productivity competition. Do what you CAN, and love yourself for doing whatever that is. And remember, we are here for you! Please seek out support, whether that is formal or informal. There are lots of online support groups and mental health clinicians who are here to help you through this time, and others. So please reach out! If this resonates with you, feel free to contact me and schedule a free 15-minute consultation to see how I can help you create and implement (or not!) your own could-do list and help strengthen those self-compassion muscles. I am also always up for tagging into the ring against your inner critic, if you need a break from beatin’m back into that corner! I hope to hear from you, stay safe and healthy!