The troubling way we entered 2021, and what it teaches us about change
2020 was…. enter any of the countless descriptors that have been thrown around: dumpster fire, horrible, a nightmare, not cool, a test by our simulators, etc..
It was the type of thing that would make my Eastern European grandmother cover her face, shake her head, and let out a sigh of “ohhfffff, ohhhfffff, ohhfffff.” Yes, it sounds like she’s saying “off” three times but with a slightly longer “oh” and definitely longer “fffffff”.
That’s probably what we all wanted to do to 2020. Turn it offfff!
But then the clock struck midnight on December 31st and….
The only thing that changed was the date.
And yet, so many different TV shows, documentaries, news anchors, celebrities and friends proclaimed that we were leaving 2020 behind! It was a new year and a fresh start, right?
Exhibit A: January 6, 2021.
Exhibit B: 5,000 people died from COVID in Los Angeles in the first 24 days of January. It had previously taken 9 months to reach 10,000 deaths.
Yes, a new presidency was ushered in on January 20th, but people were clamoring for the end of 2020 even before we knew the outcome of the election.
Cognitively, we may know that the excitement around entering 2021 was just a coping mechanism meant to give us some hope. We may know things aren’t actually going to change because an inconsequential variable (like a year) changes.
But my concern is that coping mechanisms create a slippery slope of meaningless anchor points and unreasonable expectations that make it harder to put in the work necessary to affect real change.
Addressing the challenges of 2020 and COVID-19 requires collective action, but it provided a high scale lens into coping mechanisms. There are plenty of examples of common situations that are within our direct control:
We change jobs because of a manager, even if the core is that we don’t know what career path will make us feel fulfilled (…but the manager could stink too).
We get out of relationships saying it isn’t the right match, even if the dirty truth is we don’t love ourselves enough to love another person.
We stay in toxic environments by zeroing in on the good moments because stepping away requires strength and independence.
We purchase fancy things that’ll get us compliments, even if what we truly seek is genuine emotional support and understanding.
We pursue power and wealth thinking that’s necessary to be happy, even if it deprives us of the things that truly matter to us.
We travel to far away lands thinking it’ll open our minds, even if peace won’t be achieving until we address the discomforts of home and our family.
So, how do we change this tendency?
1. Recognize the coping mechanism and inconsequential changes for what they are. That way, when things don’t get better, you won’t give up. Instead, you’ll acknowledge that lasting change wasn’t to be expected, but it’s still possible if you put in the work.
2. Let yourself have a couple of quick wins, but not too many. The outcomes from true work will take longer to be realized and the sooner you get started on that, the greater your capacity will be to finish. (See: The Jar of Life analogy)
3. Find at least one person who can be a supportive guide and who you can be entirely open with about your thoughts, feelings, and outlook. For some people, this could be a family member, significant other, or close friend. But for many, it could help to find an unbiased professional therapist (if your financial situation permits). Either way, finding the right confidant is a trial and error.
4. Think about changes you have made or expect to make, and ask yourself a series of questions: What did you expect to come from it? What actually came from it? Did you find yourself in a better position or a different but still difficult position? What did you take into consideration before you concluded that changing that particular variable(s) would result in a better outcome? Are you relying on too many short-term energy boosts without pursuing deliberate fundamental changes?
5. Avoid letting yourself fall into any feelings of regret. You are looking back with an understanding of what happened, meaning you are a biased evaluator of the outcome. When we take action, we are limited by three variables: available information, mental processing power, and time. Therefore, the goal of self-evaluation in step four is intended to broaden your awareness but must avoid feelings of regret lest the entire exercise become a failed experiment.
6. Learn how to distinguish and accept the things that will never change no matter how hard you try, find the strength to persevere for things that you can influence, and the ability to set boundaries when necessary.
In summary, coping mechanisms (like celebrating a new year or changing jobs) play an important role in stabilizing our outlook and providing an adrenaline rush.
But our long term mental, emotional, and financial well-being will be better off if we set our expectations appropriately, dig deeper and spark change from the core.
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