Moving Forward in a New Year… (that looks a little like the last)!

Michele Regan

Thriving, Not Surviving

I, like many others I assume, was hoping that 2021 would be nothing at all like 2020! But, lo and behold, here we are.  Rather than lament the idea that we are in the same unfortunate place that we were 9 months ago, I decided to reflect on what I had been hoping for.   Here’s what I came up with: Yes, I survived 2020, but I don’t want to survive, I want to thrive!    

So how do we move forward - thrive in our current state of affairs?  What are the strategies that I can use to get me there (or close to there)?  Well, it all starts with a choice! Psychologist, Dr. Susan David, has studied and wrote about embracing change long before the pandemic, in her book, Emotional Agility.  To me, her ideas seemed simple but incredibly powerful!  To quickly summarize, everything we do is a choice.   No, we can’t choose the circumstances that we are in, but we can choose how to respond to those circumstances.  And every choice we make shouldn’t be automatic, but rather aligned to that which we value. 

Easier said than done, but still, imagine the sense of calm and control you would feel if you had that compass, your values, as a guide as we move through our days in a time that feels like there is no beginning and no end.  Many of us feel unmoored, like we are just treading water, exhausted and quite frankly pretty useless to those around us (You can’t save someone if you’re drowning, right?).

But what if you could bring back that sense of purpose?  What if just the idea of having the ability to make choices that are aligned with your values could be the anchor you need?  And actually making those choices could be the thing you need to help you move forward, even in a pandemic. Well, then you would be able to help others, lift them up, and help them move forward too.  Yes, that’s more than just surviving; that is what I would consider thriving!


Taking the First Step

So what’s the first step? We absolutely must acknowledge the reality we are in and the negative emotions that come with it.  We must be able to notice and experience those feelings, without judgement.  And finally, we must be able to put some space between ourselves and those emotions, without acting because of them.  In a word, it’s about being mindful 

For example, I can feel totally disappointed that my son is spending his junior year doing virtual learning, feeling disconnected from the school community.  That disappointment is real and needs to be acknowledged.  The choices I make however shouldn’t be driven by that feeling of disconnection (“Oh well it’s a bummer we missed that Zoom meeting about college planning, maybe next time”).  Instead, I can use what that emotion is telling me: that we need to DO SOMETHING to feel connected, to make a choice to reach out to my son’s guidance counselor, to set up “appointments” with my son to review the college process, and to set some future dates for on-campus visits this spring.  Being mindful and present to the feelings I was experiencing, led me to these actions, instead of saying for the 50th time, “I don’t know how this whole college thing is supposed to happen in a pandemic.”  

But, let’s be real.  There are a lot worse things than missing a meeting with your kid’s guidance counselor...twice.  People have experienced illness and death, job loss and relocation, food insecurity and isolation.  Mental health issues are on the rise and the support systems that we and our students’ families once relied upon have drastically changed.  Yes, negative emotions are important because they tell us a lot, but we don’t want to drown in them.  We don’t want our daily lives to be a series of actions driven by our negative thoughts and emotions.

Taking Back Control

So how do we help ourselves and others to begin to take back control and make choices based on what’s really important to us, instead of just moving through endless days?  We need to acknowledge and process the feelings that come with all of these very impactful experiences.  One of the best ways to do this is by writing.  Whether you write with a pen and paper (my MO), use your computer, or even talk to text, moving our emotions to a place outside of our own heads is an important way to put space between the thought and the thinker.  

Dr. David discusses the research of James Pennebaker, which suggests that journaling (for students and adults) helps people move through emotionally significant experiences.  His 40 years of research has shown time and time again that the experiment groups whose task was to write about “emotionally charged episodes experienced a marked increase in their physical and mental well being.”   His suggested technique is pretty simple: set a timer for 20 minutes and write about any and all emotional experiences.  Don’t focus on grammar, punctuation or style-no will read this but you!   The idea is to go where your mind takes you; just get it down.    



Once you’ve done it yourself a few times, you will definitely want to use this technique with students.  To begin, I would shorten the time period to 10 minutes, and let them know that they are invited to share it with you if they like, requiring you to be open to reading without judgement. I would also provide some prompts for students, as they may not have a fully developed language to talk about emotions.  You can suggest they write about:

  •  something they faced that was “hard” for them
  •  a time when they felt ____ (lonely, upset, scared, etc.)
  • what they miss since the pandemic happened
  • what they would change about recent months

There is no right or wrong; it’s the process of being able to “step out” of yourself and see the experience from a broader perspective. You can also find some other journal prompts here.

There are certainly other mindfulness practices that can support our ‘stepping out” from our negative thoughts and emotions and allowing us some space to make meaningful choices.  We have prior blogs and downloadable resources on mindfulness here, as well as a workshop that I think is a no-brainer for schools in today’s context.  With all things that are new to you, you must find what works for you.  Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t like meditation, or berate yourself because you don’t want to join the Zoom yoga class your school is offering (although I love that idea).  Instead, experiment with what makes you feel good, calm, or just more present.  

And, remember, you can do more than just survive; you can thrive, but first you have to choose to!

Want to learn more? We’ll be hosting a webinar this month on Mindfulness in Action: Writing to Move Forward.


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