Why Returning to Normal Isn’t the Goal

It seems like eternity since the pandemic first took hold.  We’ve done lockdowns and quarantines, and nearly every area of our life has been turned upside down.  For months, we’ve lost all sense of normalcy.  The COVID-19 pandemic has been traumatic for our world and our life systems, as we’ve struggled to process the loss of what we know.  Since the early days of the pandemic, we’ve craved stability.  We’ve longed for the familiar.  And we’ve wished for a return to normalcy.

Well over a year since the pandemic first began, and with the rollout and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, we’re beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.  We’re beginning to have hope.  We’re getting a sense for what life might look like, post COVID-19. 

With this hope, has come the idea of normal.  “Back to normal.”  It’s what so many of us have craved.  But with all this talk of back to normal, maybe you’re starting to have second thoughts.  Maybe you’re not sure that you want life to return to normal.  

Now, I want to be very clear; no one is saying that they want this global pandemic to continue.  At the time of this video, COVID-19 has claimed over 3 million lives worldwide, a horrific tragedy.  So this idea of not being sure about going back normal?  It isn’t some sort of privileged, toxic positivity.  It isn’t “I’ve been able to realize my priorities and focus on what really matters in life, so COVID-19 was actually a good thing.”  I’m not here for that nonsense.

What I am talking about, however, is that more and more, as things reopen and restrictions shift, I’m hearing people talk about the stuff that they’ve appreciated or enjoyed over the many months.

I’ve heard people appreciate not having jam packed weekends.

I’ve heard people appreciate being able to say “no” to invitations and obligations, without feeling guilty.

I’ve heard people appreciate cooking more, being outdoors, and seeing their healthcare providers over Zoom.

I’ve heard people appreciate not having to commute, not having to spend as much money going out, and not feeling the pressure to maintain surface level friendships.

I want you to think for a moment.  What have you been surprised about over the last 14 months?  What have you appreciated being able to do or not do? 

Now, follow me for a second.  What if I tell you that when COVID is over, you have to give those things up?  That when this is all over, you can no longer do or have those things that you’ve surprisingly enjoyed, because we have to go back to normal?  

If you just noticed a little pit in your stomach, if you just noticed a sense of dread, or if you noticed an immediate sadness about having to go back to how things were, I want you to stop right now, and I want you to hear me.

Going back to normal does not have to mean going back to how you were doing things before.

Going back to normal does not have to mean going back to how you were doing things before.

Let me say that again.

If you were someone that prepandemic had a packed social calendar and the thought of going back to normal and having a jammed calendar sounds exhausting, guess what?  You don’t have to go back to a jammed social calendar!  You can take the boundaries and limits you’ve had during COVID with you going forward.  You don’t have to do things like you did before.

If you’ve traditionally had a hard time setting boundaries, if you’ve struggled to say “no” to your pushy mother in law, your boss, or your friend that always seems to take, but COVID has given you a legitimate reason to say “no” more often, don’t go back to saying “yes” and having poor boundaries.  Pay attention to how saying “no” and having boundaries has made you feel, and find a way to carry that forward.

If you used to have an awful and long commute for work, and you’ve noticed a huge boost in your mood not having to commute, pay attention to that.  Talk to your boss about teleworking more often, think about a possible relocation closer to work, even if it means downsizing, or consider looking for a job closer to home.  If its made that much of a difference in your quality of life, why let go of it so easily?

When psychologists work with people who have experienced trauma, we don’t tell them to “go back to who they were or how they were before the trauma.”  That’s not helpful.  (And it’s actually pretty impossible.)  The goal in our work with survivors of trauma is to process and integrate this experience into their lives, moving forward in a new and healthy way.

Trauma changes you.  COVID-19 has changed us.  So don’t for a second think that you’re supposed to go back to who and how you were before.

So if you’re not totally enthused about “going back to normal,” ask yourself why.  Ask yourself what you’ve appreciated or enjoyed about this time, and get honest with yourself about how you can take that with you moving forward.  

I want us to do away with the phrase “going back to normal” and instead embrace moving toward a new normal.

You have the power to decide what that is.  What you keep, what you let go of, and what you want for your life post-COVID.  That, good human, is up to you.

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