What I’ve Learned About Myself and the World While Social Distancing
By CRYSTAL CHA
At the time of writing this, it has been eight weeks or 57 days since Finland (where I’m currently located) announced a state of emergency on March 16, 2020. In my home country of Malaysia, the Movement Control Order (MCO) began on March 18, 2020. Social distancing measures were put into place, and life as we knew it ground to a standstill.
In the span of a lifetime, five weeks is a short time. But for many of us, some more than others, life over the past five weeks has been a roller coaster ride of uncertainty, anxiety, loss, grief, and fear.
Under these circumstances, many would consider it wise to preserve resources and not make any sudden changes. Yet somehow I’ve found myself switching jobs, countries, and making other massive changes in the middle of all this uncertainty.
- I like to do life on hard mode, or
- This global pandemic is really what many people are calling it — a wake-up call, a shift, a disruption that is forcing us to pause and reflect, and think about the kind of life we really want
Perhaps in my case, it’s a combination of both.
The first few weeks were hard. My closest friends were worried about me. I struggled to fall asleep. My anxiety spiralled.
Things gradually got better. It didn’t happen all at once. And some days, it felt like I was taking two steps back after a step forward. Slowly, but surely, I started sleeping better and feeling better. Even though it’s still unclear what the future holds in many ways, I’m a lot more confident that I have what it takes to face it.
Although I resented the uncertainty and a gripping sense of a loss of control, I’ve come to feel grateful. These weeks have held so many valuable, life-transforming lessons for me.
Prompted by a dear friend Jonathan Chu, I thought I’d take the time to write down some of these learnings and document a snapshot of this unprecedented times we are living in.
1. The mindset we choose shapes our experience of a situation and influences the outcome
Becoming is better than being. — Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
The mindset I choose to put myself in changes everything. Challenges can equal stress, frustration, disappointment and anxiety — or they can represent opportunities to grow through the challenge.
As a result of saving two hours of commuting time daily, having zero in-person social activities, and not being distracted by going out/to the movies/shopping:
- My fitness has improved
- My sleep patterns have been more regular
- I am eating better and more consciously (because I want to stay healthy and not fall sick)
- I’ve had deeper, more high-quality conversations in a month than I usually have in an entire year — and discovered that I am surrounded by people who care about me
- I’ve realised I can save more money and spend less
- I’m learning to let go of my need to be in control, not just by tolerating — but instead enjoy — the process of becoming better
I’ve heard about the concept of the ‘growth mindset’ before, but during the lockdown, I started digging deeper and read this great book that was recommended, Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success. As Dweck writes:
“True self-confidence is the courage to be open — to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.” (Even if that source is a devastating global pandemic.)
I look back at the person I’ve become in this lockdown, how I am managing around the current uncertainties in my life, and laugh at the times in the past when I would flip over far more trivial things. I realise that I have gained a higher threshold for change, unpredictability, and discomfort. The bar has been raised.
So since I’m spending less energy worrying about the things I can’t change, I have the strength to focus on solutions, alternatives, and positive ways to spend my time.
2. That said, basic needs play an important role in regulating our moods
It’s amazing how the following can have a positive effect on our moods:
- Getting enough sleep at night
- Taking a warm shower
- Fresh air and moving our bodies
- Learning and trying something new
- Reassurance that things will be okay, and
- Being asked for help with something / being able to help someone with something
At the end of last year, I attended a talk by a work acquaintance who had just returned from one of Tony Robbins’ events. He was so charged up with excitement about what he learned that he wanted to share it with everyone he learned — for free. At the talk, I learned about the Six Human Needs that Tony Robbins often talks about:
- Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure
- Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli
- Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed
- Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something
- Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding
- Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others
Since then, I’ve started to see life through a different lens. I started understanding why I craved certain things more than others, and started to understand which needs I was seeking to meet in my pursuit of different things.
On most days, my need for variety and growth/challenge is high. During lockdown, being cooped up within four walls amplifies that need further. Cue the sourdough baking, Tik Tok challenges, and Dalgona coffees (okay I didn’t do any of those things, but I did try a lot of other new things).
Yet during the lockdown, the anxiety generated from reading the news or new government policies can change into its negative counterpart — uncertainty. This is where having a self-care routine is crucial.
The term self-care is often overused as a synonym for shutting the world out when we feel overwhelmed, so to clarify, when I say self-care, it doesn’t necessarily involve doing it alone. A good self-care routine involves sleep hygiene, fitness, mental health, nutrition, connection, and anything that generates a few good laughs. Daily.
You might be interested in: Working From Home? Here’s How to Establish Work-Life Boundaries
To achieve these things during the lockdown, I needed help. This was not business-as-usual. So I took sleeping aids (there is NO shame in this, by the way!). I scheduled a minimum of one call per day to a close friend. I journalled.
I also made a plan of action to adjust my usual 1–2-hour monthly session with my counsellor for the month of April (there is also no shame in asking for help!).
I asked if I could have those sessions broken into a weekly 30-minute session instead (so the total face time and fees remained unchanged). I knew the weekly touch base would be critical — to help me get through this season and manage it well.
Acknowledging our basic needs means we can handle them better. Instead of reacting and spiralling into our thoughts, we can take simple steps to manage them better.
3. Detachment is accepting that we cannot control everything
At the point of writing this, I’ve already had two flight bookings from Finland to Malaysia cancelled. When lockdowns were first announced in both countries, every week (and at some point, every day) brought new updates and new restrictions.
At first, the unpredictability was a huge source of anxiety. But after several weeks (and the realisation that the constant act of refreshing the airlines’ websites will not change a thing) I’ve settled into a state of acceptance.
Even when my flight got cancelled for the second time, with the next flight out being eight days later, I surprised myself by how calm I was.
I chose to see the positives from the situation — I get more time to spend with my cats, and more time to say goodbye to my friends in Finland. I also chose to see this as an opportunity to practice patience.
I texted my friends: “By the time I finally reach Malaysia, I’ll have a story to tell and the patience of a saint!”
I’m particularly drawn to Zen buddhism and stoicism and the concept of detachment they both share. As an INFP (Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) and Enneagram Type 4, I get easily swept away by the emotions of the moment. I also tend to gravitate towards negative emotions, and distrust positive emotions.
As a result, I overthink and overreact to things. Small setbacks become amplified. Feeling like the world is caving in on me has been (for most of my life) a regularly recurring experience.
Lockdown has given me an opportunity to practice detachment. Detachment is not about ‘not caring’ (although this book title – click here to reveal title by modern stoic Mark Manson may imply otherwise). Rather, it’s about not caring excessively about things out of your control.
By accepting that there are things we can and can’t change, we free up our mental energy to focus on the things that we CAN change.
This redirected focus allows us to come up with new alternatives, fresh solutions, and new ways out of a difficult situation that we would not have seen if we stayed laser-focused on our problems.
4. Knowing your love languages and practising it is important to feel connected, supported, and nurtured
Lockdown confirmed to me that my main love language is touch. While I knew this to be true in my romantic relationships, I did not realise it applied to my friendships as well.
In today’s post-#metoo world, discussions of consent around touch abound. In academic circles, fierce debates take place around balancing children’s need for touch to feel comforted with very real fears of schools’ reputations being damaged by accusations of improper touch.
Yet positive touch has been shown to boost the immune system and heart health and be essential for a baby’s early development. In fact, there is a medical term used to describe critically unhealthy babies whose nervous systems are underdeveloped due to a lack of touch — ‘failure to thrive’.
Family therapist Virginia Satir once said:
We need four hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.
I realised some of the things that I missed the most while being in lockdown were the tactile things: a warm hug, a hand on my shoulder, looking someone in the eyes, feeling the warmth of a freshly made cup of coffee as the barista hands it to me.
To cope with the lack of touch, I had to deliberately ramp up my efforts to connect with others through other love languages that were important to me — quality time and words of affirmation.
I joined virtual game sessions, told my friends more than usual how awesome I think they are, had more calls, scheduled calls into my calendar, picked up the phone and called friends impromptu.
Despite the anxiety and grieving the loss of normal, the one thing I felt constantly grateful for is having a circle of friends, near and far, around me.
I can’t imagine having to go through these last few weeks without a community to share my ups and downs with, be frustrated, sad, and uncensored with, and to cheer each other up with silly jokes. I’ve felt many times in the past few weeks, surrounded by a ‘storm of love’.
5. Good things take time
During the lockdown, I’ve learned that investing in my personal growth and taking care of my mental and physical health takes time!
Even though I saved around two hours a day by not commuting, it surprised me how quickly I filled up that time with exercising, cooking, and eating. But what surprised me more was how much time I spent planning — planning workouts, planning meals, and planning grocery runs.
It hit me how often I have overestimated how much I can do in a day. In the past, the result of overestimating my ability had led to overcommitting, burning out, and flaking out on commitments.
We are conditioned to chase quick fixes, hacks and shortcuts. While I believe the pursuit of efficiency is important, I think it is equally important to recognise that to achieve a certain level of quality and excellence, it takes good ol’ fashioned TIME. Be it at work or in our personal life, from exercising to communicating online to perfecting that sourdough loaf — it all takes time.
One time management habit that I’ve learned since college days (that 12 years later, I’m still striving to improve at!) is to schedule in buffer time.
In almost every industry that requires complex project management, buffer time is critical to on-time delivery of a project. It allows for unexpected circumstances and delays in some areas to be mitigated.
I try to apply this to my personal life as well. I avoid having meetings back to back, and I block out one-hour blocks for exercise even if I only plan to work out for 30 minutes. Interruptions happen constantly, and buffer time allows us space to ‘catch up’ when we fall behind schedule.
Plus, when you have two cats, sometimes a quick ear scratch turns into 15 minutes of petting and purring, while thinking about how wonderful it is to be a cat.
6. “We may be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.”
As I wrap up my reflections on some of the things I’ve learned during this global pandemic, this is a big one: being able to pursue personal development and growth during the lockdown is a clear sign of my class privilege.
For a long time, growing up, I saw myself as ‘poor’ coming from a family that scraped by every month paycheck to paycheck.
Being the first in my family to graduate from university, spending most of my childhood wearing hand-me-downs, and studying with recycled textbooks, I’d always seen myself as having less than others.
Yet in less than one generation, thanks to the power of education, generous opportunities given to me by others, and my parents’ sacrifices — I’ve made massive leaps out of the socioeconomic bracket I was born into.
A few years ago, I listened to a talk by Anna Rosling, co-author of Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.
I was shocked to discover that I fall into the top 15% of the world’s population by income (or essentially the highest of 4 levels of income). In Malaysia, we would call this the T20 (top 20%) of Malaysia’s population.
This was a sobering fact and reality check for me. If we compare ourselves to others, we will always end up feeling ‘less than’ when the reality is, many of us reading this (with an internet connection, a good command of English, and a decent education) have things others only dream and pray for.
I saw this line posted on Facebook (not sure who originally wrote this):
I couldn’t agree more with this statement.
This lockdown reminded me that I am where I am not because I seized opportunities, but because I had opportunities to seize in the first place. This pandemic is not affecting all of us equally — the marginalised is hit much harder by this, and there are no easy answers and solutions.
For those of us who can, hopefully, this is a reminder to reach out to help those with lesser opportunities than us, and a perspective check — to recognise what we have.
What have you learned about yourself and the world during this lockdown? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Crystal is passionate about all things marketing, storytelling, and communications. She has over 10 years of experience in inbound/outbound marketing, paid/earned media, and offline/online activation, specialising in marketing team/ops management, social media marketing, and copywriting. To engage with her, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reposted with permission on Leaderonomics.com