Preparing for the next work chapter…

Some of us are going to be returning to out-of-home work on level 3. After 2 months at home living with uncertainty, some of us may be surprised by our mixed feelings about this next step, with rising anxiety about going back to a daily workplace routine. Given the current circumstances, this is a fairly normal response. What can we do to make this transition as low-stress as possible?

What is the first thing that comes to mind – our biggest concern? If we can address that concern in a practical way, we will have come a long way in alleviating our anxiety. If your friend was telling you about this issue, what advice would you give him/her? I don’t know what your biggest worry is, but hopefully one of the possibilities below will spark some ideas that work for you.

Let’s think this through in a very practical way – what do we know about the circumstances we are going back to…and what changes to daily life can we make now that bring us closer to the daily work experience?

We know what work clothes we will be wearing. If practical, we could start wearing them during the day even now. Those of us who use make-up might want to start doing that again.

If we know what time we need to leave the house to get to work on time, we can set our alarms and practice our wake-up and go routine. This also means getting to bed on time. This may involve our children if they are in grades 12 or 7 (if they are willing to play along!) If we have children of other age groups, what will be happening to them  while we are at work? This may land up being a difficult question to navigate – we need to know they are safe.

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Living in Limbo

In a coaching conversation this week, I was told “life is a series of limbo situations”. If this is your experience, it means you know that you have survived previous episodes of limbo. What did you lean on to get through then? How could that be useful now?

In the midst of this limbo we find ourselves in, where so much is uncertain, it may be helpful to focus on the truths we do know.

We do not know when the corona epidemic will be under control, but we know that this too shall pass. Uncertainty in whatever form is an unavoidable part of our lived experience. It is uncomfortable, but it ends eventually. Knowledge is given, wars and pandemics end, and we move on, all be it as changed people.

Worrying feels like you have some control but actually often reduces the energy you have to improve the situation. What is the likelihood that the worst outcome will happen? We’re not all statisticians but often we overestimate the worst scenario and underestimate the many other possibilities, and as a result spend a lot of energy imagining and preparing for the unlikely. If we focus on making good choices in the areas that we have some control over, it can increase our energy to broaden our circle of influence. What are your uncertainty triggers? Sometimes we find ourselves on an ever tightening thought spiral of worst-case what-if scenarios, but sometimes we are influenced by what we expose ourselves to – social media, negative focus of news stories, rumours, speculations, fake news, only communicating with anxious friends. Emotions are just as infectious as viruses! What triggers can you limit?

Let’s explore our emotions a little. We know that suppressing our emotions long-term can make the situation worse. Internalising anxiety and stress can make you physically and mentally ill. It may feel uncomfortable, but it is wiser to allow yourself to experience those difficult emotions and investigate what is going on beneath them. This is where you will find the clues to what it is you need to change. These may be uncomfortable growth points, but they have the potential of bringing you to a place of blossoming joy. But give yourself grace – it may feel quite overwhelming. Don’t isolate yourself in response, we are already distant enough from each other. Reach out to someone you trust to walk this road with you.

We know that when we are in the thick of the problem, we have a limited view of the situation. We cannot see all the possibilities there are, because our vision has become narrowed by uncertainty. A bird’s eye view can reveal a more hopeful perspective, but sometimes we need someone else to listen to us and help us zoom out. What would we think about our own situation if we were watching it on a screen happening to someone else?

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In the zone

As adults we sometimes enthusiastically share our experiences of being “in the zone” or “in flow” – it’s a real blessing when we can say that those times are during our work time. We become unaware of time passing and the people around us, instead we feel really alive, loose ends seem to fall into place, and things are right in our world. When we come up for air, we feel we have achieved something really meaningful. When did you first feel this way – do you remember what you were doing?

I think one of the greatest learning opportunities for pre-schoolers happens when they are “in the zone”, so absorbed in playing that they become unaware of  their surroundings. As they become immersed in the activity in front of them, they inadvertently learn about size, colour, shapes, textures, differences & similarities, that objects fit into holes, what the world they inhabit feels like to their touch (and whether they like it or not), what effect they can have on their environment, how things fit together and don’t. On top of this, their brains have the opportunity to order their other daily experiences, and to assign some meaning to them.(Something we can all benefit from at this time!) Different kids have this experience with different activities. It can happen when children play with water, sand, mud, play dough, Lego, cars, dolls, building blocks, beads, crayons, books, paint, dress-up clothes, musical instruments, stones, kitchen utensils…It usually involves a child being drawn to a specific activity, and playing for some time on their own.

As parents we can feel pressurised to provide just the right kind of stimulation for our children to develop their perceptual skills, to read the right books to develop their language skills, to spend quality time with them to develop their emotional and relational skills…and all of these things are important. But sometimes our kids just need to be and not do something productive; to learn to entertain themselves, and not be entertained by us or a screen. How can we facilitate this?

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Grumpy on Social Media?

As I browse through some conversations on social media, I am noticing that there seem to be a lot of grumpy people out there, taking things personally, and attacking each other at the slightest provocation. I am going to assume that most of us who are active on social media are part of the group of workers who are not able to return to work under level 4 rules, and are therefore still spatial distancing at home, and isolated from most of the people we usually socialise with.

Three stages of reaction to prolonged isolation have been identified, as “a first stage of heightened anxiety, a second stage of settling down to routine marked by depression, and a third stage of anticipation marked by emotional outbursts, aggressiveness, and rowdy behaviour.” 1

At this stage many of us are experiencing powerful emotions like anxiety, frustration, impatience and fear around what the future holds for us. It is easy to become caught in an ever tightening spiral of increasing tension, and this makes it so much easier to bite off somebody else’s virtual head. Anger feels so much more powerful than depression and fear. There may even be an element of addiction to it. Long-term, where are these angry outbursts going to take us? Do we really want to go there?

I think we need to give ourselves and each other a good measure of grace as we honestly ask ourselves some hard questions:

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Roles and boundaries in the level 4 home environment…

On a group call this week, a fellow coach mentioned that before a specific conversation, she put her “coaching hat” on. Clearly, this was a metaphor, but it got me thinking.

As most of us continue to be limited to living our numerous roles within the same four walls, many people are struggling with the enmeshedness of it all. It feels like work has intruded and taken over our personal space. Work needs to be done, but so do household tasks, there are meals to prepare. There may be children running around in the background while I am on a zoom work call. My children may need to do schoolwork, and this involves me too for now. Is it possible to find some other way of re-instating the boundaries that have been blurred during the last five weeks?

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The freedom to look beyond the screen

Today we celebrate Freedom Day without the opportunity to attend a large gathering of like-minded people, without the feeling of celebrating our progress from the past together in physical presence, without the heated discussions grappling with the strong hold that the past still seems to have on us. Instead, there are live-streamed events, and perhaps we will have the possibility of an online interaction which touches on some of these topics…

Lately, I have been part of a few online conversations, where it was obvious that people are misunderstanding each other. The reasons are complex. How does the isolation of physical distancing influence the mix? In South Africa we have a history of living in our own bubbles with little awareness of what other’s reality looks like. In lock-down, with minimal exposure to others, we look through the screen of our opaque bubble and see that we are facing the same storm out there, feel that we are burdened with the same loss of freedom. Yes, we are slightly aware that there are differences in people’s experiences, but we’re all in this together, aren’t we? Let’s have a closer look.

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Joy in learning?!

With the lock down continuing longer than the school holidays, some of our children have already started schooling again. For others this is looming ahead. The possibility of a staggered return to school is being explored. For many of us as parents, our children’s schoolwork may feel like another burden we need to carry, another source of stress in our already busy, pressured lives. For others schoolwork will help to structure our family routine. For some this routine may feel boring. The question “how long this will continue?” hangs over us all. In these circumstances, the word joy does not seem to belong in the same sentence as learning. We know that schoolwork needs to be done, and for now this will be at home. Are there any choices we can make that will affect this situation? Let’s have a look at how we think about the subject…

Will you be schooling at home, non-schooling or home-schooling? To illustrate the difference I am sketching three exaggerated pictures.

The school at home picture is drawn with a ruler – lines, strict patterns and geometric shapes – taking the school structure and imprinting it on your home routine. The family gets ready for school as before. The only missing element is the school commute. School starts at approximately the same time as before. One subject follows the next. The time-keeping bell between periods rings in our heads. Perhaps there is an on-line teacher giving the lesson on zoom at a specific time. In other cases, the parent feels the pressure of morphing into a teacher themselves. Joy doesn’t have much space to grow here.

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Grieving during lockdown

This week a friend of mine heard that her mother had died. There is no way that she can be physically present to mourn with her family. The physical distance is too far. This is going to be a problem for numerous people over the next few weeks. (Approximately 1500 people died every average day in SA pre lockdown) How can one grieve well under lockdown circumstances? How can we, who have lost a close companion, experience some closure when we cannot reach out to comfort each other, to hold, to hug, to weep on each other’s shoulders? It is a difficult conversation to have. An unspeakable reality we do not want to even imagine. But let us dare to explore this topic now, so that we are not immobilised when some of us need to find a way for our own sake, and for the sake of those we love.

Here are some ideas, that admittedly cannot replace physical presence, but are a way in which we can still support the grieving:

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Easter, weekends, public holidays…

How do we make these days ahead still feel special, and different to every other day during lockdown? How do we keep our sense of a calendar, and time passing, when one day can so easily look like the one before, and they all become one long blur?
These are some of the things we as a family are going to do:
  • Sleep late.
  • Listen to a prayer app.
  • Dress in the way we feel is fitting to the occasion.
  • Eat differently to the average week day – have hot cross buns and tea, make unleavened bread, eat boiled eggs that we have decorated (with food colouring), make some special Easter dishes.
  • We will probably change the position of the furniture in one of our rooms.
  • We will not work or school, in fact, I am not going to even sit at my desk.
  • Join up to a church service on-line. (If you have never physically attended a church service, now is a great opportunity to visit one incognito.)
  • Connect with the broader family on a whatsapp group call (this might even be during the meal-time we usually spend together at Easter).
  • Have an Easter egg hunt, inside and outside the house.
  • Eat supper by candle-light, use a special tablecloth.
  • Make memories with our lockdown family: re-enacting old Easter traditions and maybe adding some new ones, reading a book together, looking at photos, playing games, trying some of the newly free on-line activities e.g. visiting an on-line museum together, having a look into the Kruger park game drives, downloading an audiobook from Audible. There are so many other fun ideas for free family activities (physical & virtual) if you do a quick Google search…

What will you be doing this weekend?

(If you are looking for websites for any of the ideas I mentioned, you are welcome to contact me by email or whatsapp)
Artwork: “Glory of the Cross” by Sawai Chinnawong
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