The Danger of the ‘New Normal’

This article was originally posted on medium by Laura Cincera

How to welcome a full range of emotional experience—and create space for transformation

These are fertile times. Initiatives are blossoming. We are singing birthday songs across balconies and watching policemen turn into street dancers. This spring of creativity invites us to feel less like confined individuals and more like connected communities.

New language is flourishing, too. Our everyday vocabulary is expanding to accommodate novel acronyms — COVID-19, PPE, WHO — and more recently, labels such as the new normal. Just as distancing ourselves physically from others allows us to slow the spread of the virus, taking distance from terms can help us to assess their validity and usefulness.

Let’s put on our critical lenses, dear reader, and analyse this label. The new normal is clearly an oxymoron. We can appreciate the poetic value it adds and simultaneously wonder if it is helpful to throw in more ambiguity into our already enigmatic scenario. One can also be curious about the time frame this term is intended to define. Is it the liminal space between now and back to old normal? Or does it imply that these circumstances are here to stay? Also, will new ever lose its commercial appeal?

Syntactically, the new normal is also interesting. Although free from verbs, the phrase seems to imply action — our expected action. It points to the existence of a hidden code of how we should behave. And here is where the term starts to reveal itself as problematic. The suggested invitation to continue operating, almost as if nothing were happening — as if this were in fact normal times. seems inaccurate at best, dangerous at worst.

Forcefully normalising the abnormal can feel insensitive and detached from the reality we are collectively experiencing. It doesn’t create space to process the rapid changes that we are undergoing as individuals and societies. More importantly, it doesn’t create space to re-imagine a new reality — which is what is truly needed now.

We are all grieving. Lives and jobs and routines and freedom lost. We are united in the experience of grief, yet everyone deals with this complex process differently. Whether with hyper-productivity or a complete inability to focus on any task — both extremes, and all nuances in between, are valid and common responses to grief. Yet, when we use the new normal we are implying that there is such a thing as normality.

The idea of normality emerged, according to philosopher Anita Silvers, during the 19th century as a result of progress in the medical statistical field. Normality was defined as the most typical traits, which were assumed to be stronger traits from an evolutionary perspective. By demarcating the normal, simultaneously we are creating its opposite: the pathological.

What becomes clear is that normality is a social construct and therefore is malleable. Our contemporary conception of normal is heavily influenced by the dominant narratives defining our systems, including capitalism.

Under our current capitalist paradigm, there is a prevalent sense of our worth being equated to our productivity. The more productive we are, the better we feel about ourselves. And by extension, with every unproductive action, it is easy to experience shame and fear of inadequacy. This idea has become particularly burdensome because it is so intrinsically connected to our sense of identity. We draw value judgments not only about what we do but also about who we are.

I worry that this can significantly flatten the range of what we perceive to be valid experiences and responses. I worry that this might lead to many feeling guilty — not “normal”— for not being able to perform according to that predefined cannon. That it might give rise to an additional level of psychological pressure in an already challenging circumstance.

We deserve a truthful label that doesn’t flatten, dismiss, or ignore the reality and complexity of our experience.

Language is a powerful tool. Let’s use it consciously. Use it to empower us to navigate these complex times — not to confine us or put us back into an autopilot state. We have a choice . And I worry that normalising this situation by using language like the new normal can rob us from the transformative potential of these times.

A real sense of opportunity is palpable. A possibility for transformation — personal and collective. We are being invited to rethink and change many of the common patterns, processes, and systems that we had taken for unmodifiable. With no protocols in place and no predefined answers on how to navigate these novel scenarios, we are left to experimentation — trial and error. We are bound to make mistakes, learn, and pivot as we go. This takes courage. And compassion. And resilience. And a healthy dose of optimism. But optimism is not the same as bypassing.

Often used in the world of spirituality, spiritual bypassing — a term coined by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood — is the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”. You might have encountered it before in New Age circles without the label. It often sounds like “good vibes only” or “just be positive”. Which, rather than helping us to feel more positive, can actually invoke the opposite — it can duplicate the pressure. Now in addition to our initial sensation, we might also experience guilt or inadequacy for not being able to deliver on the perpetually mandatory good vibes.

Bypassing excludes. It invalidates a wide range of emotional responses. We need the opposite of that. We need integration.

What Can We Do to Ensure That We Create Supportive Spaces in Which All Reactions Can Be Welcomed?

Here are two mindfulness-inspired practices for you to experiment with — with your communities and teams, or individually.

1. Build pockets of safety into your online meetings with active listening

This simple practice has the goal to show — rather than tell — that whatever we might be feeling is welcomed. It helps to escape the normal/non-normal binary. You can build it into either existing core team meetings or create new meetings with smaller groups dedicated exclusively to this practice. If you are new to active or mindful listening, a core competency in coaching, here is what it looks like:

>Start by choosing one question that everyone will answer. I suggest “how are you feeling in this moment?” as a prompt, but you can adapt it to suit your needs.

>One person speaks at a time. Mention how much time each speaker will have (1–3 minutes can be a good starting point) and assign a timekeeper.

>Find a way to determine the order of speaking like voluntarily speaking up, alphabetic order, or any other creative method that works for you — the traditional clock-wise order is lost in an online universe.

>The role of the listeners is to be fully present to the person that is speaking. And that is it. They do not interrupt, do not ask follow up questions, and do not offer advice. They are silent — but present — holding space for whatever is being spoken.

>Acknowledge that this might be unconventional for some and might trigger different emotions. We can name those sensations, too when it is our time to speak or we can create space for debriefing the practice after the sharing circle is complete.

>I recommend starting with a demo and offering a wide range of possible experiences as an example, from naming physical sensations or emotions — anger, bliss, and impatience — to prolonged moments of silence.

This practice can really help to strengthen trust and psychological safety — the foundation for team effectiveness — in a team. A certain base level of trust is required for this exercise to be most useful and some people might not feel inclined to participate. That is OK, too.

2. Cultivate a contemplative self-practice

It is not always easy to share our feelings authentically. This might be related to unease around the predicted reaction of others or we might find it challenging to be aware and express our emotions clearly. If we are not used to paying attention and finding words to articulate our experience, journaling can help. You can journal about anything, really, but there are proven benefits derived from developing a gratitude practice and journaling is a great entry point:

>Write prompts on a piece of paper or journal. I would recommend starting with prompts like right now, I’m feeling… or I’m grateful for…

>You can also choose to spread the practice across different times of the day:
Morning: What would make today wonderful?
Evening: Today, I have learned…

>Choose how long you want to dedicate to each prompt and set an (ideally enjoyable-sounding) alarm. 3–5 minutes can be a good start.

>Commit to writing continuously until the time is up, even when you feel like you have nothing more to write. Feel free to write about your inability to write — the goal is to become aware of our thought processes as much as to find an answer to our prompt.

If you recognise sensations such as fear or anxiety coming up while journaling — first, congratulate yourself for noticing them. Then, welcome them and get curious. Notice the labels and reactions that you are experiencing. Unpleasant? Not normal? You can write down your thought process to gain more insight and create more distance to observe your experience.

The goal is to truly meet the wholeness of our experience, including the tired, overwhelmed, angry, bored. If we can accept those experiences, it is even possible that we might experience a softening. But that is not the goal. Trust that there is a reason why our bodies are reacting in this way.

Also, words are not the only option for journaling. You can get creative and play with painting, singing or dancing your answers. Whatever helps you to get out of your head and get clearer insights is welcomed. Find ways that work for you.

Many factors of this pandemic are out of our control. But we still have a choice. We decide what language we use to describe this situation, to speak to ourselves, and to care for others. Reality is under construction. It is up to us to create one that inspires us.

I’m curious to hear how your experiments go. For more practices and experiments, you can join my monthly newsletter

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