Taking Back the Narrative

“Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

– Viktor Frankl

Our situation with COVID-19 is one that can fill the most calm and steady of us with fear and uncertainty. What will happen to me, my family, my community? My job? Those most vulnerable? Because we biologically need and feed off of connection with others, we’re also affected by the thoughts, emotions, energy and narratives of other human beings and our collective narrative. Emotional contagion is a powerful phenomena. 

We look to our communities to help make sense of world events, but at times, we can be more drawn into fear, reactivity and stress that ultimately doesn’t help us. The inverse is also true: we can be calmed down by our communities and not all fear is negative. 

And yet, in a time when we feel like we have very few choices and the world is deciding how we live, we do still have a choice in the story we tell ourselves. We can choose where and on what we put our attention; how we interpret the data and information coming in. 

Here’s a method to get centered, to reflect and begin to rewrite the story you’re in right now:

  1. First, check in with yourself. Find a place to sit and be still for a few minutes. Step outside into the natural world if you can. Take a few deep breaths. Lengthen your inhales and your exhales. Notice where you’re connected to your chair, the floor or the ground outside. Starting at the top of your head, scan down through your body. Without judging, what do you notice? Where do you notice it? You can place a hand over your heart and your gut to check in with both parts of your body. What is your body trying to tell you?
  2. Second, take a few minutes to reflect on how you are currently feeling and reacting. I feel…what (emotion)? In light of that, what is it that I need right now? Listen to the answer, whether it be a feeling, a word or phrase, or even an image that comes up. Consider writing it down so you can pull it out of your brain to more effectively process it.
  3. Third, take a step back. What’s the story you’re living in right now? If you’re having trouble imagining that, think of how you would simplify the elements to share it as a headline. What role are you playing in that narrative (victim, hero, frustrated bystander)? What’s your aspiration for changing that? What changes about your behavior if you can stand in that narrative and look at the world that way? What are some small ways that you can create that new narrative? Example: Instead of feeling obligated to respond to my phone, I can silence my notifications and take the morning off from reading texts or material that amplifies my stress. 

I’m well aware that we can’t erase the world’s events right now with a little thinking. However, we can take ownership of where we do have the most power: our freedom to tell the story our way.

GUAA Career Coaching Partner Miranda Holder

On Fear

Dear fellow Hoyas,

Over two decades ago, I was diagnosed with cancer.  I was in my 20s at the time, and I would like to share with you how I have learned to deal with uncertainty.

Uncertainty as we all know produces fear.  A common reason for this fear is the tendency we have in the absence of certainty to imagine worst-possible scenarios.  For me, fear shows up in two ways.  One is concrete, and the other is general.  Concrete fear is helpful.  I recognize it because it moves me to act productively.  Over the years, it has motivated me to eat well and keep my doctors’ appointments.  More recently, fear has moved me to stay on top of the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to prepare my family for social distancing, and if necessary, sheltering in place.

General fear, on the other hand, feels more like I’m circling the drain.  It produces lots of spinning, but no helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) moves.  When I notice it, I know now to address it using one of the following approaches.

The first is to pay attention to my thoughts.  If I am imagining worst-case scenarios, for example, I try to remind myself of all the times I have worried and nothing bad has happened.  My great-uncle used to say that people are terribly one-sided.  We suffer in anticipation of bad outcomes, yet we rarely celebrate in anticipation of good ones, even when the odds are similar.

When questioning my fears doesn’t work, I shift to acceptance.  I experience feelings as having both a mental and a physical component.  When I am afraid, for example, I get a knot in my stomach.  If I stop what I am doing and focus all of my attention on the physical sensation (rather than the subject of my fear), the sensation passes.  Typically, it grows and then fades in less than a minute as long as I don’t try to interrupt or control it.

Lastly, when these strategies don’t work, I turn to distraction.  Centuries ago, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote about our natural capacity for distraction.  We’re really good at it, and in times like these, we may as well use it to our benefit.  If you have work, then work.  If you’ve been putting off learning a hobby, use the extra time now to develop it.  If neither of these appeals to you, do something that feels more generative.  My distraction these days is to enjoy funny videos sent by my family in Spain.  They are finding ways to laugh and that is a salve.

If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is that we are all going through this together.  We don’t have to wonder why somebody is having a hard day, and instead of reacting, we can respond with understanding and care.

May you be well,

Yolanda Ruisánchez Gruendel (L’95)