For the past couple years, my family has participated in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. The cause is personal for us, and it is a good chance for us to get together while doing something to help in a situation that feels so helpless sometimes. Due to the pandemic, this year’s Walk looked a little different. There would be no big event. Participants were encouraged to walk on their own, but my immediate family was still planning to try to gather for a masked, outdoor walk.
That is until the COVID numbers blew up again. Our day-trip out of state was now too risky, so we scrapped it and walked alone.
I was bummed. Really bummed. And I was mad. Really mad. Things are getting worse, not better, I lamented. And then I immediately felt guilty for being so upset about something so minor when others are dealing with so much worse – which of course didn’t actually help my disappointment, but just added a hefty helping of guilt to the sadness stew.
You would think that more than six months into the pandemic, it would be easier to deal with the disappointment of COVID-canceled plans, but it’s not. It still sucks. Bad. Some days, I just want to put my face in my hands and sob, at everything and nothing all at once.
So how do we deal with it? How do we not fall into the spiral of woe and despair sprinkled with guilt and shame for feeling so bad? Well, here are a few tricks that experts recommend…
1. Get in your feelings.
Just about every psychologist I’ve read or listened to on the topic of COVID-disappointment has said how important it is to acknowledge the hurt and disappointment. It’s grief, they say, and while that might seem dramatic, it’s true.
We’re all feeling a loss of some kind right now. It’s called “ambiguous loss,” a term developed by Dr. Pauline Boss to describe a loss that “can’t be concretely verified or easily resolved.”
“Ambiguous loss prompts an especially challenging kind of grief: It is confusing, and disorienting, and defies popular ideas about ‘closure,” wrote Sarah B. Woods, Ph.D., LMFT, Assistant Professor and Director of Behavioral Health at UT Southwestern Medical Center, in Psychology Today. “In other words, there is no clear ‘end’ to the current COVID-19 pandemic — and that’s part of what makes our emotional experience of this disease so taxing. Existing in the not-knowing of our current lives feels untenable and unsustainable.”
What we are feeling is actually grief, and it’s okay to feel that way. No, it’s not the same kind of grief you feel after the death of a loved one, but it is grief nonetheless. Denying that pain will only make it worse.
“You feel how you feel,” Katerina Georgiou, a counsellor and psychotherapist based in London told Harper’s Bazaar. “If you’re sad, you’re sad. If you’re angry, you’re angry. If somebody had a nosebleed, you wouldn’t tell them off for it on account of the fact that your neighbour has asthma; you would simply attend to the nosebleed. By telling yourself that it’s wrong to feel disappointed, you are gaslighting yourself.”
2. Get rid of the “but” and use “and” instead.
As you’re working through your feelings, resist the urge to “but” away your emotions. Georgiou suggests replacing the “but” in your internal dialogue with “and.” For instance, instead of staying to myself, I’m disappointed I can’t see my parents this weekend, but others have it worse, I should reframe it as, I am disappointed I can’t see my parents this weekend, and others have it worse.
“This subtle change in your internal dialogue validates both positions, rather than one winning out over the other,” she says. “There is space for both. If you’re still feeling guilty about being disappointed, tell somebody that’s what you’re feeling. Chances are, they feel the same and you can share comfort in knowing you aren’t alone.”
3. Practice gratitude.
While it can be difficult when you’re disappointed, sad, and angry, making an effort to practice gratitude really can be helpful. I’m grateful that I can FaceTime with my parents. I’m grateful that that I was able to do the Walk to End Alzheimer’s in a lovely forest preserve with my husband and sons. Acknowledging the good things can help lift the cloud of disappointment just a little bit.
4. That said, don’t fall victim to toxic positivity.
Looking for the “silver lining” or trying to make the best of a bad situation can sometimes slip into toxic positivity if we aren’t careful. Finding gratitude doesn’t mean you should dismiss the less “sunny” emotions you’re also feeling. Gratitude and disappointment aren’t either/or feelings; they can be both/and. You can feel both gratitude and disappointment at the same time. That’s one of the amazing things about being human. We are multi-dimensional beings with complex emotions.
The good news is that because we are humans are capable of all these emotions, we are also resilient. We will get through this. This will end eventually. That doesn’t mean we have to “suck it up” and pretend that things are amazing when we are knee-deep in disappointment, but it does mean paying attention to the good things too. Even though I was profoundly disappointed that I couldn’t do the walk with my parents and extended family, staying closer to home meant we could all sleep in a little later on a Saturday morning — which is always a good thing.
So hang in there, friends. As the pandemic drags on, the disappointments don’t get any easier. But they do get a little familiar. We can get practice at moving through the icky feelings, so we can find gratitude, and hang on to those silver linings for dear life.