The pandemic isn’t over, per se. Between the dire situation in other countries around the world and variant COVID strains emerging from the mutation muck, it seems like COVID could very well be a part of our lives for a while. That said, the vaccination rollout in the U.S. has largely been successful and many of us are starting to feel safe about taking a few, calculated, safe steps back outside.
But what are we stepping into? COVID took a lot from us, and many of our plans for growth — both personal, professional and otherwise — have been waylaid. Why is it so hard to start moving forward?
This article is part of our Quarterlife series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
That’s a question Mike Foster wants to answer. He’s a counselor, speaker and author who’s passionate about helping people navigate the dreams they have for their lives. He talked a little about the recurring things he’s seeing in people on the other side of a pandemic and how we can get going.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Have you noticed any recurring themes in how people are feeling post-COVID?
I think one of the things that’s been universal in this pandemic is just loss. All kinds of loss. A loss of choice, loss of jobs, loss of life. We’ve lost loved ones and people that we care about. So if there’s a common theme of the last year, it is grief. Grief manifesting itself in all kinds of different ways, from anger to anxiety. People thought they were in control and now they’re not in control.
Do you think this is going to change us in ways that might end up lasting longer than the pandemic itself?
Absolutely. It’s a traumatic moment in our global history, in our country, in our families, in our marriages. This will have a long-lasting impact.
My work is all about: “Let’s deal with the realities and the facts.” But the facts don’t have to cripple us for our future. They just need to be managed, leveraged, looked at, reframed. But without question, we’re different people today than we were before the pandemic.
Where do we tend to go wrong when it comes to dealing with the facts? Seems like a pretty common ailment.
My mission in life is to blow up environments of denial. Whether that’s institutional denial, workplace denial or personal denial. Whether it’s denial in a relationship, we, as human beings, we love it. It’s our most favorite go-to in terms of-
Why though? Why is it so tempting to deny these things?
I think it speaks to the power of a story in our lives. A story can really help us get through difficult things. Stories can alleviate pain. So if I could tell myself a really great story about myself and live in a fantasy of what’s real, not facing the facts, then I’m going to be pretty happy for a while.
It works. Denial works for a period of time. But then, unfortunately, true facts and reality will set in at some point.
That’s a tough balance because we all want to tell a good story about our own lives and believe the best about ourselves, but it’s really easy to do that at the expense of reality.
It ultimately comes down to your beliefs about life. Can you live in the tension of pain and joy? It’s possible to have fulfillment and meaning and purpose in the middle of suffering and grief. Learning how is the work that we have to do as human beings. We have to believe both of those things, even though they seem like they’re opposites, but that both of those things can be welcomed into our life. When we do that, we actually have a really beautiful, interesting life.
What does “welcoming those things into our life” look like, practically?
Part of welcoming grief is welcoming the different stages of grief. It’s OK for me to feel sad. I don’t have to power through that emotion. I don’t have to pretend that I’m not depressed.
I think sometimes in religious circles, we feel this pressure to not feel certain emotions in our life. But that’s all part of the beautiful process that we’re all in and part of becoming a human beings is to experience these “negative” emotions. I don’t think any emotion is a negative emotion. Is it appropriate to be angry when you lose a loved one? Absolutely. So when we deny those pieces of us or deny those emotions, we really are stunting and limiting the potential to experience life at its fullest.
Why is it so easy for us to get stuck in ruts?
The dirty little secret about growth and change is that ultimately we don’t want to. The reason why we don’t want to grow or change is because it requires something. It requires a sacrifice, a cost. We love the idea of change. We love the idea of growth. We love the idea of personal growth, but we don’t love the idea that it’s going to cost us something.
There was a lot of talk during the pandemic about being kind to yourself if you’re not being as productive or effective as usual. Do you think it’s possible to go overboard in being too nice to yourself, to the point where you don’t push yourself to grow?
Simple answer: yes. I describe myself as a combination of Mr. Rogers and a Navy Seal. Either extreme is not helpful. Having no expectations and no challenge, that’s not necessarily helpful to our growth. Neither is just beating ourselves up, all performance, all maximization. We have got to love ourselves. We have to practice self-care. But part of practicing self-care is holding ourselves accountable to our values and our dreams and our passions.
I was beating myself up when Taylor Swift released not one, but two albums, in the middle of the pandemic. I’m like, what am I doing with my life?
Two good albums, no less.
Two really good Grammy-nominated albums! I’m like, what am I doing with my life?
But I also was able to find a couple areas in my life over the past year where I was very disciplined, where I added some new things to my life. Now, did I write a new album? No. Did I write a new book? No. But I was able to produce something because I did have some standards and some expectations to use this time wisely.
So what about the people who do want to hold themselves to a higher standard but feel like they just don’t have any margin or gas in the tank? What do you say to them?
I would say to that person what I say to myself when I think those same thoughts, and it’s simply this: you are ridiculously in charge of your own life. Because of my past, because of past trauma, because of my childhood, I lived my life from this powerless frame. It wasn’t until I said, hey, the clock is ticking. There is so much opportunity in front of me. There’s so many things in my hand. I have a duty and a responsibility to take ownership of my story and my life, because no one else is going to do that.
I have great compassion for those who struggle, who feel so overwhelmed and so burned out and so tired. I have nothing but compassion for that. But I also say it’s like that doesn’t excuse us from making small steps, small movements.
The hardest part of growth is getting that initial momentum going. But one of the things I do is with my clients is bump people. I know that if I can just bump them and get them in motion towards healthy things, the momentum will keep them moving and they can take it from there. But getting started is tough.
We’ve talked a lot about people who go too easy on themselves. But my hunch is that, at least in this country, most people have the opposite problem. We’re way too hard on ourselves to be productive and maximize our potential or whatever.
How do we learn to forgive ourselves for stuff like that?
We have this inner troll living in our head rent-free. The inner critic is always giving us one star reviews on everything that we do. It’s impossible to have a fulfilling, meaningful, purposeful life if we don’t do something about the inner troll. We do have to be very aware of the internal language. There’s not a whole lot to be gained from kicking yourself when you’re down. We think we’re motivating ourselves. It really doesn’t. It actually undermines peace, joy, love.
A couple of tools that I use: I think about my thoughts, and especially negative thoughts. I go, does this thought help me become the person that I want to become? Usually, if it’s an inner critic, inner troll, that thought is not helpful for me becoming who I want to become. Then the second question I always put out there for people who are struggling in this area is just simply ask, is this negative thought accurate and complete? So often we just assume because we’re thinking it, that it must be true, that it must be factual. But we actually have a thin slice of the thought or the data set. It’s like, “oh yeah, look how I screwed that up at work today. I’m an idiot. I’m a horrible employee.” OK, well, that’s a piece of the story. It’s not a complete part. So bring in the other pieces of data to have a more rich and robust discussion with yourself about who you are.
You can follow Mike Foster at @mikefoster on Twitter.