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Navigating the Emotional Roller Coaster of our Socially Distanced World

Week 8… or is it week 9? It’s hard to keep track as the days pile up. With Colorado’s moving to a “safer at home” policy, my family finds itself facing the reality of still not knowing when we will be returning to workplaces, seeing friends, or finding any sort of normalcy. In the past month and a half, I’ve watched successive vacations be cancelled, friends’ weddings be pushed off inevitably (luckily, most of them at least made it to the courthouse), and helped various members of friends and family through the ups and downs of the emotional roller coaster that we are living on.

Here’s the thing about roller coasters: some people love them, some people hate them, but I wager that very few people are comfortable with the idea of suddenly being dropped onto one with no end in sight. Add to that the fact that the ups and downs aren’t the precipitous, adrenaline-fueled, human-engineered thrills we might actively seek but are rather the complex, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous hills and troughs of emotions, and I think it’s safe to say many of us are in an uncomfortable place right now.

As a change manager who focuses on customer/user experience, I find that one of the key aspects of my job is practicing empathy and listening every day as people and groups navigate their own mini emotional roller coasters. Whether it is a new software, desktop setup, or a culture shift people are navigating, one thing people generally agree on is that change is not easy nor readily accepted. Change managers help people move through the Change Curve, which is a psychological mechanism to articulate  handling emotions. The job is part therapy, part educator, part cheerleader and part coach. A change manager’s tactic often includes congregating change “agents” or “champions” within an organization to help people navigate the new.

Of course, with change management, there is typically a defined “end state” or destination. But the situation we find ourselves in now has some additional stress in that we don’t really know what the destination is, that “new normal” that keeps being referenced. So now, as society is facing a change to the life and structure that we’ve generally become accustomed to over the last decade(s), the question becomes how do we as a community help each other navigate this new reality when we don’t even know what the end state might be? How are we change “agents” and “champions” for each other?

The answer is that there is no one right answer. We all have our own ways of dealing with emotions, with discomfort, and our own battles that we are facing daily. I believe the first thing a person should do is check in with themselves and acknowledge their emotions. Some days, I’m really good and feel solid and hopeful and ready to throw myself into anything and everything. Other days, I feel the mental and emotional exhaustion taking it’s toll, and I fight all day to keep grace and hope in my mind and not feel horribly guilty for being part of the lucky 30-40% of the workforce whose job can be done remotely.

Each morning, I do a quick mental check in with myself and try to judge where my moods are. I don’t let them rule my day, but I do adjust where possible when I know I’m feeling more down than up and could use a little more sunshine and dog tail wags than normal. As wise people say, you can’t be everything to everyone and, especially in times like these, trying to do so might take more than you realize. It’s okay to say “no” to yet another virtual happy hour or game night (they do take a greater toll than an in-person meeting) or not tackle those 13 projects around your home that you’ve been meaning to get to. The most important thing to do on this roller coaster is to make sure you know where you stand, day by day, and give yourself, your family and your friends grace.

And if you’re feeling good and want to make a difference? I highly advocate giving back where you can. Whether it’s donating money to a local food bank, sending a small gift or card to a friend, taking an extra 30 minutes at lunch to walk the dogs or play with your kids, or just calling people you care about on the phone to check in – acts of service help boost mental health and strengthen purpose. Being there for yourself is the first step to being there for your friends, family and community. Only by listening to yourself can you truly provide strength through listening to others. We’re all on this roller coaster together, and when the ride finally stops and lets us off, I hope we’ll find ourselves in that new destination, stronger within ourselves and communities.

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