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As an anxiety specialist, 2020 kicked my ass— but I’m glad

Happy New Year, and SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!

How are you? It’s been rough. Sending you a hug.

A sweet girl told me recently, with all the earnestness of a seven-year-old, that she thinks 2020 will be remembered as the COVID Year, and she’s ready to be done.  

“Holey moley, ain’t that the truth,” I told her, knowing full well we’re not really done yet.

It’s hard to keep this going, this combination of vigilance and restraint. Throughout 2020, many of us accepted that we just needed to stay steady, tread emotional water, and keep our expectations low. That’s not how I generally approach things, so it’s been tiring holding still, like sitting with good posture.

I’m wondering how and when I will start talking about progress again. Making it. Measuring it. Celebrating it. I’m not even sure how to define it anymore. It’s different out there in the world. I can’t ignore the shift.

We’re all works in progress, and it’s far from linear.  The real truth about progress is that consciously trying to make progress is progress. There’s no finish line… and there shouldn’t be.

I suppose I’ve known this for a while now. I’ve stopped referring to myself as a “brief therapist,” which was how many of us were trained during the 90’s. Brief therapy became a response to the restraints of managed care and a shift to tracking outcomes.

I still believe in the tenets of brief therapy as an active process with goals and homework and, well, progress. I remain firmly committed to teaching concrete skills and getting families to use them. But I just don’t see it as necessarily all that brief.

In my work as an anxiety specialist with families, there are obvious markers of progress. Maybe you’re sleeping better or feeling less cranky. Perhaps the simple act of learning about global language and talking “parts” of things with your family has lessened worry’s power. Maybe you’re yelling less and saying “no” more.

If emotional management is not linear, can we really fall behind and lose progress?

In 2021, it feels even more critical that I convey this to families. I hear the worry. Parents share their fears of “losing the progress” their kids have made in therapy. Educators worry about students’ lack of academic progress. Teens applying to college are trying to figure out how to demonstrate what they were able to pull off during COVID, the progress they made despite crazy circumstances and unforeseen obstacles.

Are we hoping to go “back to normal”? Are we going to mark our progress based on how we were doing prior to 2020?  I know it’s tempting to pine for our pre-2020 lives, but let me remind you that anxiety and depression were rampant in 2018 and 2019.

Our young people were colliding with the hazards of our elimination culture, a culture that seeks to remove—or even pathologize—normal, powerful emotions and struggle.

We weren’t really doing that well before the pandemic, so let’s not rewrite our social and emotional history and lose this opportunity for deliberate change.  

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we must handle uncertainty and struggle whether we like or not. And we must allow room for it all—the ebb and flow of our thoughts and emotions, and the evolution of our relationships. But have we learned these lessons?

“House done, life over”

There’s a saying I often repeat (to myself): House done, life over. I was told it was a Chinese proverb, but I don’t know if that’s true. When I’m stressed and messy, I take comfort in these four words. There are always adjustments to be made, things to learn, stories to untangle.

Heck, I’m an anxiety specialist who intellectually knows all the do’s and don’ts of emotional management. And yet this year I worried about my kids and my parents, and argued with my husband about dumb stuff, and went on LONG walks because I wanted to be alone and disconnected. I ruminated. I said “yes” when I should have said “no” (repeatedly.)

I had to reboot my expectations again and again. I, like all the families I work with, have felt unsure and uncomfortable and all sorts of other things. I have adjusted. I’ve even had some epiphanies about my work and my own parenting. At this moment I can say with confidence that I am not going back. I will hold myself accountable because I know how easy it is to slip into old patterns.

How about you? How have you changed? How do you want to define progress in 2021? What will you measure and celebrate? What will you model for your family? Your students? Your clients? Yourself?

What will you DO differently? The details are yours to determine, but may I offer this: The elimination of uncertainty cannot be the goal. And progress defined as “achievement” cannot be the main objective. It’s not possible. It’s not healthy. Our kids have been paying the price for this manic mindset for years; I believe the disruption and trauma of 2020 offer us a chance to recalibrate.

Let’s take the chance. Let’s move through the messiness, remaining a bit off center with our wonderful flaws. Let’s talk more openly about the bumps of life and be more tolerant and flexible as our kids find their way. As a courageous friend reminded me yesterday, there are no straight lines.

2020 kicked our collective asses and I want something to show for it. Maybe our connections will deepen in the wake of such profound loss. Maybe we can finally learn the value of adjusting to a curve-filled life, because 2020, if we choose to pay attention, has shown us where the adjustments are needed most.

Lynn Lyons, LICSW, has been a psychotherapist for 30 years, and is an author of three books including Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, and her podcast is called Flusterclux. Her course The Anxiety Audit is now available.