As we tentatively resume activities and ease social restrictions, it is natural to feel stressed and uncertain. We don’t know what the path forward looks like. Many have imagined what this path “should” look like. There is often a disconnection between what we believe “should” happen and what is actually happening. The disconnection between expectation and reality is a major contributor to stress, depression, and general life dissatisfaction. Since we cannot completely control our environments and outcomes, we must adjust our thoughts and expectations.

During this pandemic, many people have fallen short of their own personal expectations and have subsequently felt increased sadness, guilt, and anxiety. Many have expressed concern about falling short in their work performance, homeschooling their children, and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise plan. 

What happens when reality does not meet expectations? Sometimes we search for a solution. We may work to figure out ways to reach goals, even though this process may look different than the original plan. To make goals more manageable, we may break the goals down into smaller steps, ask for outside help, and allow more time to achieve goals. However, when feelings of sadness, fear and guilt are high, we are in danger of giving up on goals, feeling hopeless, and becoming self-critical. This mindset can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Therefore, it is critical to recognize the disconnection between our expectations and reality, and to adjust our thinking and behavior to maintain positive mental health. To begin understanding your own expectations, consider whether you have experienced any of the following “should” thoughts:

“I should be as productive at work as I have always been.”

“I should be teaching my children everything they would have learned during school.”

“I should be more productive at home if I have time off from work.”

“I should feel happy because my situation is not as bad as others’ situations.”

When you find yourself falling short of your expectations, how do you cope? Do you adjust your expectations and continue to work toward revised goals? If you feel stuck and overwhelmed when things do not go as expected, it’s time to work on adjusting your expectations. As you move forward to craft a new normal, be sure to set realistic expectations and goals. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Avoid comparing the current “normal” to your past normal. Social media often brings up memories of what you were doing this time last year. Work to let go of your belief that you should be able to function in the same way. Let go of the idea that you need to go back to how things were. We can never go back, but we can keep moving forward.
  • Understand that there will be a recovery period. This recovery period may include relearning skills, catching up on missed work, financial recovery, academic catch-up for many children, and learning how to function differently in various social settings.
  • Make healthy changes at a pace that works for you. Although your gym may be open again, do not expect yourself to suddenly begin going there every day. Aim for 1-2 days at the gym each week to start with. Develop a healthy eating plan that allows for some flexibility. Plan for how you will cope with setbacks so that you do not give up.
  • Challenge yourself to find new ways to have fun and connect with others. Maybe you cannot go to a concert or sports game with your friends. It’s likely that your disappointment is due to missing out on these special moments to connect with friends. Talk to your friends about other ways that you can connect and find new activities to engage in.
  • Practice self-compassion. When something stressful happens, our initial response is often sadness or anxiety. It’s human nature to think and analyze, and this includes thinking about our reactions to our own emotions. This judgment of emotion can be even more painful than the initial emotional response. If you find yourself judging your emotions, work toward increasing your self-compassion.
  • Embrace technology to a degree, but be selective about virtual experiences. Don’t force yourself to accept the virtual version of your favorite activity if it leaves you feeling dissatisfied and longing for the real thing. Instead, seek other means of fulfillment including solitary and small group activities. As much as possible, get out from behind the screen and find activities that bring joy and rejuvenation.
  • If you consistently feel unhappy about the mismatch between your expectations and reality, consider professional counseling. Through counseling, you can work to develop specific coping skills that are tailored to your unique needs.

This article was originally published in Waco Today.