Note: I’d like to start by saying, first, we are all trying our best to make sense of this while trying to stay sane, support our families, and do the best we can for our students. Secondly, I am lucky and privileged to have a flexible team, my health, financial stability, and the time to even write a blog post during these times. Lastly, I do not have the answers or the “best practices” to aid in an unprecedentedly difficult global and traumatic pandemic. The following is simply an effort to offer one professional’s emotional roller coaster through the pandemic, my key learnings from recent articles, and some tangible practices that have benefited our team. My hope is that we can all normalize the roller coaster of feelings and find tangible ways to move through it together because we are in this together.
My roller coaster of emotions started off more like a runaway train. During our first week trying to work from home, I felt almost manic, bouncing off the walls coming up with four different to-do lists trying to be as productive as possible. I felt internal pressure to make “good use” of this extra time – I was going to make lemonade. A colleague later texted me a humorous screenshot graphic that read, “It’s okay to NOT be your most productive self during a f***ing global pandemic.” After laughing, I realized I was trying to numb myself through “productivity.” I naively thought I would write, webinar, cook, clean, check on students, exercise away the confusion and the loss. Once I was honest with myself, I realized being productive wasn’t going to help me feel better. I accepted that my “demonstrated impact” will look different.
The second week of shelter in place orders, my roller coaster hit an all-time low, almost as if it had come to a standstill. I felt hermit-like and directionless. Like many higher ed professionals, I chose a different source of numbing: research. A friend’s Facebook post called “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief” caught my eye. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Scott Berinato shares an interview with world grief expert David Kessler. Kessler reminds us that, “Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings….If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.”
As a counselor, I know the importance of acknowledging feelings, but in times of distress, it is hard to take your own advice. Still, we need to own feelings and help our students move through their feelings in a similar way. To practice what I preach, I chose to journal all the feelings on the roller coaster, and yes, I have feelings about my feelings, they include:
- Guilt – I can’t believe I am going to sit here while others are helping. I feel bad for just wanting to go to brunch.
- Helplessness – I am not doing enough to help. I can’t help. I can just sit here.
- Hope – We will get through this. This too shall pass. The world is coming together in a time of crisis!
- Sadness – All those students, I am so disappointed with all those opportunities they can’t participate in anymore.
- Loss – I feel like there is nothing to look forward to.
- Optimism – But look at all the cool innovation and creativity and leadership occurring!
- Anger – Our president is a fool and I’m sick of it.
- Gratitude – I am grateful for my partner, my job, my family, my health, the things that matter most are coming forward.
- Drive – I want to do something, fix something, write something and I want to help others.
- Empty – What am I even waking up for tomorrow? I have no feelings I feel indifferent.
- Exhaustion – I am not used to these many feelings in one day – this is too much. I’m tired.
I feel heavy.
Kessler normalized my heaviness as grief, and for that I am grateful. Kessler’s work on grief also provides a way to move forward, he writes, “I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times…I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over” (Berinato, March 23, 2020).
This is where I think we can actually do something, where my roller coaster started to pick up energy again. We can ride along together and dig deep. We are helpers, thinkers, educators, and listeners – we can help our teams, our families, and our students make meaning of this life-changing situation. We must offer space for them to grieve, process, accept, and make meaning, and in order to help them through this process, we must do it ourselves – together.
I am grateful to work with professionals who are on this roller coaster with me. I work with a team of leaders at the Sigma Chi Leadership Institute and I am proud of the creative thinking, reflection traditions, and intentional practices we are implementing to stay balanced and to make meaning. In a recent “Reflection Song” team discussion, I started to find meaning for myself. Perhaps this opportunity to pause and reflect will teach me to appreciate the small things in my personal life and to be more intentional with my time professionally. Maybe I’ll finally practice that “we are human beings, not human doings.” Maybe I will change for the better.
I continue to make meaning through the following practices, and offer these to other teams:
- “Candle Pass.” Many of you may have had the pleasure of being in a fraternity or sorority. Working for a leadership institute associated with the international headquarters has offered our team (of Sigma Chi and non-Sigma Chi members) the opportunity each weekly staff meeting to engage in a candle pass. There is often a prompt and each member gets the chance to share their honest truth, to inspire others, or to offer gratitude. We’ve been practicing this for years, but during this crisis, this tradition has grounded our team and allowed us to find meaning.
- “Reflection Song.” During our weekly team meeting, a volunteer starts the meeting with a chosen reflection song and a reflection question. After we listen, the four of us share how the song resonates with us and spend time practicing vulnerability and active listening. It serves not only as a relationship builder but also as a centering exercise to help us breathe and be more rooted in the work that matters. The whole exercise usually only takes 10 minutes and has been incredibly impactful. For examples of songs see the our Spotify Playlist.
- “Cawfee Tawlk.” Taken from the SNL sketch, our Executive Director shares on TEAMS a 2-minute morning video with his cup of coffee about different topics each morning. The Cawfee Tawlk often includes some inspiration, some personal sharing, and a question or challenge to the group. For example, after Easter, he asked us “what is your favorite recipe for leftovers” or “how are you going to make your weekend look different than your workweek” or “who was your favorite educator and why?” This keeps us connected both personally and professionally and has become a favorite part of my morning routine. After I get my coffee, I get excited to watch the short clip and see what the question of the day is – we all respond as we can and engage in friendship.
- Literary Exercises. You may not know this, but Sigma Chi was founded as a literary society, so a part of the history and ritual is doing literary exercises. Someone shares a passage, poem, article, or video and leads a guided discussion about it. As we all try to make sense and find meaning, this practice has been incredibly useful during the pandemic. For examples see “The Man in the Arena“, Brene Brown’s Manifesto, and this Medium Article.
- Themed Musical Happy Hours. Zoom meeting fatigue and happy hour fatigue might be settling in for some, but we keep it interesting by rotating through hosted themed happy hours. This Friday, our team will join for a “Guilty Pleasures” Happy Hour using a playlist curated with each member’s guilty pleasure song. As each song plays, others will take turns guessing who recommended the track. Others included Disney, Disco, Hewey and the Blowfish, and Whitney Houston happy hours.
- Clearing. In a past life, I worked retail for lululemon. The company often associated with overpriced yoga pants, helped pay for grad school, but also provided me with several leadership programs and life lessons. The company practices something called a “clearing” which we’ve adopted on our team. Before a shift begins, the manager would ask “who has something they’d like to clear” and a volunteer would take the opportunity to clear something off their chest that would hold them back from being present. It also offers an opportunity to state what you need. For example, “15 minutes before this call, I heard that my aunt might have a fever and I’m nervous about her health. I will be present, but if I get a phone call from her, I need your patience as I check in with her if that is okay.” This practice encourages mindfulness, honesty, and trust in our team while also allowing us to be present to each others needs and continue with our work.
- Small Wins. Before the pandemic we would celebrate big wins, like when the board approves an initiative, accomplishing major training, positive feedback from students, etc. But these days we have begun also celebrating the little things and acknowledging that our productivity has shifted, and we can still motivate each other to move projects forward and celebrate when we do so.
As we learn to accept the highs and lows of this roller coaster ride, I hope we can move through our feelings, find meaning, and support our communities. I hope that in some small way these ideas have offered some clarity, validation, compassion, and hope to you and yours.