Is pessimism starting to distort your outlook for the future? Beware the insidious COVID lens

I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but the prolonged abnormal state of the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic has started to get to our brains. If you’ve noticed a subtle shift in your outlook on life and diminishing dreams for the future over the past 2 months, you’re not alone. We’ve been fighting the good fight and trying our best to obey public health measures. We thought we were doing pretty well and hitting our stride with Zoom and isolation. We are hearing good news about increasing vaccine coverage. But the cracks in our resilience are starting to show. We’re starting to play with the dangerous idea of giving up on our dreams.

I was recently in session with an inspiring client. She has an impressive track record of landing big jobs and, prior to 2020, believed that she could achieve anything she put her mind to. A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s facing a hard choice between two cities. Her dreams live in one city. Her safety nets in the other. No clarity has come from the pros/cons lists. She’s leaning toward staying in the city where the lower cost of living will ease the pressure of finding a high-paying job. She’s thinking of leaving her city of dreams because it feels too ambitous now. Despite her flawless record of landing every ambitious job she’s ever aimed for.

Her struggle mirrors mine.  I’ve been living in New York City for four years. By moving to this city, I fulfilled one of my teenage dreams. I’ve managed to stick on and keep my feet on the ground here. But in the last couple of months, I’ve found myself thinking about moving away, settling for somewhere less challenging and lower risk. For no good reason – no extreme financial hardship – I’ve felt the passion for my big dreams dimming, and I’ve lost sight of why they mattered. My dreams seem too ambitious now. It feels like too much energy to chase them.

I’m seeing an eerily similar story emerge from my conversations with friends, clients and patients. Now a year in, our mindset has started to shift and there is an acquiescence to living safe and small. A pessimism in our view of the future and a resignation to living forever under our captor, COVID-19. It was with this client that I first became conscious of this. When she started reflecting on her uncharacteristic attraction to the safe and small option, she realized that her outlook on life had shifted because of months living in a society altered by COVID-19.

My client and I named this shift toward pessimism as the “COVID lens”. Bringing in metaphor as we often do in coaching, she stated that, if she were reading the book of her life, she would be devastated to read that her post-pandemic life had been shaped by the austerity and negativity of COVID-19.  In order to make decisions in COVID that she would be proud to read about in the book of her life, my client realized she needed to remove the COVID lens in order to see her choices through the perspective of opportunity and hope.

We have become conditioned to avoid all human activities in which we might breathe in the air that others exhale

Let’s briefly review our year spent in extraordinarily inhuman conditions. We have suffered deprivation of physical connection, of leisure, recreation, travel, hugs and kisses. We have become conditioned to avoid all human activities in which we might breathe in the air that others exhale. That air, it turns out, is vital and nourishing to the human spirit, and without it we wither. Our brains have settled into the Matrix of sweatpants and Zoom interactions. We have become resigned to shrinking possibility and small existance. To borrow a concept from a Canadian infectious diseases research group, this might be Stockholm Syndrome, or a coming to peace with our captor.   Our major cities – LA, New York – have become ghost towns. There’s little to look forward to.

Researchers in Britain are noting an increased sense of pessimism and gloom among young people, with loss of belief in their own agency, a sense of loss of control and increased anxiety about their future prospects. And there are real reasons to worry. Unemployment rates are at a record high. Millions of lives have been lost to the COVID-19 virus itself and through the cracks of our altered society, measured in deaths from suicide, overdose and neglected chronic disease. Mental health is declining. As a global community, we have less resources and options than we did a year ago. But in addition to the real limitations we face, this COVID lens is creating additional imagined limitations and letting fear drive our decisions. We’re starting to base big decisions – ones that will determine the course of the next decades of our life – on the limited opportunity that we currently see in the world because of COVID-19.

I’m already looking out among my patients and clients for signs of declining mental health, such as anxiety, difficulty sleeping, low motivation and hopelessness. These require urgent referral for medical intervention. In my coaching sessions, I’ll also be watching for signs of the less perceptible COVID lens which might be clouding my client’s view when they’re facing scenarios such as:

  • Considering giving up on a small business or advanced degree
  • Considering marriage or divorce
  • Worrying about plans to have a child
  • Harboring the belief that normal human activities like travel might never resume
  • Grieving the loss of a pre-COVID role or identity
  • Heightened imposter syndrome
  • Waning self-confidence

Are you wondering if you’ve started viewing your future through the COVID lens? Are you currently analyzing viability of a passion project or venture that you’ve been fighting to keep alive? A new business, a freelancing gig, a plan to go back to school, a dream to start a family, a dream to buy or build a new home? Are you finding yourself with less energy for that ambitious plan since the COVID-19 pandemic started? Are you finding yourself thinking about returning to a salaried job, forgoing the higher degree, remaining a renter or denying yourself the opportunity to grow your family?

To those who have come through one year of COVID-19 with their big dream still intact: Don’t give up now!

The pessimistic COVID lens may actually be getting in the way of your vision. To see if this is so, try out this exercise:

It is 2023 and the COVID-19 virus has become a manageable part of our lives with a regular vaccination schedule to contain outbreaks. There are no more lockdowns. Jobs in sectors hit by COVID have, with a few adjustments for our lessons learned, returned. Travel, concerts, parties, and weddings have resumed with the joie de vivre we once knew. You can choose how you work, how you exercise, what you do for fun and how you connect with family, friends and even strangers. Limitless opportunity. Spend a minute in this world.

Are you feeling it? Now, what do you dream for you and your family? Where do you see yourself in ten, five, two years? What stretch goals might you have motivation for? What do you imagine might be possible?

Do you notice your mind seeing more than it did when it was viewing the future through the COVID lens?

To those who have come through one year of COVID-19 with their big dream still intact: Don’t give up now! Go back to your budget, revisit your business plan. If you don’t absolutely have to shut up shop on your dream project, hold on for just a little while longer. Do you have another 6 months of gas in the tank? That is, finances and energy? Don’t make any decisions now. Wait to reassess your perspective in summer 2021, when the world’s situation has improved a bit and the light at the end of the tunnel has grown a bit brighter. COVID-19 has taken many things from us, but it doesn’t have to take away our option to live fearlessly.

Imagine your toes in the sand, the smell of coconut and the sea, the chatter of family around you, the warm sun enveloping you. When you’re lying on that beach, imagine what will feel possible. Capture that frame of mind when you’re approaching big decisions now. We’re on the cusp of exiting this nightmare together. There is so much to build, to enjoy, and to celebrate. Just hold on to your dreams a little while longer.