As soon as he heard me call his name, his whole demeanor changed. His shoulders slumped a little. He started shaking his head. He pretty much knew what I was going to say. I had already said one of several often-repeated reminders to him many times that day. In fact, I said a rotation of them quite often every day.
“You gotta get focused, buddy.”
“You yelling across the room is distracting others.”
“The work is still due even if you don’t do it.”
“Please lower your volume.”
“Waste time now and you’re gonna want it later.”
He had just expressed how many assignments he had to finish to be caught up with the work he had been assigned for the week. Less than a minute later, he was back to socializing loudly with his friend.
It was obviously time for a talk to change the focus a bit. Rather than just issue another one of the many reminders, I pulled up a socially-distanced chair and asked a question.
“How do you feel right now?” It took some time, but I finally got him to answer the question literally, examining exactly how his physical body felt. All the words he used initially — “stressed,” “frustrated,” “disappointed,” “overwhelmed” — were manifesting in his body. He felt hot, nervous in his stomach. His muscles were clenched and his neck was tense.
So we talked about how the choices we make can manifest in how we feel. I asked him if how he was feeling was how he wanted to feel every day. No surprise, he said “no.” I explained that these feelings break down your health and your self-esteem. We are living in extraordinary times and we have to give ourselves some grace and courtesy.
We talked about how, with so many things outside of our control right now, we have to focus on what we can control. One thing he could control is how he spent his time at school. He could spend it in a way that left him feeling stressed and disappointed or he could spend it so that he was left feeling accomplished and relieved.
Establishing that mindset is easy. Following through with it and maintaining it is another matter. It means fighting obstacles and deep-seated bad habits that have become entwined in our personality. His obstacle was, after months of lockdown, his need for social interaction blocked his path to the productive day he had planned for himself. He was also grappling with the bad habit of being released from the daily routine of school for so long. Those were real issues. But they were issues he could control. They were issues that if he faced, he could change his whole mindset.
There are big changes going on and it can feel like big responses are needed, but that can become a hamster wheel of disappointment. You’ve got to set yourself up for little victories. Trying to fix it all and do it all is setting yourself up for failure. Being systematic and thoughtful about what you can get accomplished, while also being honest about how much willpower you have to face your issues, is how you create little victories.
Many of us are facing mountains of responsibility. Some of those mountains are actual size and some just appear larger than they are. We have real issues and, if we trust ourselves, we have choices that can be made about how to break down those issues to make them more manageable. Once we can see smaller steps to our end result, it takes some of the pressure off to perform. We can rack up these little victories and soon we’ve made big adjustments and accomplishments.
The world is a lot right now, and it’s not going to get anything closer to normal for a while. We all have to adjust to that. But life does go on. We can’t expect to feel and act the same, but we do have to live our lives.
We spend a lot of time making sure we follow the guidelines to avoid getting sick or getting others sick. We need to spend some time figuring out how to be safe and be ourselves and be mindful of the true toll this whole situation is taking on our mind, spirit and body. We need to seek out and recognize the little victories.
Like my student, we can’t change everything at once, but we can change one thing and move on from there.
— Mariel Blake is a Daily News columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.