- Gena Chieco
2021 Reflections: Moving from Surviving to Thriving
Updated: Dec 31
I just saw a tweet that January 10th marked "the official start of 2022" and "last week was just onboarding," and I'm feeling it.
As we are--slowly and cautiously--entering this New Year, I have found myself reflecting on 2021. Like the prior year, 2021 was a dumpster fire in many ways and I remained hopeful. Silver linings surfaced in the coming together of communities, growing appreciation that humans are wired for connection (Zoom doesn’t cut it), returning to simpler things that spark joy, aligning with deeper professional purposes, appreciating our resiliency, honoring rest, and continuing reckonings/awakenings towards social justice. I remain in awe of teachers, the brave healthcare workers and other heroes of these times, and in the large-scale introspection and commitments to a better future percolating around us.
Below I share some thoughts under the theme of Moving from Surviving to Thriving. (Last year’s themes of understanding grief as an operating system, honoring our breath, and navigating change remain as relevant as ever).
2021 gave me much to be grateful for professionally. I continued to build my private client practice with inspiring clients and deeply purposeful work, along with continued partnerships with Chief as a Founding LA Guide and Paradox of Leadership as an Executive Coach. I had the pleasure of appearing as a guest on three podcasts, always a ton of fun! I am also excited to have joined forces with The Sabbatical Project, marrying my passion for sabbaticals with coaching; Voray, as an Executive Coach to their Chief of Staff Community; and Silver Branch Consulting and Gleow, as an Executive Coach. Please email me if you’d like to learn more about any aspects of my work (firstname.lastname@example.org).
On a personal note, this past year, I reveled in pandemic “firsts”, such as seeing DNice and Yo-Yo Ma at the Hollywood Bowl, reveling in museum visits, running two 5ks, and getting back to my favorite fitness classes. I took up gardening, brushed up on my Spanish, caught lots of LA sunsets, and dragged my flute out of storage and played for the first time in 20 years. Last but not least, I adopted a rescue kitten, Finn, who has brought me infinite joy and laughter and reminds me of the power of curiosity. I continue to feel that I am one of the truly lucky ones, for my family and friends have been safe, for the most part. At this point in the pandemic, sadly, we all know someone who has lost a loved one or someone who has been gravely ill.
Wishing you and yours a healthy and Happy New Year filled with rich moments of joy and peace.
Venice Beach, October 2021
2021 REFLECTIONS & 2022 INTENTIONS - From Surviving to Thriving
(5-10 min. read)
Don't think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter.
It's quiet, but the roots down there are riotous.
When the pandemic hit and we entered lockdown in March 2020 with the notion of quarantining for two weeks to “stop the spread” (rather comical in hindsight), I for one never imagined that we’d be entering the third calendar year amid a nationwide surge. Yet here we are… sigh.
When I reflect on 2021, there are elements of heaviness and exhaustion. Of trouble catching our breath. Of trying to stay optimist and energized after approaching two years in this liminal phase with no certainty as to when the pandemic will wane. Of knowing many who have been sick and who have lost loved ones. Of cancellations, disappointments, and frustrations. Of missing those we haven’t been able to see and worrying for children and the vulnerable among us. Of navigating near constant change.
It felt a lot like just trying to survive and like treading water.
In the early summer, it seemed we were about to reach the end of a figurative marathon with the vaccines and hopes of thriving again, only to be told with each subsequent surge, we’ve got more marathons to run, the end is unclear, keep going. There is a special kind of exhaustion in sensing the finish line is near, only for it to recede.
Fingers crossed that this spring will bring the milder endemic phase we’ve been hoping for!
Change, Uncertainty, and Coping Mechanisms
Change is hard. Whether we like to admit it or not, humans are wired to crave control, and when change is upon us, it often activates uncomfortable patterns or feelings. Even when we are excited about a change, such as a new job or a move, there are parts of us that freak out and feel discombobulated.
It’s no surprise then that the pandemic and all of the related changes and uncertainty have caused many to spiral as we have been thrust into this extended phase of uncertainty. Stress related to uncertainty activates coping mechanisms that may have helped us survive when we were younger, yet may no longer serve us as adults. These coping mechanisms range from benign tactics like cleaning, organizing, and baking (this is why making banana bread was all the rage), to more destructive measures of numbing and distracting, like workaholism and substance abuse.
When we are moving through a stressful event, we rely on these coping mechanisms to compartmentalize, distract, numb, and even dissociate to get through it. Psychologist Ann Masten discusses the ways we attempt to combat stress through our “[s[urge capacity… a collection of adaptive systems—emotional, intellectual, and physical—that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations.”
Reliance on coping mechanisms to help get us through a stressful event are adapted for short-term use only; long-term use depletes our surge capacity, requiring a break to recharge. Yet, when we are in a prolonged crisis, it is hard to come by breaks to recharge.
A Prolonged Stress Cycle
All of the emotional undercurrents and impacts of stress are stored in our body, ready to be released once we are out of the critical fight or flight period. The challenge with the pandemic is that we have been in a prolonged fight or flight period with no immediate end in sight.
Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, discuss the impacts of a prolonged stress cycle in Burnout, The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle: "Your body is stuck in the middle of the stress response. Just telling yourself, “You’re safe now; calm down,” doesn’t help... [and] addressing the cause of the stress doesn't mean you've addressed the stress itself. Your body is soaked in stress juice, just waiting for some cue that you are now safe from the potential threat and can relax into celebration." Otherwise, the stress cycle and its taxing forces continue.
Burnout, recognized by the World Health Organization in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, is characterized as a form of job-related stress that has not been successfully managed and takes a toll on our emotional and physical health. The prevalent grind culture is a recipe for burnout.
The Mayo Clinic has a list of symptoms and causes, which can be revelatory for those not feeling like themselves yet confused as to why. Possible causes include lack of control, poor work-life balance, unclear job expectations, and dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Common symptoms include feelings of energy depletion, cynicism about one’s job, irritability or impatience with co-workers, and reduced professional efficacy. (Sound familiar?)
The trouble with burnout is that we often do not realize we are suffering from it until it’s too late and we’re fully burned out, suffering adverse health effects. This is in part because high achievers, who are often hit hardest by burnout, do not think that they will ever succumb to burnout and do not understand the causes or how to spot the symptoms. Some may also feel a sense of weakness or failure in needing to ask for help or to slow down.
Burnout has reached epidemic proportions in the pandemic and is a significant factor in the Great Resignation, for the things we used to be able to do to offset burnout, such as human connection, are harder to do in a global pandemic. Pre-pandemic, our lives tended to be more varied, and as we moved to working from home and our lives became more insular, the impacts of work could be felt more intensely with less outlets to restore ourselves. In addition, workaholism is both normalized and a coping mechanism for stress, leading to many people putting in longer hours than usual.
In his spring 2021 piece, There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing, Adam Grant writes—
At first, I didn’t recognize the symptoms that we all had in common. Friends mentioned that they were having trouble concentrating. Colleagues reported that even with vaccines on the horizon, they weren’t excited about 2021. A
family member was staying up late to watch “National Treasure” again even though she knows the movie by heart. And instead of bouncing out of bed at
6 a.m., I was lying there until 7, playing Words with Friends. It wasn’t burnout
— we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just
felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing. Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.
Similar to burnout, languishing has a kind of frog boiling effect in that you may not notice immediately that your sense of excitement is muted, or you may not catch yourself isolating and spending less time doing things that spark joy. And when you do not accept your own suffering, you will not seek help or do much to try to help yourself. There’s a kind of slow decline into languishing that may not be perceptible until it’s fully formed.
The concept of languishing went viral for it so aptly captures what many of us felt yet did not have the words for. There is such power and validation in knowing we are not alone in what we are suffering and in putting our experiences to words.
Pandemic Flux Syndrome
With the summer 2021 came visions of a return to the things we love about this special time of year—July 4th celebrations, vacations, and relaxation. Yet, as Amy Cuddy and JillEllyn Riley wrote in Why This Stage of the Pandemic Makes Us So Anxious, “Many people [we]re experiencing a starkly different set of feelings—blunted emotions, spikes in anxiety and depression, and a desire to drastically change something about their lives.” They coined the phrase “pandemic flux syndrome” to capture this phenomenon. After we had been fearful of each other for months as virus transmitters, it was not that surprising that a return to social activities would bring some anxiety!
In her interview with Brené Brown on the Dare to Lead podcast, Amy Cuddey said, “It was very clear that there was not going to be a victory day, a day when we all celebrated in the streets together and said, ‘Oh, it’s over.’ We’re not going to have that day, and that is really hard for us and understandably, that’s a lot of uncertainty and that’s why we ended up calling it ‘pandemic flux syndrome,’ because this is like constant flux that we’ve been in for now, [since early 2020].”
It is only when a stressful event ends that we can finally experience a letting go or coming down, in which we can fully process the stressful event, repair, and move forward. This has been referred to as "The Let Down Effect" by Dr. Marc Schoen.
You may recall times in your life when a stressful event has ended and you think you’ll feel fabulous, only to be utterly exhausted. Perhaps you finally took a vacation, only to get sick. Or finished exams, only to want to melt into the couch. I personally will never forget feeling like a zombie after the 2008 presidential campaign, ecstatic for the victory yet fully devoid of energy after weeks of running on vapors.
Each time a covid surge ends, many of us expect to feel euphoric with a return to social activities, yet instead, we may experience increased anxiety, fatigue, and malaise. This is in part related to a coming down from months of vigilance; just when we think we finally have a minute to catch our breath, all of that stress we had been storing in our bodies is released.
Fortunately, once the coming down period concludes, which can be relatively brief, we then can feel restored and more vibrant again. This is where resilience lies—we can bounce back relatively quickly.
I took a one-week staycation for the holidays (for the first time in my life!) and naively thought I would feel refreshed and energized after a day or two. It took me the full week of restoration to begin to feel more vibrant again, mainly due to this letting down phenomenon.
Ending the Stress Cycle
Given that this pandemic and other existential crises will continue for the foreseeable future, how can we break the stress cycle and prevent burnout? The key is to kind of trick our bodies into thinking we are safe to complete the stress cycle, even while we are in a prolonged and stressful state.
The Nagoskis recommend—
1) 20-60 minutes/day of *any* physical activity: run, walk, dance as though no one is watching;
2) deep breathing to down regulate the stress response;
3) positive social interaction (casual and friendly, even a hello to a stranger can do it);
5) affection (namely, a six-second kiss or a 20-second hug;
6) a "Big Ole Cry" (letting the tears flow has an effect like a rainbow after a rainstorm); and
7) creative expression.
If you add these relatively small steps into your routine, even just a few minutes a day, you will see a definitive boost in well-being. I for example find just sitting outside for a few minutes at a time, breathing in fresh air, boosts my energy.
How to Move from Surviving to Thriving – Reclaiming our Inner Energy
We all hold the possibility for infinite energy, as hard as it may be to believe. You may recall times in your life when you felt a sense of a firehose of energy coursing through you. That source is always within you, like a pilot light. The challenge is that the pandemic and other stressors decrease our energy and dim our light.
We need to be intentional about boosting our energy, like recharging a battery or refilling a tank. And the conundrum is that when we are exhausted, we do not feel like we have the energy for anything. Yet, it is only by exerting a little energy, for example taking a walk outside, that we can increase our energy exponentially. When we begin to understand that we need to be refueled, we can become more mindful and intentional about bringing energy boosters into our lives and removing the things that drain us. Some too have found treasures within the pandemic, such as enjoying WFH and spending more time with family, and these are things that are important to carry forward.
Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time is a great piece on this topic in HBR. There is also a helpful quick quiz linked to it, Are You Headed for an Energy Crisis?, that can give you insights into ways to boost your energy and things that may be draining your energy.
Seizing Joy When We Can
One of the main ingredients of lasting happiness or fulfillment is joy. Joy is intricately linked with gratitude. Joy is what energizes us and brings us home to ourselves. Cultivating joy is a practice. We need to be intentional about giving joy a prominent seat at the table of our lives. When we reflect on the mosaic of experiences that we are most grateful for in life, joy is always there. Joy feels light, effortless, peaceful, energizing, and heart-opening. Joy surfaces like effervescent bubbles for us to seize in the moment; if we are not present, we may miss it.
To develop a relationship with joy, we need to carve out space to be present, space to invite in playfulness and fun, space to dance with joy and know we deserve it. We then come to trust that we can rejoice while facing tough times, that joy and pain, laughter and tears, highs and lows, all ebb and flow.
Oprah often says, "Joy is our birthright." What were you doing the last time you felt a sense of wonder or awe, perhaps touched by nature, the arts, or a new experience? When did you last feel your heart warmed, witnessing a smile, an act of kindness, something that gave you hope in humanity? When did you last feel a childlike sense of playfulness, fun, or imagination? When did you last get so absorbed in something that you lost track of time? Are there baby steps you can take to bring more joy into your life?
Claiming Rest as Productive
Rest and self-care are productive. Period. Full stop.
I used to have Type A tendences, which I wore as a badge of honor, not realizing this spectrum of behaviors is unhealthy and linked with heart disease. Type A is characterized by impatience, competitiveness, drive, perfectionism, being continuously stressed out, and an unhealthy dependence on external rewards. Type As are excellent at achieving goals and tend to excel in the workplace. It’s an interesting mix of toxic yet celebrated. I had a slew of demanding roles in my prior career as a lawyer. I thought I thrived on the adrenaline and the pressure; when things slowed down at work and the adrenaline faded, I felt bored and listless. The truth is, I was often a walking stress case with unrelenting standards. Outside of work, I was similarly go go go. I recall a friend once asked me, “Do you ever just... sit still?” If a weekend day passed without accomplishing something “productive,” an inner critic's voice would say, “I didn’t get anything done.” I would literally say that to myself over and over, without the mindfulness to know these thoughts were detrimental.
What I actually needed was time dedicated solely to myself and to slow down, which I achieved through my 2018 sabbatical. When I abandoned my Type A tendencies and switched careers, I consciously reframed my thinking. I began to see rest, exercise, creative pursuits, taking walks, listening to podcasts, and even naps as productive (not lazy!). I listened to what I needed and got off of the hamster wheel, seeing being a workaholic as a negative for me, knowing I don’t need to grind myself into 15+ hour days to be “successful.”
I finally understood the true meaning of success for me, which is slowing down and honoring mind-body-heart-soul in some tangible way daily. I still sometimes have that old familiar voice that whispers, “I didn’t get anything done today,” and instead of feeling badly, I reflect on whatever I did that day, allow myself a sense of accomplishment, and remind myself that rest is productive too.
I first read Anne Lamott's Berkeley commencement address when it was published in 2003, and it resonated so deeply that it brought me to tears. Although I had graduated college only four years earlier, I already felt a tug of war between societal norms and expectations and living a life true to me. Unpacking storage boxes recently, I discovered I had been carrying the printout of it with me for all of these years. Re-reading it today, I no longer feel grief, for I am finally aligned in my personal and professional life with my values. It hasn't always been easy, but I stopped chasing the mechanical rabbit in order to nurture my spirit, and embraced rest as productive, and I have never felt more fulfilled.
Rest is one of the most potent ways to refuel our energy tanks. Naps, slowing down, and meditation all soothe our nervous systems and diffuse the harmful impacts of stress. We might view rest as a reward only if we get all of our work done, yet it’s imperative to add elements of rest to our days, just as we would commit to an important task at work, and set firm boundaries around it to ensure that we can recharge each day.
Learning our Self-Care Languages
I used to think that self-care was silly and about lighting candles and putting on face masks. I have since come to appreciate the deeper meaning behind it.
When we honor self-care in our lives, we model to ourselves compassion and kindness, and that we value our health and well-being. Thus, learning to prioritize our days with blocks of unstructured time and morning and/or evening rituals dedicated to self-care and rest is a path to living aligned with our values and to building a relationship with self, arguably the most sacred relationship of our lifetime.
We each have our own self-care language, for what gives us a sense of being cared for and nurtured is unique. Just as each plant has different needs for sunlight, water, and fertilizer, we too have unique needs to thrive. If you don’t have an idea of your own, you could imagine if a loved one surprised you by saying, I cleared your calendar, and filled your day with XYZ. What would make you feel most loved and excited? It could be a bath, reading, taking a walk, napping, doing something creative, treating yourself to flowers or a special meal, spending time in nature, catching up with a favorite friend, seeing a matinee, or watching a favorite show. Sometimes self-care can feel uncomfortable at first and evoke guilt, for many of us are not shown models of taking care of ourselves first. The common model is people-pleasing and being there for everyone else. Sometimes what we really need is to vent with a good listener, knowing what we are going through is tough, no matter if others have it harder than us. Sometimes we just need to lie in the fetal position for a while.
By stepping into a strong relationship with self-care, you will ultimately best serve yourself and others. The more we plant these seeds of self-care, the greater we will feel, overall, overall, and the more we will inspire others to do the same.
All of the above concepts and below resources illuminate a path towards naming and honoring the full spectrum of what we have been experiencing. By understanding burnout and languishing, along with ways to offset these dynamics, we can begin to cultivate a sense of durable well-being, better energy, and movement from surviving towards thriving. These concepts, while especially relevant today, are timeless.
Many have demanding jobs and demands at home/caretaking, so some of these concepts may seem like a privilege, out of touch, or pie in the sky. Recognizing time is our most precious resource and can be scarce due to these competing demands, it's all about baby steps - sometimes even mindfulness without any habit changes can lead to significant improvements in well-being. Also, I hope you find these concepts interesting, and even if they do not resonate personally, they can shed light on what loved ones and peers may be going through.
Brené Brown with the Nagoskis on Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle, Unlocking Us Podcast
Burnout, The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski, PhD & Amelia Nagoski, DMA
Mayo Clinic on Burnout: Causes, Symptoms, & Diagnostics
Your Burnout Is Unique. Your Recovery Will Be, Too, HBR.
Languishing + Pandemic Flux Syndrome
Adam Grant TED Talk on Languishing
Why this stage of the pandemic makes us so anxious, WaPo, By Amy Cuddy and JillEllyn Riley
Brené Brown with Amy Cuddy on Pandemic Flux Syndrome, Dare to Lead podcast
OVERWHELM: Is our exhaustion a sign that we’re CareTicking time bombs? We Can Do Hard Things Podcast with Glennon Doyle
How to Lead When Your Team Is Exhausted — and You Are, Too, HBR
Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful
Onbeing.org, Joy is a Human Birthright - hub for joy
FUN: What the hell is it and why do we need it? We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle
What I Know for Sure: Joy and Resilience Oprah Super Soul Podcast
The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing. Here’s How to Get There
Khalil Gibran poem on Joy and Sorrow
The Lisa Congdon Sessions with Jonathan Fields, What is Your Unique Impulse for Work that Brings you Alive
Let us Commence, Anne Lamott, 2003
Terri Cole - Crushing Codependency Myths Mark Groves Podcast
Other Resources: https://www.genachieco.com/resources
Finn, five months old