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8 April 2020

A Silver Lining to COVID-19: An End to Pretending

Written by
Chantal Laurie Below

On Friday, March 13, our district announced school closures, starting the upcoming Monday, due to the increased risk of coronavirus. So, I spent the weekend noting recommendations on Instagram for the Epic app and Khan Academy and surveying sample daily homeschool schedules from friends. I tailored our schedule for my three kids, posted copies around the house, and somewhat smugly fell asleep Sunday night. I had it under control.

At 9am Monday morning though, I felt genuine shock when a hand-sanitized, credentialed teacher didn’t show up ready to teach fractions, lead a Harry Potter read-a-loud, and awe my elementary age kids with origami skills. Wait, what? I was the homeschool teacher? Check, please.

Then, I felt terror. I had to start my coaching call at the exact moment my seven-year-old urgently needed to know what time it was, when I’d be back, when recess was, and how to spell ‘wrestling’. How would this work?

What’s become abundantly clear to me over the past few weeks is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work to pretend I’ll crank out work emails while my five-year old miraculously honors a 90-min academic block by practicing letters and doing another Melissa and Doug puzzle. That’s ridiculous. Pretending just leaves me in a state of distracted misery as I type nonsense on my keyboard and my kid whines ‘I’m bored’ on repeat.

What’s true though is that, pre-COVID-19, we all excelled at pretending. It’s like a certification we received to guarantee professional ascendance. We’d pretend the 60-minute commute didn’t infringe on our mental health, that a deadline actually mattered while an ailing mother reckoned with the final stages of Alzheimer’s, or that infertility treatments weren’t wreaking havoc on our bodies and stealing our focus. We’d pretend that shortness of breath Sunday nights didn’t correlate with our toxic work environment, that an exercise regimen would be put in place next week when life slowed down, or that a hidden dream of writing a novel was best left ignored. Many of us have spent decades becoming expert pretenders and while it’s eating us up inside, we think it’s the only option we have.

If we don’t pretend, we’ll be fired, seen as incompetent, spiral into self-pity, or deemed downright irresponsible.

But what if ending pretending means something altogether different?

I have a client who runs marketing at a mid-sized company. She traditionally sees emotions as belonging to the weekends and familial relationships, not weekly check-ins. But, with the in-person conferences and events her team hosts now on hold, personal emotions of worry and dread are emerging with the potential reality of layoffs.

‘Why are my people not pivoting creatively to re-imagine how they could contribute in this new world?’ She lamented, wanting them to hustle for job preservation and to relieve her deepest fear.

‘Have you told them their jobs could be at risk?’ I asked.

‘No,’ She said. ‘It would freak them out. They’d just spin out of control. It would distract them.’ She responded.

‘Might it be true that they are already spinning and distracted?’ I asked. She paused. ‘What if naming it could be the thing that grounds them? How might that be true?’ I wondered with her.

Fast forward, she stopped pretending. She stopped pretending that her people weren’t holding the same worry of job irrelevance and stopped pretending that emotions didn’t belong in conversation. In her next check-ins she named the hard truths, wondered how the new reality was affecting them, and began to brainstorm how their value could shift in this new era.

‘How did it go?’ I asked in our next coaching session. ‘They didn’t spin.’ She said matter-of-factly. ‘Actually, communication has been so much better since. It’s like we named the elephant in the room and since we know there’s no withholding, we don’t have to tip-toe around issues. We’ve all been so much more focused.’

There is the same COVID-19 elephant in all our rooms right now that represents illness, mortality, financial insecurity, loss, and loneliness, along with unexpected moments of beauty and resolve. For some of us and our colleagues, the elephant shows up in a cramped San Francisco apartment with a toddler screaming in the background of a make-shift home office. For others it’s in a Texan border town where empty nests have borderline adults unexpectedly home to roost who are mourning abandoned graduations.  It’s in a London townhouse of someone whose recent unemployment cues depression and addiction to boldly re-engage and, in the Hong Kong living room of a sister, sick with worry for her ER trained sister in Brooklyn. It’s in an Italian ICU, in a Lebanese flat, and in a two-bedroom New Zealand seaside home. No one can pretend this virus isn’t upending our world; what if we accept the challenge of ending pretending and see what emerges as leaders?

I’m not intending to be naïve about how hard it is to be honest with ourselves and others. Being honest about our desires and fears can have unwanted consequences: a career change can flop, revealing information about our private lives in the workplace can be taken advantage of, and a leave of absence to nurse a dying loved one can break our tender hearts. It promptly destroyed my delusion that Mary Poppins was en route. In this coronavirus era, it means that there is no ‘business as usual’ and residual trauma may be an unwelcome inhabitant in us all when we’re on the other side. But, ending pretending can also offer freedom, relief, and connection. It allows us to befriend the elephant instead of effortfully denying it. It can elevate our patience and compassion towards one another. It helps us gather real, complete information about ourselves and others and we can respond to that as leaders, parents, loved ones, and friends.

In a time when pretending requires so much effort, what might ending pretending mean for you and what might it open up?

For ideas on how you might experiment with ending pretending, read on:

  • Ask and Reveal. This article eloquently describes how ‘emotions need motion.’ If we pretend our sadness doesn’t exist, it erodes our insides. If we voice and experience it, it can move through us and lead to more focus and clarity. Leaders don’t need to pick up the mantle of therapist, they can simply ask, at the start of a meeting or check-in, ‘How am I and how are you really?’ to give emotions motion.
  • Be Real. In this podcast, Seth Godin asserts that sailors don’t get seasick. Sure, it might be a self-selective hobby for folks who don’t require Dramamine. Or, it might be that they don’t pretend the sea is still. They accept they aren’t on land and dramatically decrease seasickness. When leaders acknowledge that we are now at sea, metaphorical seasickness can perhaps be mitigated. This means reflecting on and communicating answers to these types of questions: Who do I want to be through this? What does success look like for weathering this storm? What new values do we want to live by organizationally? How have expectations shifted? What is no longer important? What should most be prioritized? How should we be caring for one another?
  • Practice Gratitude. We often pretend people don’t need words of affirmation – ‘They know they’re great!’ we tell ourselves – because we can’t handle the discomfort of intimacy in the moment of delivery. ‘It can be so awkward,’ clients say. But, gratitude builds grit and grace in teams. In this era of Zoom calls and social isolation, delivering gratitude generously is more important than ever. Who can you thank for their kindness and fortitude? Who deserves affirmation for how they are weathering the uncertainty? Who has made you feel seen, secure, or sane in these turbulent times? Reach out and let them know.

4 thoughts on “A Silver Lining to COVID-19: An End to Pretending”

  1. Trish says:

    Like letting my breath out. Didn’t realise I was holding it. Thank you 🙏🏽

  2. Zafer says:

    What a beautiful, deeply helpful set of ideas, Chantal! By calling out ‘pretending’ as a bucket, you help me see all the ways I have been filling it to the brim for so long. Thank you

  3. Akasha says:

    Chantal, thank you for helping me normalize and reduce the weight of this pretentious elephant. Interestingly, your ideas here have also helped me make more space for other unnamed elephants in other rooms.

    1. Chantal Laurie Below says:

      Thank YOU for giving me a window into how it resonated for you, Akasha. Fills me us.

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