Author E.J. Stevens got really into gardening last summer.
A year later, not so much.
“I have zero patience for it,” she said. “It was comforting at the time. Now it just feels like work. And it includes dirt and bugs. No idea why it was so essential during lockdown.”
Even though she’s still staying at home — Stevens has asthma, her father is immunocompromised and their Maine town is swarming with tourists — mentally, things have shifted.
And she’s not alone. For many, the parts of our lives that once brought comfort, vitality and peace in the depths of the pandemic may now be collecting dust. Feelings of inspiration may be replaced with a lack of interest or even revulsion.
It’s all part of the process of moving forward, experts say.
Vaile Wright, a psychologist and the American Psychological Association’s senior director for health-care innovation, calls this period a time of reflection. After 16 months of panic, triage and stress, we’re curating our lives to see what serves us and acting accordingly, she said.
“It’s akin to acts of closure, trying to put a sort of physical end to what has been a really traumatic year-plus,” she said. “So things that may be coping skills — whether they’re healthy or unhealthy — that people may have picked up to survive the pandemic may not feel as necessary now.”
“We do think a lot about what we’ve lost over the year-plus,” Wright said. “But I think there have been gains as well that people don’t necessarily want to let go of. In that process of reflection, things that don’t serve us any longer get dropped — maybe not forever, but if they remind us of that time.”
Stevens is no exception. While disenchanted with gardening, she’s continuing to learn Korean, which she started doing during the pandemic.
“I only have enough energy for one hobby at the moment, so I’m focusing on the thing — language-learning — that brings me the most joy,” she said, adding that working on her Korean skills also allows her to interact with a community online.
For some, the habits that are sticking with them are ones that started out of pure necessity.
Sarah Szeflinski, who works in human resources in New York City, found that a precautionary coronavirus measure turned into a helpful habit.
“When my son came home from kindergarten and my husband came home from work they’d both shower before interacting or holding our youngest, who was a newborn,” she said. “What started as a safety precaution recommended by our pediatrician became part of the routine, and an easy way to transition to nighttime. It’s been more of an adjustment not doing it now.”
Wright compared this time of collective change to what she experienced during her own divorce. She stopped doing yoga because it was something she associated with her ex-husband. But after she remarried, and as the coronavirus set in, she found herself back in the habit.
“Sometimes we let things go because they may have painful memories,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we let them go forever.”
The same holds true for friendships, Wright said. “I think people want to think that relationships sort of are eternal and last forever, and that they’re supposed to, but the reality is relationships come and go all the time, just like activities do,” she said.
Some of that could be a shift in how we are setting boundaries, Wright said.
That’s certainly true for Ellen Chang, a Houston-based freelance business reporter who said she has started to weed out certain friendships.
“One of my friends said something a few months ago that really struck me. She mentioned that the people who were going to call, email or text you during 2020 already did it,” she said. “Even extroverts have their limit. We will only reach out so many times. … Going out is a risk and a luxury now, depending on where you live. We should all value each other more.”
Chang said she has found herself speaking up more, saying what she thinks in her personal and work lives, without apology. She has realized it’s especially important to speak up as an Asian American woman — that’s what she’s holding on to as she emerges from the pandemic.
“I’ve been trying for years to feel less guilty about not being a people-pleaser,” she said. “It’s been easier to say no during 2020 and 2021, because time seems more fluid.”
For women going through these periods of reevaluation, Wright advised that friendships are what is key — for yourself and others.
“Where women do benefit is from the friendships that we have that are typically richer and more intimate than what men have,” she said. “Men mostly rely on their partners.”
For women in heterosexual relationships, she suggested encouraging male partners to seek out support systems that are independent and complementary of their partner to help meet emotional needs. That can help women protect their own emotional well-being, she said, “so that we’re not everybody’s everything” coming out of the pandemic.