My first thought was: “I am a failure.”

At the start of staying home for the foreseeable future, I challenged myself to do yoga every day for 30 days. My world was changing around me, I was grieving and navigating trauma… but I kept one promise to myself each day.

I did my daily yoga for 19 days.

On day 20, my husband and I drank boxed wine, watched a terrible movie, and laughed our asses off…forgetting for the faintest of moments about coronavirus and definitely forgetting about yoga.

I woke up the next morning and my first thought was not of the mild hangover, the water I should definitely drink as a result, or the gratitude of waking up one day closer to the other side of this uncertain time.

It rang in my ears: I am a failure.

I know I'm not alone in feeling this right now.

This pervasive shame about failing to live your "best quarantine life" is EVERYWHERE on my feed right now: An exhausted mother asking for advice on how to entertain a 4-year-old so she can work from home, an academic who despite having “more time” can’t seem to focus on reading dense prose, a student struggling to find motivation in online learning.

And yet while I self-shame myself, I think all of these people are amazing humans with so many things that make them worthy, lovable, and successful. At the very least, they are doing the best they can given the circumstances.

It could be that my reference point for "success" and "failure" (given the circumstances) extends grace to others I haven’t allowed myself. Or, it could be that in general, as humans we are terrible at picking accurate, helpful reference points.

This is illustrated by a fascinating study on Olympic medalists. Research shows that of those that won medals, the silver medal winners were the least happy. Why: The psychologists hypothesized that silver medal winners compared themselves to gold medal winners and felt they came up short. Conversely, bronze medal winners compare themselves to people who didn’t win a medal at all.

For silver medalists, the reference point was less than gold. For bronze medalists, the reference point was more than nothing.

This study also found that how people respond is often shaped by their perception of “what might have been” and if it's better or worse than where they are now. In our case, "what might have been" looks entirely different from our current reality.

So, what if we let ourselves shift our reference points?

Many folks, myself included, found comfort recently in a tweet by Neil Webb which reads: “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”

That validation inspired over 100,000 retweets, and it created a collective sense of relief as we shifted our reference point.

People realized they shouldn’t be using gold medal standards or "what might have been" typical for working from home to judge this unprecedented situation.

This is a team sport, and there are no individual medals in having the cleanest closet, the best remotely educated children, the most walked dog, the un-layoff-able career.

If we're isolating at home, what we do with this time is irrelevant. The real prize is what our staying home can do for our healthcare workers, our most vulnerable folks, and those without the privilege to stay home.

Let’s work on letting go of this guilt. This is not normal so your reference point for success or failure shouldn’t be either.

Let’s work on letting go of this guilt. This is not normal so your reference point for success or failure shouldn’t be either.
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A version of this article originally appeared on Medium. You can read more from Ashley Cleland here.


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