We don’t always get to choose our life circumstances. All too often, disruptive circumstances—like COVID-19—are thrust upon us with no advance warning. Our response to these disruptors can shed light on the degree of control we believe we have over our lives, including our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, actions, and outcomes. 

Some of us allow our lives to be almost fully driven by external circumstances. In the psychology world, this is referred to as having an external locus of control. Those who fall in this camp often feel as though they’re at the mercy of their circumstances and are inclined to view any challenging circumstance, like the current pandemic, as an obstacle over which they have little to no control. 

By contrast, those with an internal locus of control lean towards optimism, tend to be more nimble, and are generally better equipped to manage their lives in the midst of disruptive circumstances. They can acknowledge the impact of COVID-19, as well as the shelter-in-place mandates, school closures, and food shortages, without forgetting that they still control what matters most—their mindset.

By making simple mindset shifts, even those who struggle to be optimistic in these uncertain times can begin to find hope and regain an internal sense of control. 

Step Back & Take a Neutral Stance

Take a mental step back. Or two. Or as many as necessary to remove emotion and bias so that you can view the pandemic as a neutral circumstance. From this stance, you can observe your life objectively. This exercise is best understood in the context of the well-known half-full vs. half-empty glass concept. If you present the same half-full glass of water to a group of people, some will perceive it to be half empty while others will perceive it to be half full. But the half-full glass itself is actually neutral. We can attach whatever meaning we want to the glass and can deliberately choose to be optimistic (e.g., half-full and not half-empty), even in the midst of a pandemic.

Peel Back the Layers of Your Mindset to Uncover Your Thoughts

There’s a direct correlation between the meaning we attach to any circumstance and our thoughts. If you’re feeling like the glass is half empty, it’s likely because you’re thinking some not-so-positive thoughts. So, if you’d rather view the glass as half-full, start by getting a handle on your thoughts.  

Thought analysis requires hyper-awareness and can feel challenging and unnatural at first. So, instead of jumping directly to your thoughts, try slowly peeling back the layers of your mindset one at a time, starting with your behaviors, then your feelings, and last your thoughts. 

Try this quick exercise. Divide a sheet of paper into four equal parts and then write down answers to each of the following questions in three of the quadrants:

  • Behavior. What negative behaviors are you displaying? 
  • Feelings. What emotions do you experience when you behave in these ways? 
  • Thoughts. Can you link your behaviors and feelings to specific thoughts? If you struggle doing this, imagine that you are a friend or stranger who is reading what you just wrote and then ask: what thoughts would someone with those behaviors and feelings be thinking? what story must that person be telling himself or herself?

For example, if you wrote down that your behavior (lashing out at your family) is triggered by your intense feelings (of overwhelm), then your internal thoughts might be that you have too much on your plate, that you’re a failure for not being able to manage your stress and be the superhero everyone expects, or that others will be disappointed if you say no or ask for help. 

Generate New Thoughts & Make Them Stick

For each negative thought you wrote down, write a corresponding positive thought in the remaining space on your paper. So, for the example just given above, you could write these positive thoughts:

  • I am human and all humans have limits.
  • I have the power and courage to put boundaries in place to protect my sanity.
  • I can let go of pre-pandemic expectations and create new expectations that align with my current reality. 

To help make these thoughts stick, write them in a journal daily or simply read them while you brush your teeth. Another option is to create a mantra, i.e., a short saying that can help you quickly generate optimism and feel less overwhelmed (e.g., “I deserve and command peace in my life.”) and post it on your bathroom mirror or other place where you can’t help but see it throughout your day.

By committing to mindset work on a consistent basis, you can take hold of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and begin to feel more optimistic and in control of your outcomes, even in the midst of a pandemic or other disruptive circumstances.