How do you lead a normal life when the world around you is completely abnormal at the moment? How do you learn to thrive in this challenging Coronavirus environment when people around you are panicking, and nothing looks like it did just a few weeks ago?
A renowned Romanian-Israeli psychologist holds the secret to finding your “islands of normalcy.”
Even when times are good, many of us tend to focus on the negative. The phenomenon is so prevalent that psychologists have even coined a term for it – negativity bias.
We’ve all succumbed to it. We focus not on the 100 drivers who shared the road responsibly with us, but on the one driver who cut us off. We’re much more likely to notice when our child is misbehaving than when she is playing nicely. We complain about the one cashier who was rude to us, while overlooking the five previous cashiers who were pleasant.
If we more naturally notice the negative when times are good, then during a time of great stress, it takes an even more determined effort to focus on the positive. But does it make sense to focus on the positive right now when half the world is shut down by a pandemic? Do we gain anything by ignoring what is wrong in a Pollyanna attempt to see the world through rose-colored glasses?
Find the Normal by Focusing on the Normal
The truth is that dwelling on what’s going wrong during this pandemic isn’t going to help you much. Failing to notice the positive will keep you stressed and prevent you from moving forward to accomplish what you can in these challenging times.
I’ve already written about how important it is to deliberately choose your attitude to build your resilience, and that it is possible to do so. In previous articles, I’ve discussed cultivating gratitude, asking yourself poignant questions, and reaching out to others as ways to avoid dwelling on the negative. Additionally, there's a powerful approach available to you that will help you maximize your potential and make the most of whatever opportunities exist even as the world around you panics.
To function at your highest potential, you must find your “islands of normalcy.”
I was fortunate to work for the late Professor Reuven Feuerstein about a decade ago. Born in Romania and escaping from the Holocaust to Israel, Feuerstein was a world-renowned psychologist who had studied with Piaget, and then developed theories of maximizing human potential that were decades ahead of their time and remain cutting-edge even today.
Long before the idea of neuroplasticity had become mainstream among neuroscientists, Feuerstein proposed that people were capable of massive change if only given the right tools. Over his career, he worked with thousands of children and adults with significant cognitive challenges, assessing their potential rather than their current state, and enabling them to improve and succeed far beyond what anyone else hoped or believed was possible.
Feuerstein’s approach to improving cognitive functioning is beyond the scope of this article (you can read more about the Feuerstein method here, and I’ll be covering how you can use the ideas behind his method to improve your own brain power in a future article). For our purposes right now, as we grapple with the unique challenges of a worldwide pandemic, Professor Feuerstein’s approach can help you succeed and even thrive in the face of these challenges.
Professor Feuerstein often spoke of discovering a person’s “islands of normalcy.” When working with an autistic or Down Syndrome child, for example, he did not start by looking at what they couldn’t do or how far they fell below the norm. Instead, he looked for islands of normalcy – what could this child do well?
This is a critical point – by starting with what the child could do well, Feuerstein then expanded outward from those islands of normalcy to build the child’s abilities. If the child could learn one word, then the process of learning that one word could be used to build another word, and another.
As Professor Feuerstein put it, “If you are not prepared to look at your pupils’ strengths, don’t touch their weaknesses.” Indeed, this was the secret to his phenomenal success. Building upon a person’s strengths will create exponentially more progress than simply continuing to dwell on their weaknesses.
How to Thrive By Finding Your Own Islands of Normalcy
Just as this is true of cognitive development, it is true of making the most out of a difficult life situation. Right now, you will accomplish far more and experience far less stress if you simply start focusing on your islands of normalcy.
Rather than focus on what isn’t going well or what you can’t do right now, focus on what still is working. If you have your family around you and you focus on that, then you can begin to build that “island of normalcy” by looking at what you and your family are capable of accomplishing together to make your lives as good as they can be right now.
If you are experiencing family tension because everyone’s home, then start focusing on those few times when the family is getting along and things are going smoothly – notice when that happens and why, and then see if you can replicate and expand those conditions to create more of those moments.
If you are financially challenged, notice any resources you may have, any potential sources of credit, and any potential sources of income. What are your skills? Are there new ways you could employ the skills you already have in this changed environment?
You may not come up with all the answers. But you are far more likely to improve your situation by thinking this way – by noticing and then expanding your islands of normalcy – then you are by continuing to focus on your limitations.
An island of normalcy need not be big or seem particularly significant. Sometimes a very small island of normalcy can become the foundation for big gains – Professor Feuerstein could start with a student’s ability to learn one word and build on that to create an entire vocabulary.
Even if the resources and the positives in your life seem tiny right now, start with them, no matter how small they are, and see how much you can build from them. Even in the most challenging situation, you have resources. You have opportunities. The more you notice them and work with them, the bigger they’ll get.