This past year, 2020 was more than just a marker of where we existed in time—it was basically its own expression. Between the pandemic, police brutality and other violence against Black people, and tumultuous election that defined the year, 2020 became shorthand for death, anxiety, anger, sadness, grief, trauma, loneliness, and pain. When people asked us how we were doing, we could answer, “Well, you know, it’s 2020.” When something bad happened, we said, “That’s 2020 for you.” I honestly can’t even count the number of memes, tweets, and jokes with punchlines that amounted to, “So…2020, am I right?” These past few months especially, 2020 was something we just wanted to be over.
Well, here we are. It’s 2021. If everything went according to our master plan, all of our problems should be gone and everything should be fine now, right? Cue the doves and massive Roaring Twenties–like parties that everyone says we should have when the pandemic is over.
Yeah, I wish. In fact, with the recent coup attempt in Washington, D.C., forget hoping that 2021 will be better than 2020—at this point, a lot of us are already hoping it just won’t be worse. It only took six days to reach peak 2020 levels of emotional exhaustion. Six.
Okay, logically, most of us knew that nothing would magically change just because 2020 ended. We knew that the calendar year switching or the ball dropping wouldn’t instantly mark the end of all this trauma and tragedy.
And yet…aren’t you a little let down anyway? Didn’t you kind of wish, deep down, that you’d be proven wrong? Yeah, a lot of people are feeling that way. It’s a thing. And it’s confusing. How can so many of us, despite knowing better, still feel disappointed that entering 2021 didn’t come with even a LITTLE relief?
Well, there are a few reasons. For one, hoping things would get better in 2021, even unconsciously, was an important coping mechanism for many this past year. It happens naturally when things feel so out of control and uncertain. Focusing on a defined period of time or a specific source of our pain—say, 2020—allowed us to create a little order in the chaos. You didn’t actually have to believe that this hellscape had a clear beginning and end for that to be true. The hope of it was enough. Think about having a child in their terrible twos—yeah, their third birthday is totally arbitrary, but don’t you kind of let yourself hope they’ll start growing out of their tantrums when it arrives?
So that letdown we feel? That’s a mix of our crushed hope and the realization (or confirmation) that this is all a lot less temporary than we wanted it to be. Exhausted and emotionally drained, we crawled through the end of 2020 like the end of a marathon, just wanting to cross the finish line, get our stupid participation trophy and silver space blanket, and vow never to do it again in our lives. But we didn’t get that. There were no sighs of relief and time for recovery. Instead, we have to keep going, keep trying, and keep surviving.
And we still don’t know for how long. The finish line keeps moving. When the first vaccines became available, for instance, a lot of us felt a huge sense of relief and so much hope that we danced in the streets. Yet the many issues with the rollout have only brought us back to our usual dread and frustration. The hope of an end to all this, yet again, got pushed back. And who knows when we’ll have a remotely extended calm period politically, given recent events.
The past few months we were so focused on making it through 2020 that now that we’re here, it’s kind of like, “Okay…what next?” Is the new benchmark “getting through 2021”? Because if so, how overwhelming is that? It’s no wonder 2021 has already left us feeling let down and drained and scared and sad.
All that said, just because these feelings are completely normal doesn’t mean they’re easy to deal with. So as a mental health professional, I wanted to recommend two things you can do right now to take care of yourself.
First of all, cut yourself some slack. Whether you came into this knowing it wouldn’t feel better and are beating yourself up for feeling disappointed anyway, or you believed you’d feel better and now feel naive, you were simply coping the best you could. Have some self-compassion. If the events of this week have only made this worse for you, take time to do some self-care in whatever way works for you.
I also recommend taking some time to intentionally reflect on 2020 in some way. I know you might be tempted to put it behind you and never think about it again, but reflection is important and might even ease some of the hurt you’re feeling. In trauma therapy, we have people tell their story, in writing or out loud, because it helps them control the narrative. We sometimes say if you can write about it, you are no longer trapped by it. And while many of the traumas of 2020 haven’t passed and some of the traumas of 2021 are already adding to them, you still survived so much last year and that’s worth marking. Expressing it will help you carry on so you can continue to survive. If we skip the work of processing our emotions and experiences, all of it will ultimately surface more intensely than before.
You can reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can note what 2020 was like for you, what you learned, what you loved, what you missed, and what you felt. You might add how you feel changed by the year because it is hard to imagine that you don’t. You can choose to never share it with anyone, or choose to share it with whoever you want that feels like a safe person to tell.
You might find that doing this provides that feeling of transition that you were hoping for, no matter small, so you can move forward into 2021 feeling like you’ve left at least some of the weight behind you. It might even give you a way of looking at the events of this past week with a bit more perspective, safety, and grounding.
And remember: You don’t have to—and shouldn’t—give up on hope that things will get better, even if you feel disappointed or silly now. Hope is never a silly thing. In fact, it is actually quite a beautiful one.