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When Life Throws Lemons

The upsides and downsides of normalcy bias, or how to deal with radically changed circumstances


When the path our life is taking suddenly looks radically different, it can be hard to absorb. We tend to expect things to continue as normal. This 'normalcy bias' may lead as many as 70% of us to fail to react in the face of disaster or threat.

“May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift”

– from Forever Young by Bob Dylan

“Hold on tight, because life is going to take you full circle.

– Anonymous

I, like millions of others, had a recent wrestle with COVID-19. I didn’t eat for a week, could barely move, and coughed myself to exhaustion. In my more maudlin moments I felt I might join the national statistics.

Many were not so lucky. My bout was relatively trivial; I realise that. After a month I began to feel better. But it brought home to me just how fast things can change. How life can hurl unforeseen curve balls at us in the blink of an eye, causing everything to be different for a while – or sometimes forever.

So often we move through life merrily assuming we’re on firm ground, that just because things have been a certain way in the past they’ll carry on being that way. But – wham! – life has other ideas. The COVID-19 pandemic really brings that home.

Millions had been starting businesses, making plans, enjoying budding romances, accepting dream jobs, planning on attending weddings or funerals, looking forward to that trip abroad, assuming they could pay their rent or mortgage… and, just like that, it’s all gone. Or at least on hold.

We’re cooped up and confined. Friendly faces have become a threat. Leaving the house feels almost like entering a war zone. The world has changed. And we appreciate what we had more than we ever knew we could.

But of course, it’s not just COVID-19 that can turn our world upside down.

Maybe we fall prey to a sudden sickness, a loved partner ups and leaves, or circumstances force bankruptcy. Perhaps a war, revolution, accident, global financial meltdown, or global pandemic descends. And when it does, everything is inverted and the world becomes a stranger.

“I wouldn’t have seen this coming in a million years!” we say. And it’s true. Because we all operate on the expectation that things should and will continue to be ‘normal’, even when the evidence begins to suggest otherwise.

Where did normal life go?

I recall watching a TV documentary about an air disaster in which a bomb went off in a plane. One of the survivors explained how, as the plane spiralled uncontrollably into the ocean, he’d loosened his seat belt and checked again to see where his nearest exit was. But here’s the weird thing.

Some of the others in the plane, he recalled, seemed to be ignoring the present deadly circumstances and acting as though everything was normal. One guy was calmly reading the paper! Many, of course, were screaming, and by no means were most people as cool-headed as our survivor – but ignoring events as though circumstances hadn’t changed? I found this hard to believe.

Then again, perhaps many of us are prone to such a (non) reaction. And psychologists, of course, have a name for it.

Normalcy bias

When the path our life is taking suddenly looks radically different, it can of course be hard to absorb. People say “I never thought this could happen to me!” or “This is the kind of thing that happens to other people!” We tend to expect and believe that things will continue as they always have, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

This is the basis of normalcy bias – a cognitive bias that leads us to disregard or underestimate threats or disasters.

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I think part of normalcy bias can simply be that we can’t even countenance the concept that things can change so dramatically. It just doesn’t compute. An inability or refusal to react may also be a reflection of the freeze response, sometimes known as the orientation response, which occurs during threat and precedes fight or flight.

During normalcy-biased behaviour we become fixed, not necessarily into muscular freezing but into small circles of familiar thinking and behaviour. We cling to the security and comfort of habit.

The guy reading his daily paper (and the others simply staring out the window as though things hadn’t suddenly gone really south) as the plane plummeted, were experiencing normalcy bias. This kind of muted reaction – the opposite to over reaction – isn’t as rare as we might like to think.

Act like nothing’s changed

Normalcy bias may lead as many as 70% of us to react with a lack of reaction (if there can be such a thing!) in the face of disaster or threat.1 We believe, or unconsciously assume, that everything will continue as it normally does just because that’s the way it’s always been. So we don’t react or adjust.

Normalcy bias, sometimes known as the ‘head in the sand response’, is not to be confused with sangfroid, a cool head in a crisis.Being unflappable doesn’t mean ignoring threats: rather, it means assimilating them, keeping calm, and carrying on. ‘Grace under fire’ still means recognizing and reacting to that fire.

When things change radically, some of us may be unable to let go of how things were. So we stop living in the present and we ignore the fluidity and flux of life, like an aged Mrs Haversham from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, who, after being jilted at the altar, continues to wear her wedding dress for the rest of her life.

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An inability or refusal to alter our expectations when circumstances do a flip turn can cause us all kinds of problems. As well as failing to respond appropriately in emergencies, we may also beat ourselves up when we’re depressed.

Not what I was expecting!

When an event doesn’t fall within our range of expectations, it’s almost as though we don’t see it and can’t respond to it. People who refuse to evacuate as a hurricane approaches or as a volcano spews are displaying normalcy bias. People who assume they should be able to do what they normally do (and are ‘pathetic’ if they don’t) when they become sick or depressed are displaying normalcy bias, too.

If you are at a low ebb, you need to make allowances for your (temporarily) changed state. This, perhaps, is the meaning of “Be kind to yourself!” But there’s something else here.

Responding to changed circumstances doesn’t necessarily mean being immediately proactive. Understanding that you have to, for a while, function in a different way to normal – which may mean doing very little for a bit – is doing something. It’s adjusting.

You can get tough with yourself sometimes. But be kind to yourself too. Expecting to carry on as normal when circumstances dramatically change may be unrealistic.

But perhaps we can prepare for the possibility of radical and sudden shifts in our living circumstances, even when we can’t actually foresee the exact nature of a sudden catastrophic turn of events.

Anything is possible (if not probable!)

If we can concede that just about anything is possible (though maybe not probable) without being catastrophic or losing optimism, then we can meet, join with, and eventually even master adversities.

Perhaps all the fiction over the years – War of The Worlds, The Earth Abides, Panic o’Clock, Day of The Triffids, and so on – in which sudden, global disasters strike humanity serve as a kind of template for adjustment and response when real personal or world disasters do strike. Fiction of this kind may give us a sort of blueprint for a heroic or stoic response.

Nassim Taleb, in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (it used to be said ironically that something deemed impossible was ‘as likely as a black swan’ – until actual black swans were found to exist!), argues that what may seem like a black swan event to some may not seem so to others.2

It’s all a matter of perspective. By their very nature, black swan events cannot be exactly foreseen. But we can, as much as possible, build robustness in anticipation of catastrophic eventualities.

John F. Kennedy once said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” We can think of ourselves as that roof, and steel ourselves against life’s inevitable hardships so that when they do come, we are prepared.

Calm in the storm

We sometimes talk of ‘testing times’, but what or who is being tested? Cultivating courage, calm, and equanimity in the face of adversity is part of being human. Children learn these traits from characters in stories and hopefully from the adults around them.

Even when we feel we can do nothing, we can do something. We can respond in the best way we can. That is doing something, and something vitally important at that. How we face life and deal with events determines and shapes our character.

When we respond to a situation in a certain way, we are building on who we are at a deep level. But this won’t always come naturally, at least not right away. First, we may need to sit with the shock for a while until it starts to lift, leaving us with the courage and stoicism to form that response.

If you want to tame a horse, you may have to start by simply being with it for a while. Of course, in a true, immediate emergency, you won’t have this luxury. But where possible, it can be helpful to give yourself the time and space to let reality really sink in before you decide how to act.

Getting used to changed circumstances may take time. But ultimately we adapt and respond. We master our circumstances as best we can.

Mastering circumstances

It’s been said that if we don’t master our circumstances, our circumstances will master us.3 But sometimes mastering our circumstances may mean accepting them, at least for the time being.

Quick adjustment to the new normal could perhaps teach us that fast turnarounds do happen in life and, who knows, maybe circumstances will flip back in our favour once more.

And we can always learn from what life dishes up, whether it’s a tasty morsel or bitter as hell.

No life is free of threats or difficulties. Expecting life to be perfect, easy, and forever without threat, offence, or even minimal discomfort, may seem like a worthy entitlement. But if we 100% believe that we should and will always be comfortable, immune to life’s vicissitudes, then when life inevitably lobs lemons it’s really going to sting.

But one thing is certain for all of us.

This too shall pass

Those under the protection of the mighty Babylonian, Egyptian, Hittite, Greek, Etruscan, Assyrian, Roman, Russian, British, African and Islamic empires (and many more besides) must have bathed in the delicious assumption that their environments were eternal.

Now we stand among the ruins of these empires.

When we’re really young we feel that aging and perhaps sickness will never visit us. But every moment we change. Life flows and is never static.

But perhaps there is something within us all that can remain true and real, regardless of life’s inevitable slings and arrows.

A certain something inside

I’ve met people who’ve been reduced or ineluctably altered in their circumstances, and I’ve noticed they carry within them a kind of dignity, an elan, a grace, a bearing, a presence. Though outwardly they seem to have lost so much, it’s as if they’ve gained something. Something you can’t quite put your finger on.

When we lose something, or even everything, we don’t have to lose ourselves.

Difficulties can provoke and stimulate long-dormant initiative, courage, and ingenuity. We may come to use whatever we can in whatever way we can.

It’s easy for me to say all this, I know. I was and am lucky. I can still work and my illness didn’t kill me or reduce me for long. I was deeply moved by the concern of friends and relatives, and also many people whom I’d never met in person. But being unwell whittled me down to the essentials. Flim flam, fluff, trivia, and inconsequentials seemed to melt from my mind.

In times like these, the essentials do come to matter more. We come to at least consider the great eternity that awaits us all. It’s a consideration that can help us all live life more fully.4

Reality is in flux. Things change, life flows and alters. All circumstances are impermanent but, like waves in the sea that seem separate, we’re all part of the great ocean, the greater whole of reality.

May you have a strong foundation when the winds of change shift. Because this too – whatever ‘this’ is – shall pass.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

You can get my book FREE when you subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter. Click here to subscribe free now.

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Notes:

  1. See: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1053663-2,00.html
  2. Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House.
  3. I borrowed this phrase from Towles, A. (2016). A Gentleman in Moscow. Viking. This novel is a beautiful composition of equanimity in the face of radically reduced circumstances.
  4. See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1088868312440046

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