Why we must stop seeing 2020 as a cursed year (and expecting 2021 to be great)

We don’t need to say it.

You know it, I know it: 2020 has been an awful year.

It’s been so bad that 2020 has been declared cursed, the worst year ever, and used as evidence that time travel doesn’t exist (or on the flip side, that it does, and someone messed up).

It makes sense, then, that we’re eagerly looking forward to this year being over.

But we might not want to rush in to celebrating the demise of 2020, or expecting January 1 to bring a year free of all this terrible luck.

There’s a lot of pressure on 2021 to save us from the horrors of 2020; to spell the end of lockdowns and coronavirus, to say farewell to Donald Trump, to welcome the results of the work done by Black Lives Matter.

While, thankfully, the year itself doesn’t have the ability to feel anxious about all those expectations, pinning all our hopes upon 2021 might not be doing us much good.

And the same goes for writing off 2020 entirely as such a terrible year that it should be wiped from history.

‘All-or-nothing, black and white thinking rarely benefits our mental health,’ Counselling Directory member Laurele Mitchell tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Judging anything as good or bad is often unhelpful since very few things in life are either wholly one or the other.

‘We can miss the myriad nuances and subtleties that form the basis of a more accurate and often healthier assessment of a situation.

‘It also sets potentially unrealistic expectations that these things “shouldn’t” happen, that we personally have “failed” and other perfectionist thoughts that invariably set us up for a fall.

‘Balance is the watchword here.’

It’s tempting to want to erase all memory of 2020 or file it under ‘cursed year of no value’, but that means we can’t learn from it.

This year has been tough, but every challenge gave us a lesson for the future.

Rather than expecting 2021 to be free of the bad stuff, perhaps we should accept that bad things might still happen – but know that we are now better equipped to deal with them.

‘We may fare better by not assuming that 2020 is a one-off,’ Laurele explains. ‘The reality is that change is the only constant and life is frequently prone to challenge us, both personally and, as in the case of 2020, globally, the antidote to which is to work to remain flexible and resilient in the face of adversity, not to try to avoid or control it, which is an impossibility anyway.’

Casting 2020 as cursed and 2021 as magically better removes our own control over how we feel and behave.

‘When you refer to 2020 as a bad year then you focus on what you cannot do, rather than what you can do,’ says Becky Spelman, a psychologist at the Private Therapy Clinic.

‘It’s really important how we frame things because this can put a completely different spin on your perspective.

‘For example, “2020 was the worst year of my life” compared to “2020 was a year where I had challenges that helped me grow as a character”.

‘People might have had two exactly similar experiences, however they might be phrasing it very differently. Their beliefs about how the year has been will influence their behaviour and will influence how they feel in terms of their capabilities and being empowered and able to take on life’s challenges.

‘We might have had an incredibly difficult year, but actually focusing on what we’ve learned, how we’ve grown, and how we’ve overcome tremendous challenges, is far more helpful than referring to 2020 as being a bad year.’

The fact of the matter is that being on one side of midnight versus the other doesn’t magically make you happy or prevent bad things from happening.

The presumption that once 2020 is over things will better might mean we sit back and feel like we don’t have to bother doing all the work that actually improves our lives and our moods.

Rather than writing off the year that has been, it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on the parts that were within our control, and whether we could have handled those aspects any better.

You might have quickly ditched your exercise routine, for example, and noticed that you felt much more down in the dumps as a result. Or maybe you found yourself excessively worrying about things that didn’t happen, and that’s something you regret.

Taking proper stock of the power you have over your life and wellbeing – beyond the events happening in the wider world – is essential in actually making sure your 2021 is better than your 2020, no matter what happens.

It’s important, though, that you don’t let the pressure for 2021 to be better start piling on to you instead of on the year itself, in terms of unreasonable goals and expectations.

‘Even in the best of years, New Year can fall prey to pressure in the form of quickly-broken resolutions,’ says Laurele. ‘It may be helpful to take stock periodically throughout the year, to set small, manageable goals for ourselves, on which we can then continually build, and to live in the moment as much as is practicable.

‘Since we no more know what 2021 will bring than we did 2020, we would do well to avoid perfectionistic thinking, which is usually identifiable by “musts” and “shoulds”, to avoid setting unrealistic expectations for 2021, which it may not live up to and which we have very little control over.’

Becky agrees, urging us not to put too much pressure on ourselves or the New Year.

‘People will often put a lot of pressure on themselves to start the New Year as being perfect,’ she notes.

‘While it’s really good to get off to a good start in the new year, people don’t need to put such pressure on themselves to be perfect, which can mean they set unrealistic goals that are too hard to actually achieve and maintain.

‘Don’t set the bar too high in terms of your expectations for 2021. You want to set goals that are realistic and that you can maintain throughout the year.’

So the lesson here is simple, though it might not seem as easy as just popping bottles of champagne, chucking out our 2020 calendars, and hoping that next year will be blessed.

We can’t dismiss 2020 as cursed, wipe it out of our memories, or burn it in a bonfire.

We have to sit with the last 12 months, acknowledge what happened, and – while we don’t have to pretend it was actually lovely – we have to try to see some positives from the year.

‘It can be helpful to reflect on 2020, express gratitude for and celebrate what went well, as well as acknowledging, learning from and mindfully letting go of what we found challenging and grieving for any losses we may have experienced, be that a loved one, a job or even life as we once knew it,’ says Laurele.

‘For some people, it will be understandably difficult to connect with the positives, given their individual experiences of 2020, but collectively, our resilience has been tested in a way that it hasn’t, arguably, since the war, and we’ve risen to the challenge.

‘There have been moments of community in an ordinarily individualist society and a renewed appreciation of what we’ve long taken for granted.

‘It has also highlighted, when life is stripped back to its essentials, what is truly important.’

Remember what happened this year, learn from the bad bits and be grateful for the good.

Then go into 2021 unburdened from expectation, but equipped with the resilience and life lessons 2020 has given you.

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