Balancing Positive and Negative Emotions

Today’s professional development day at school focused on Positive Education and how we can help our students and our communities to flourish. 

One of the aspects I found most thought-provoking was the discussion about positive or comfortable emotions and negative or uncomfortable emotions. It was particularly relevant to many of the things I have been experiencing and observing about life in recent weeks, and I want to share my observations and reflections on those things with you here.

Before I go any further, though, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not a medical or psychological expert or professional. I am, however, a high school teacher of 30 years’ experience, so I have had time and opportunity to make some observations about the things that happen in life and how we deal with them.

More personally, as someone who experiences chronic physical issues and mental health challenges, and who has experienced many conflicting emotions recently due to profound personal loss, I’m confident I know at least a little bit about dealing with adversity, and I’ve learned a few things about the importance of balancing negative emotions with positive ones. 

Both positive and negative emotions can be powerfully motivating.  Fear of failure or embarrassment is as strong, or stronger, in some people as desire for success is in others. 

Negative or uncomfortable emotions can motivate and fuel positive outcomes such as creativity, empathy, and relationship building.

Positive and negative emotions can actually be highly effectivecompanion emotions‘.  I don’t expect that this is a scientific term at all, but it seems to me a useful term that describes how contrasting emotions experienced at the same time can provide some healthy balance and perspective. 

I can testify from the past few weeks that gratitude can moderate grief, and enjoying a few quiet moments in the beauty of nature can transform abject misery into much gentler sadness.  

In different contexts, fear can be a healthy addition to awe or wonder – think of a child at the zoo, for example, for whom interest and desire to engage with the animals should always be balanced with both respect and a little fear or mistrust, so that the child and the animals all remain safe. In yet another situation, a little anxiety or nervousness can actually heighten deliberate preparation and performance if it is paired with intentional and thoughtful preparation, because it can stop one from making rushed or careless errors, or from taking success for granted. 

Life is not about always avoiding the feelings that make us uncomfortable or sad. Hoping to do so isn’t realistic at all, given that there are many situations that we can neither actually control or entirely avoid. 

Instead, it’s crucial that each of us learns to manage those negative or uncomfortable feelings and use the situations in which we encounter them to develop and consolidate our personal strengths and resilience.  Learning to look for the positives in life and choosing to find a balance for the negative experiences or emotions we encounter is how we grow and move forward in life. 

“Whether dealing with a major lifeshattering event or a small bump in the road, we can use gratitude to help boost our happiness and change our outlook. While gratitude won’t change our circumstances, experts say gratitude can change how we feel about them.”

Paula Felps in ‘Your Brain on Gratitude’ by Paula Felps 

That’s certainly what I’m seeking to do while working through my grief. It’s okay to take the time to mourn my losses, but I can’t afford to unpack and live there. Finding a constructive way through my pain will enable me to heal, and come out stronger at the other end. 

In being honest about how I feel and what I’m thinking in my posts on this blog, my hope is that my words will help and encourage someone else get through their personal challenges, whatever they are, and to deal with both their circumstances and their feelings.

I have no doubt that knowing we are not the only ones going through grief or pain or whatever trial it is that is burdening us actually helps us to start to heal. That’s why empathy and compassion are so powerful. That’s why the support and love of family and friends is what we yearn for and seek out when things are hard.  

Tonight, as I reflected on these ideas and considered the fact that I had no evidence for my inexpert assertions, I did find a number of articles that show my conclusions are consistent with current science and research surrounding emotional and mental health. 

Of those articles, some were quite wordy and far too academic to be accessible, but I did find two easily readable and very interesting pieces that discuss the ways in which positive emotions such as gratitude and self-compassion can help individuals deal with adverse situations more constructively.  They are:
‘Your Brain on Gratitude’ by Paula Felps via livehappy.com
’The Reason You Make Unhealthy Choices’ by Mandy Oaklander via time.com

“Being kind to yourself, as opposed to tearing yourself down, leads to fewer bad feelings and, in turn, healthier actions.”

Dr Fuschia Sirois, quoted in ’The Reason You Make Unhealthy
Choices’ by Mandy Oaklander
, via time.com September 25, 2014

Balancing Positive and Negative Emotions
#emotions #feelings #psychology #thoughts #reflection #personal #blogpost

Stepping Back Out Into A Changed World

Image by qimono on Pixabay

Tomorrow school starts again for Term 3. 

Tonight, I am contemplating — somewhat anxiously — what tomorrow will bring. That’s fairly standard territory the night before returning to school for a new term, but right now it’s even more complicated than usual. 

Phrases like “back into routine” and “good to keep busy” have been bandied about altogether too casually by people who don’t understand how I feel. In one sense, things may seem as though they are “returning to normal”, but I don’t feel that way at all. Instead, it feels very much like I’m stepping into the vast unknown. 

The world out there is anything but normal. 

The state in which I live ihas been cut off from the rest of the country by border restrictions because of the COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne. We’ve all been quarantined to an extent, and Melbourne itself is locked down much tighter than we are out here in the western region of the state. 

The distance between us and Melbourne is no room for complacency, though. Just today we heard the news that Warrnambool,  the regional city in which I work, has reported its first active case in months. It’s sobering news, and terrible timing for the beginning of a new school term. Honestly, it just adds a greater sense of impending doom to the craziness that is going on out there. 

I’m keen to see my students, though. My hope is that they will take my mind off things through each school day and keep me motivated when I’m feeling low.

So, I’ve invested in masks and extra sanitiser. I even have sprays to disinfect any work the kids hand in. I will be even more conscientious and deliberate about social distancing, because I don’t trust other people to do the right things.  At least my natural cynicism about human nature is intac which, I suppose, is something. 

Life isn’t ‘normal’ on a personal level either. 

I miss Dad. 
I miss Helen. 
Enormously. 

I have lost two of the constant, consistent encouragers in my life. I keep thinking of things I want to tell them, and photos I want to show them, and I can’t. I want them to know about my new great-nephew. I want to tell them I love them. It’s really, really hard. 

I’m trying to work through my grief, but that isn’t going to happen according to any timetable.  That’s a process that will take as much time as it will take. 

The past three weeks have changed me, although I can’t define exactly how. 

I feel like I should be more resilient, or better at handling things, or at least better at faking an appearance of being able to manage, but I’m not. 

I feel like I should look different somehow, but I probably don’t. 

That is, of course, if you don’t look too closely at the dark circles under my eyes. 
Sleep has been evasive ever since Dad was admitted to hospital with coronary issues on June 16. During the week in which both he and Helen passed away, I barely slept at all.  Last night I managed seven hours, but it was in two instalments with an hour off at half time. It’s no wonder I feel like rubbish. 

My purpose in expressing my thoughts and feelings here is not to moan or whine. I know I am not the only person experiencing these things. I am not the only person experiencing grief, or lugging emotional baggage everywhere. 

I want others in similar situations to understand that there is nothing wrong with feeling the way they do. All of this is part of the grieving process, and it’s crucial to be kind and patient with ourselves while we sort our various burdens out. 

I want other people to understand that they can’t expect people who are grieving, or anxious, or caring any other kind of burden for that matter, to feel a certain way or simply “get over things” in any set period of time. 

Grief is not a tidy and well-organised domain. Everyone experiences it differently. It brings with it a whole variety of secondary emotions that are unpredictable at best.  Denying it, suppressing it, or trying to make our grief fit preconceived expectations are futile and unhealthy ways of dealing with it. 

That means each of us has to deal with it in our own time, and each of us can expect to be as messy as our grief.  Each of us will, at some point, have to step out into a world that has changed significantly and irreversibly.

Acceptance, kindness, patience and self-care will help to make that a healthier process for everyone. 

Stepping Back Into A Changed World
#grief #emotions #anxiety #personal #blogpost

Upside Down.

Image: ©2020 Joanne Van Leerdam

My father and one of my closest friends recently passed away within five days of each other. In fact, Helen died on the afternoon of Dad’s funeral. It was too much loss. It was too painful. It was definitely too soon and too final. And “upside down” is exactly how I felt then and still feel now.

As always, my feelings have turned into poetry.

I wrote this poem on the morning of Helen’s funeral. It was impossible to contemplate one without revisiting the other in my mind.

So, this poem is for both of them.

Upside Down.
#grief #emotions #poetrylovers #poem #personal #blogpost

Image: ©2020 Joanne Van Leerdam

I don’t know how to do this.
I don’t want to say goodbye,
But I have no choice,
You have taken your wings,
And I have to let you fly. 

In a moment you were gone
And life turned upside down;
Too soon. Too final.
And now we gather to lay you
To rest in the lonely ground.

The grave seems so absolute,
Stark proof you’re really gone:
It’s a mystery
That your life can be over
And yet, your soul lives on.

Your life is now in heaven,
Eternal peace and rest,
My comfort is knowing
You’re in Jesus’ arms
Safely treasured, fully blessed.

Life here without you is hollow,
The days all seem so long,
I have grown weary of cliches
And platitudes
That feel so empty and wrong.

The future is bleak without you, 
I don’t know what life will be, 
But…

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Remembrance, Always.

Always & Remembrance: are the two Willow Tree figures I have chosen in memory of two significant people in my life: my father, and one of my closest friends, who graduated to heaven five days apart.

These two lovely figurines now have pride of place in my special cabinet to remind me daily of these beautiful people and the incredible love I have for them both.

Mourning Song

Image by Joanne Van Leerdam. June 24, 2020.

I wrote this poem back in 2016.

These words have been in my mind again the past couple of weeks, following the death of my father and the passing of one of my closest friends on the day of his funeral. Losing them both within five days of each other was more painful than I can describe.

Photo artwork by Joanne Van Leerdam. June 24, 2020.

Tears fall,
Can’t stop them,
Can’t hide them.
You’re gone,
Can’t bring you
Back again.
Why am I always the one who is feeling
The pain of the wrenching and tearing of leaving?
Why must this pain be so raw deep inside of me?
My heart
Misses you
Desperately.
Please say
That you won’t
Forget me.
I can’t imagine my life without you in it,
Bereft of the light and the joy of your loveliness,
Every room filled with the echoes of memories.
Never
To be the
Same again.
Tears fall,
Into the
Loneliness.
You’re
Gone.

©2016 Joanne Van Leerdam

Mourning Song.
#poetry #grief #Emotions #poetrylovers #personal #ReadAWrite

This poem is included in my collection titled ‘Leaf’.

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RIP George Michael et al 2016

“RIP George Michael,
Another favourite gone…”

RIP George Michael,
Another favourite gone.
First Bowie, then Prince and Rickman
And then it was Leonard Cohen.
But Donald Trump is alive and well –
What drug has this year been on?

“Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

I’ve heard this said so many times, and I do believe it.

The line comes from Tennyson’s poem, ‘In Memoriam’.  It’s a long poem  in which the poet struggles with grief and loss, and all the other emotions and questions of faith and life that accompany them. His thoughts and feelings are very much like mine at this point in time.

“I hold it true, whate’er befall;

I feel it, when I sorrow most;

‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.”

When a friendship ends or when a loved one dies, it’s really hard to be the one that is left behind. It hurts… a lot.

Both kinds of grief have happened to me in the past couple of weeks. It’s also two years today since I sat with my mother, held her hand, and watched and waited as she died.  I’m sure the anniversary is adding to my pensive mood today as I consider the grief I have experience more recently.

A friend who means a very great deal to me turned on me and said he never wanted to talk with me again. I still don’t know what brought that on. I probably never will. He’s made his decision and I have to live with that, no matter how much it hurts, and no matter how much I really don’t like it.

We had been such close friends. We talked about everything. We shared hopes and dreams, happiness, pain, sorrow, loss, disappointment, and elation.  He told me often that I was one of the best friends he had ever had. He told me that he valued me as a friend, as a confidante, as a sounding board.
Yet he allowed his anger over something that someone else had done to poison our friendship. He told me that he knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, and that he knew I couldn’t do anything to change it… but he couldn’t let it go. He cradled his hurt, fed it with resentment, and it grew into obsessive anger.  He fertilised it with bitterness and self-pity, and it grew to be so big that it became a barrier between himself and everyone else.  Then he blamed me and pushed me away.
I observed to a mutual friend at that time that it’s worse than when a friend dies because you know at least they wanted to be with you and they cherished your friendship. Being apart is not what either of you wanted. When it’s someone’s choice, and you are the one who is rejected, that’s really hard to accept.

Two weeks later, I’m faced with the imminent death of a dear friend who I care very much for.
She’s young, vibrant, spirited, loving, and one of those beautiful souls that touches the heart of everyone she meets in a very special way.
She has two young daughters and a husband who loves her very much.
Her family all adore her. She is the eldest daughter, the big sister, a loving aunt, a treasured cousin, a precious niece.

Never mind my grief. It’s nothing compared to theirs.
What are they going to do without her? How will they cope? How will they move on and keep on building their lives?  I know their lives will be filled with the sentiment of “I wish she were here to see/experience/enjoy this”.

I am really struggling to deal with my grief. I don’t want her to die. I don’t want her daughters to have to grow up without their mother. I don’t want her struggle, our friendship, and the prayers of everyone who has supported and loved and cared for her to end this way.

I know cancer doesn’t actually choose its victims. I certainly don’t believe that God inflicts cancer, or any other disease, on people just for the hell of it.
My struggle is seeing someone beautiful and sweet and kind being eaten alive by this evil disease, while others who abuse and rape women and children, or murder people, or prey on the powerless for their own gratification, live healthy, long lives in relative comfort.
How is that fair?

These thoughts flood my heart and soul with anger and a strong desire for the world to be different, for the endings to be different, for evil diseases to only happen to the people who don’t love or appreciate or care for others, even while I’m trying to stem the tide and just deal with my personal grief.

I’ve always had a strong sense of justice and it’s just screaming now for relief and for something miraculous to happen.

Then I think about the friend who walked away, and I want to tell him that people aren’t disposable. Friendships are not about convenience or personal comfort, to be abandoned when things get a bit difficult.  Loyalty, love and compassion in a friendship aren’t things you should just be able to walk away from… especially when friends like that can be taken away from you at any moment.

I want both of them to come back. I want to be able to talk and laugh and play and cry and tell stories and listen and drink coffee and relax with them.

I don’t want them to be gone.