I’m feeling good, or I’m feeling bad. I’m feeling happy, or I’m feeling sad. Life feels great, or not so great. It seems we are accustomed to thinking and feeling about ourselves with polarity.  But I wonder, is this the best way to approach our lives?

I’ve had a challenging time recently. A good friend of mine very unexpectedly took his own life. I was shocked and deeply saddened. We were pretty close, much closer than many of my other male friendships. We had openly shared our similar stories of intimate partner abuse and our marriage breakdowns and supported each other to navigate those mental, emotional and legal challenges.

His death happened when I was in a happy place on my annual southern sojourn in Mexico to escape the dark, cold days of early Calgary winter. Before I left Calgary, several really nice things had happened to me. I was feeling pretty darn good overall.

Whenever people ask me how I am, as they naturally do when you run into them, it is pretty much a reflex for me to react with a big smile and say something like “excellent” or “fantastic”. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember because it’s almost always true. I’m known for being positive and optimistic. And psychologically, it is proven that it actually works to reinforce a happier way of being. In the days following the news of my friend’s suicide, I found myself uttering my usual response out of sheer pavlovian conditioning. But then I would reflect after and ask myself how I could possibly be “fantastic” after receiving this very difficult news.

The truth is, the news did not erase the very good things that I had in hand. It didn’t cancel them out. They weren’t at all related. As I contemplated further, it quickly became obvious that there really is no polarity. It’s very rare that absolutely everything is going well or conversely, absolutely everything is going badly. Perhaps a few examples of what I mean:

Your child comes home with a really good report card but your other child reports being bullied.

You get a surprise promotion and a raise but in the same week your spouse gets laid off.

A member of your extended family passes away and the same week you have a party planned to celebrate your 30th anniversary.

I’m sure you can think of similar situations that are going on in your life right now. It can get really confusing to sort out your feelings and emotions and to know how to BE and what to do under these circumstances. But it’s important to note that life is pretty much like this all the time. We have good things going on at the same time that we face challenges. So how do we sort it out?

I believe the first consideration is escaping the prison of expectations. This is not easy. We may find ourselves acting and feeling the way we perceive we should act or feel, orperhaps the way we think others expect us to act or feel. Awareness is important. Take some quiet time to think it through and ask yourself how you REALLY feel about these circumstances. Or perhaps sort out your true feelings with a trusted friend, coach or therapist.

In my leadership coaching we talk about the art of compartmentalizing. Great leaders don’t get overwhelmed by a single issue, and they understand that ruminating (letting your thoughts be repeatedly dominated on one issue) is self sabotaging. Great leaders know they are always concurrently navigating various challenges but must also remain positive, optimistic and productive.

In an article published in Psychology Today, Barton Goldsmith PH.D. says this about compartmentalizing:

“What we all need to learn is the ability, even if just for a moment, to put away the things that hurt us, so we can gain some perspective on how to deal with them….. Compartmentalization is not about being in denial; it’s about putting things where they belong and not letting them get in the way of the rest of your life. You can’t just ignore your issues and expect them to go away, but obsessing on them won’t help either.”

In the case of coping with the death of my friend, I shed many cathartic tears. Journaling helped me feel and express my emotions fully, while at the same time letting them flow through me, and not get stuck. Conversations with supportive friends about my buddy were also really helpful. For the first few days, I was never too far from tears, but I was also able to embrace the fun and healthy distractions of my self-care routines, the beach town I was visiting, and my local friends. As long as I could keep my awareness in the present, I was still able to see, feel and celebrate the beauty, awe, and connection that were there for me.

I try to see every day as a precious gift. Life will pretty consistently throw curve balls at us, both big and small. But at the same time, life brings us many gifts every day,  both big and small. Navigating our challenges will always be there. But at the same time, recognizing and celebrating our victories, small and large, and the victories of others is really important. Learning to navigate and celebrate life at the same time honours us, our loved ones, and our precious days on earth.

How might escaping the notion of polarity, that life is good or it is not, serve you to create a deeper and more satisfying experience of life?

What strategies can you use to increase your awareness of your true feelings,as opposed to what you think are appropriate feelings?

If we accept that ruminating is self-sabotaging, and compartmentalizing is a psychologically healthy alternative, what strategies can you adopt when you find your mind obsessing about a challenge so you can put it away until you are ready to productively address it?

With loving kindness,
Coach Billy