A few days ago I showed up to teach my chair yoga class at an assisted living facility, where employees were decking the halls and putting out poinsettias. “What’s your favorite thing about the holidays?” I chirped to the women who’d gathered for class.
With some gentle probing, Marge revealed that this was the first Christmas she’d be spending without her husband, who’d passed away. T’was not the season to be jolly for Marge.
I completely understood.
As a Positive Psychology Coach, it’s my job to help clients see the value of appreciating and savoring the good in their lives and doing what they can to cultivate positive emotions. As a human being, I empathize with the fact that life also contains loss, pain, illness, disappointment, and setbacks.
During such “dark nights of the soul,” we can deepen our wisdom, humanity and self-compassion by being fully present to whatever is happening and honoring our feelings. At such times, happiness may feel miles away and joy might seem like a luxury. If so, we can reach for other positive emotions to cope and build resilience.
I learned this firsthand during a year in which I ended my marriage, lost two dear uncles, and nearly lost my father.
As I moved through these painful changes, traumas, and endings, many of my days were saturated with grief. Despite this, I had to show up for my work as a coach and teacher of happiness and fulfillment. The challenge of walking my talk was more daunting than ever.
In response, I increased my habit of consciously registering the things that expanded my heart, lifted my spirits, and excited my mind. While this practice didn’t always take me from “zero to happy,” it allowed me to be there for my students and clients, and for my aching self. Training my mind to see the good, while also letting myself feel and process my grief, kept me from spiraling downwards. Here’s how:
- I took walks to boost my mood and care for my body, taking in the blue of the sky, the luminous clouds and the many-colored leaves. Appreciating beauty is one of my strengths, and I use it every day. Time in nature, along with my spiritual practices, inspired awe and reverence for something greater than myself.
- I reached out to friends who could listen compassionately and hold with me what I couldn’t hold by myself. Such moments allowed me to feel seen and heard, honoring my deeply ingrained values of authenticity and connection. Knowing how good that felt, I sent notes and made calls to others who were suffering, which allowed me to feel helpful and stop ruminating.
- I hung out with other friends who made me laugh and talked about books, movies, ideas and the news of the day. These gatherings fed my hunger for knowledge, stimulated my curiosity, and provided humor. Inspiring quotes and content on the Internet also helped, as did funny articles and, yes, cute baby and animal videos.
- I continuously reached for gratitude, my favorite positive emotion. Appreciating the people I was losing and the gifts they’d given me, and feeling grateful for my home, health, community and comforts, buoyed my heavy heart.
- I practiced and took in kindness whenever possible, because I know that it matters even more when we’re hurting.
- I engaged in my work, challenging as it was some days, which allowed me to use my skills, knowledge and creativity in service to others. I also channeled my energies into growing a business while other things around me were fading or dying.
- I gave myself space to feel, permission to be human, and room for tears.
As the Buddha stated in the first Noble Truth, life involves pain and suffering. How we meet and interpret our difficulties determines how much we will suffer. Doing what we can to care for ourselves and learn and even benefit from hardship can help us to survive and grow. The science of posttraumatic growth examines this phenomenon, succinctly stated by Nietzsche as, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”
As the chair yoga class was winding down I gave Marge a little shoulder rub, sending compassion through my hands. “Good thing you don’t have to drive in this storm, eh?” I remarked. “You can just walk down the hall to a dining room where someone has cooked a hot lunch for you.”
“Yes,” Marge replied, “and I’m grateful for that.”
Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life, Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.
(Note: this post is adapted from one written for Kripalu Thrive, which appears here.)