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Learning to Grow

I’ve made it through another week of trying to smile and be grateful. Some days I’ve done a better job of it than others. I don’t know if I’m revolutionizing the way that I feel happiness, but I have found that each week I’ve come away with new insights. Continuing to learn and grow can’t be all bad, and so let me share another week of trying to smile.

Sometimes, I like to think of my Grateful Smile project as an emotional obstacle course. My goal is to get from one side of the day across to the other and still be able to pause, smile and feel grateful. Of course everyday there are different obstacles that pop up in my way, some are far more challenging than others.

When I am by myself, I generally find it pretty easy to access my feelings of gratitude. As an introvert, this is hardly surprising. I’m not a sufferer of FOMO (fear of missing out), I am more of an enjoyer of JOMO (joy of missing out). I’m also more calm and settled when I’m outside, so you can get an idea of what would be an easy day for me. My little piece of heaven would be sitting under an arbutus tree on a rocky outcrop watching the birds play on the wind with a book in my lap. But, that is not most days.

Usually there are relationships, responsibilities, work, traffic, pets and of course the unexpected to juggle and it all becomes more of a challenge. There’s so much to balance out in a day that it’s easy to lose myself and forget my goal. It’s easy to get lost on my way to a smile. Especially, I’ve found when it comes to dealing with the emotions of others.

I know that humans are hardwired to pick up on each other’s feelings. I’ve watched someone reeling with sadness and felt tears come to my eyes. I’ve had friends dancing with excitement and felt giddy on their behalf. I can see that sharing feelings is part of building connection and empathy. It can be a really good thing.

It can also be a heavy weight to carry when it comes to anger, stress and anxiety. I totally get the idea that as pack animals we need to be intune to each other in the face of danger (certainly when there are lions, tigers or bears to consider). But, here in Winnipeg, I run into very few situations where communal stress is for my benefit. Most often it leaves me feeling empty and anxious. It definitely isn’t helping me on my quest to smile more.

My emotional achilles heel (although I don’t claim to be all that good at anything in the realm of feelings) is anger, even if it isn’t directed at me.

This struck me earlier in the week when I was on my front porch and could hear the sound of yelling from a busy street about a block away. I felt my anxiety rise, I became agitated and couldn’t focus on the revision I was trying to do. Noticing my own anxiety, I tried to find gratitude. I reached for my smile, but at the same time I was straining to hear if the yelling was coming closer, or if it was escalating. I couldn’t even find my way back to my body, I was in my mind and my mind was trapped in a fear response.

Nothing came of the yelling on the street, but for me it sparked a new awareness. An awareness that I am letting the emotions of others have too much space in my life. I’m not expecting to transcend humanity and rise above all negative emotions, but I would like to become confident enough in my smile that I can use it to reset the mood, instead of the mood resetting me. At least I would like to know that when I’m anxious it’s because of my own feelings and not as a byproduct of someone else’s.

I know this is possible because I have been a teacher for 17 years. This means that I have spent ridiculously long periods of time trapped in a room with 20-30 kids who may or may not want to be there. 20-30 kids who are coming into class each day with their own feelings and experiences. Yet, I have definitely noticed that it is I who sets the emotional tone for the day.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I never have kids who flip out, refuse to work, or wallow angrily in the corner about something they are unable to let go. It just means that if I am able to stay grounded and positive, the feelings that carry the day are mine. The rest of the class will be less affected by the outburst and the child who is struggling is more likely to be able to calm down and rejoin the group. If I start to fall apart, the class crumbles along with me.

I’ve learned that on days when I feel like my class is out of control, it’s usually a reflection of how I am feeling. Mindful minutes are a daily practice in my classroom, not just for the sake of the students, but for me too. There are days when being responsible for setting a positive vibe, means a superhero level of breathing.

I’m also more likely to hold it together at work and fall apart at home. Sometimes it’s because I just need a minute to fall apart (and the insomnia doesn’t help), but sometimes it’s an emotional carry over from the feelings of others that I have picked up throughout the day.

It’s undeniable that emotions are contagious, but so is the flu. If I can build up my immune system so that I don’t get the flu everytime it goes around (and as a teacher and mama, this is essential), I should also be able to build up my emotional immune system so that I can help to set the mood rather than reacting to it.

My first step, I think, is to become more aware of what I am feeling. Sometimes, when I’m around others, I actually can’t figure out where my own feelings end and their feelings start. This week I am going to try to name my feelings throughout the day. Not judging them, or wondering why they’re there, just naming them and then giving them a grateful smile.

Are you sitting there wondering if I’m complicating things again? I’m wondering that a little too, but the difference this time is that I’m not adding a level of thinking to my quest. I’m adding a level of feeling.

I haven’t given up on being grateful and smiling, but I need a way to get there when the emotions around me are not easy. Maybe especially when the emotions around me aren’t easy. As soon as I am triggered into a stress response, I’m adding to the energetic garbage that is clogging up the world.

Ideally I’d like a magic shield or happiness cloak, something dramatic and different that would propel me into the world of smiles forever. Instead, after reading a few articles (this one’s my favourite,) I decided that I will try to name my own feelings before I go into interactions with other people. When I feel overwhelmed and can’t find my grateful smile, I will close my eyes for a second and imagine myself in my own little piece of heaven. Maybe imagine a happiness cloak made of salty mountain breeze and arbutus bark.

I wonder, where extroverts find their little piece of heaven? Do we all need a little quiet place for ourselves, even if we really love people? Where would you go to find your invincible smile?

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