Navigating moods and emotions, and the peril of positivity.
Updated: Jan 16, 2021
I recently read an interview with James Taylor where he talked about ‘the precarity of our emotional lives’. Nearly twelve months into a global pandemic we’re all feeling it. Way back in March 2019 at the start of the first lockdown I read this tweet by Troy Johnson in an article by Aisha Ahmed(2020):
"Day 1 of Quarantine: ‘I’m going to meditate and do body-weight training.’ Day 4: *just
pours the ice cream into the pasta*"
It is funny, and relatable. Optimism and ambition shifting to urgently seeking comfort in a matter of days, such is the human condition.
So where do we start?
How can we be attentive and honest about our emotional state and journey rather than reaching overwhelm and feeling emotionally done over?
How can we experience our emotions as a potential area for learning?
And, how can we live and work well in times of rapid and profound change, when our daily lives are more restricted than any of us could ever have imagined?
Looking after our mental health has gained some prominence as a phrase, but can leave us
uncertain about what this means as we navigate our emotional journey. Alan Sieler (Coaching to the Human Soul Vol. 1 2005) asserts that our difficulty in coping may not mean there is anything wrong with us and suggests dwelling on that point. Kegan (In Over our Heads, 1994) suggests it’s useful to see our potential to learn and develop higher levels of adult consciousness so we can develop more effective ways of understanding and acting in the world.
Amazing. But how?
Alan Sieler (Coaching to the Human Soul Vol II, 2007) helps by unpacking for us an extended model developed by Fernando Flores, ‘Some Basic Moods of Life’. Philosophical foundations informing this model includes work by Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard and Jean Paul Sartre.
Sieler says ‘Moods and emotions can be regarded as pre-dispositions for action. We always
act from some emotional state. Some moods and emotions predispose, or incline us, more
towards certain actions and not others.’ He suggests moods can be thought of as emotions that persist over time, therefore we are repeatedly predisposed towards particular actions. We could call these ‘habitual’. Following this train of thought one might say we are always, ‘in a mood’. Try thinking of this less like cast members of Eastenders being ‘in a mood’ and more about our persistent emotional state or as Alan says, our ‘way of being’.
So how do we get to be ‘in a mood’?
According to Sieler there are three fundamental background assessments which are pivotal in forming either unhelpful or resourceful moods. Note the point is resourceful, rather than ‘good’. Resourceful here means helping us to live and work the way we’d like to. Our internal narrative (how we talk to ourselves about what’s happening and how we perceive it) and our physiological perceptions and responses are all very much a part of this. For now,
we’ll focus on background assessments.
The three fundamental background assessments are:
What we assess as not open to change - facticity (which originates from Heidegger’s work ‘Being and Time’.)
What we assess as open to change - possibility
What we assess to be uncertain or not predictable – uncertainty
Our acceptance of or opposition to these assessments significantly shapes our emotional
So how does this model help us?
Or more precisely, which moods and emotions enable us to be at our most resourceful and predispose us to take the actions we’d like to?
Being grounded in facticity and having clarity helps us make effective decisions about where to best place our energy. It’s important to question what we believe to be unchangeable and ‘check in with ourselves’ that we’re not holding on to ungrounded facticity (leading to ineffective decisions). For clarity, acceptance does not mean we’re necessarily happy with a situation, it means we accept the facts as currently unchangeable. Refusal to accept facticity can result in resentment. We’ve all heard it, and we’ve all been there. ‘It’s not fair, this shouldn’t be happening to me!’ Grounded acceptance of facticity is an essential first step.
Our assessments around possibility are significant for how we orientate ourselves towards the future. It’s about what we assess as changeable or open to change. Where there is possibility, our actions and our participation have a significant impact on how the future will be for us and those around us. The opposition of possibility is resignation. And again, this is familiar territory. ‘What’s the point? It’s hopeless.’
In The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander (2000) in The Art of Possibility, encourages us to
What assumptions are you making that give you what you see?
What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
Creativity and opportunity flow from an ambitious approach to possibility.
Finally, our assessments around uncertainty focus on what we cannot confidently predict will occur.
For many of us, trying to manage uncertainty, build contingencies and plan ahead takes up significant amounts of time and effort. Remember again the idea that our moods and emotions (informed by the stories we tell ourselves in our heads as well as the stories of others) help structure our moods and predicate us towards particular actions. If I approach uncertainty in a mood of anxiety, ‘I can’t predict what may happen but it’s probably going to be awful!’ my actions will be centred around protection and survival. Approaching uncertainty with curiosity ‘I’m not sure what will happen, it’s interesting, I wonder what I could learn and find out?’ opens up actions focussed on learning and development.
Sieler is clear, this isn’t about never being in a place of opposition, it’s about how long you’re there for, over what issues, and crucially, awareness of your accepting/oppositional state.
You’ll notice the absence of the positivity mantra: ‘We just need to think positively! Be positive!’ Jim Collins (2001) points to the Stockdale Paradox. James Stockdale was a Naval Officer and prisoner of war in Vietnam who survived torture and suffering for over 7 years. He had no reason to believe he’d ever get out alive. In an interview with Collins for his book he was asked:
"Who didn't make it out?"
"Oh, that's easy," he said. "The optimists."
"...they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by
Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then
they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and
Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas
again. And they died of a broken heart."
The despair that followed was for them, intolerable. Positivity (although touted by self help ‘gurus’) doesn’t always include the acceptance of facticity. To quote Jim Collins, we have to ‘accept the brutal facts’. Positivity can contain elements of denial or delusion even, a sure path to making decisions and taking actions which are less than helpful, and at worst lead to disappointment and despair.
I was fortunate to find a beautifully written piece by Aisha Ahmed early on in the pandemic. The intense insight and precise humour both helped hugely.
‘Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the Covid-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened. And so, while it may feel good in the moment, it is foolish to dive into a frenzy of activity or obsess about your scholarly productivity right now. That is denial and delusion. The emotionally and spiritually sane response is to prepare to be forever changed.’
The uncertainty and isolation of the last twelve months has been difficult for everyone, and we have some way to go yet. The ‘precarity of our emotional lives’ won’t be solved by a model, but it can help us notice, make distinctions, and be aware of our emotional journey and how our planned actions are influenced and formed.
I think about this most days:
Facticity: there is a virus, we have to live with restrictions, several vaccines are now being rolled out
Possibility: the small and domestic e.g.shall I try a new recipe? - to global connections for learning and conversation which bring insight and build understanding
Uncertainty: What can I learn more about? What makes me curious? And, enquiry before
I offer this as a model to try. Next time you want to check in with yourself about an issue that’s got you emotionally hooked, try it out. Ask yourself, ‘What’s going on with me?’ Play with it, keep it light. And, do let me know how you get on.
You may also be interested to read:
The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice
School Improvement off the beaten track
Helen is a respected and sought-after coach, consultant and facilitator both in the UK and internationally. Previously Head of School Improvement for the Department for Education, she has held lead roles in national, regional, and local government, schools and colleges. She has designed and facilitated coaching and leadership programmes for the University of Manchester and served as a Magistrate in Greater Manchester.
Collins, J. (2001) Good to Great, Why some companies make the leap and others don’t. Harper Collins
Kegan, R. (1994) In over our Heads: The mental demands of modern life. Harvard University Press
Sieler, A (2005) Coaching to the Human Soul, Ontological Coaching and Deep Change Vol I Solutions Pty Ltd
Sieler, A (2007) Coaching to the Human Soul, Ontological Coaching and Deep Change Vol. II Solutions Pty Ltd
Zander, B Stone Zander, R. (2000) The Art of Possibility, Transforming Professional and Personal Life. HBS