When was the last time you felt overcome with frustration, fear, or anger at work? Let’s face it, despite wanting to look cool and calm at all times we’ve all had moments when our emotions have hijacked all appearances of professionalism. So what’s the best way to deal with these emotions?
“Trying to suppress your difficult emotions doesn’t make them go away,” explained Dr. Leah Wiess from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind when I interviewed her recently. “It can just distract your attention and energy from other things in your day.”
Leah suggested that while hiding your difficult emotions at work may feel like the right thing to be doing, at some point these emotions are going to come out. Think of them like a balloon you’re squashing down, they either just keep popping back up or eventually if you squeeze it hard enough it’ll pop.
So, how can you handle difficult emotions?
Your difficult emotions such as anger and fear, have evolved as survival mechanisms to help you evaluate what’s going on in your environment and what action you might need to take. For example, anger can be a sign you need to stand up for yourself or something or someone you care about. Embarrassment is a signal you’ve made a mistake that needs correcting. And fear can be telling you that you need to take some preventative action. The more you can learn to identify your body’s emotional response and be able to recognize and name your emotions, then the more you can understand why a certain situation triggered your reaction.
Leah advised a mindfulness practice can help you notice when your thoughts and feelings have strayed and get better at returning them to where you want them to be. It can help get you back on track when you’re distracting yourself to avoid facing up to your uncomfortable feelings. And when you align your attention with your purpose – so you might notice when you get impatient with others and want to improve your understanding of others’ perspectives – you can leverage even your most challenging situations as a resource in making decisions about what you say and do. So, in this way, your workplace can be an opportunity to practice being more aware and compassionate, and to hold yourself to these intentions in the kindest possible way.
“When you’re not aware of where you’re placing your attention, you can be at the whim of your thoughts and emotions,” said Leah. “But if you can learn to process emotions more helpfully, then you can be more productive, feel better, have better relationships, and be healthier.”
How can you learn this?
Leah shares three ways you can to process your emotions with attention and intention.
- Be open to your emotions – rather than try to suppress your emotions train yourself to tune in to them. It’s more helpful to be open and curious about your emotional experiences – your triggers, their quality and depth, your somatic reactions. Become comfortable with naming them, and using them as important cues to your environment, and resources in making decisions, interacting with others and being more authentic. This doesn’t mean if someone triggers an emotional response such as anger that you need to act this out in destructive ways, but you use it as an opportunity to train your mind.
- Reclaim your purpose – even if you work for an organization that is doing meaningful work, sometimes it can feel that your time can be spent doing tasks that are boring and tedious. Or you allow yourself to be distracted from tasks that require an emotional risk or discomfort. You can bridge this gap by finding ways to make purpose the verb that’s at the root of everything you do. Take responsibility for understanding how and what you’re doing is at the service of a meaningful, bigger purpose. Use mindfulness to keep reminding yourself of your purpose and priorities, to recognize your patterns of distraction and reactions, and to get back on track with how you spend your attention and time.
- Show compassion – rather than make you a doormat, practicing compassion can make you more attuned into what motivates others, what they’re challenged by, what they’re struggling with, and what makes them tick. Compassion differs from empathy – where you take on the emotional distress and get stuck there – which can lead to eventual burnout. Compassion is finding a practical response, so it’s important to consider how you can be useful to another person or support them in their journey. How can you show compassion to others when you need to give challenging feedback or you are working with someone who is difficult to deal with?
What can you do to increase your intention in your everyday work?