By Jai Thade, Head of Content
Completely getting rid of negative thoughts & feelings is almost impossible. This is because we’ve evolved a brain over millions of years whose primary purpose is threat detection. Living in a hostile and unpredictable world – which is what most of human life and history was like until very recently – where virtually every problem was potentially life-threatening, it was important to err on the side of anxiety, stress and negativity when making evaluations of ourselves, others and the world. This would allow us to dodge any potential threats.
Today, however, this once literally life-saving feature of the brain is looked at as a problem. That’s because these difficult thoughts and emotions often get in the way of us being able to work effectively and engage in behaviours that are important to us. So, the question then arises – what do we do with these emotions, especially in a work context?
First, let’s explore what not to do.
There is an outdated notion that people at work, especially those in positions of power should always have a contained, unemotional demeanour no matter what. At most, people should exude a cheerful optimism and nothing more.
Norms around this are changing and for good reason. Repressing emotions that we feel in this manner is a strategy that comes with a host of negative consequences – from blood pressure to digestive issues, to unexplained aches & pains, to an increased risk of infections. In more extreme cases, individuals may even have symptoms resembling more serious conditions (such as neurological conditions) in the absence of a physical cause! Therefore, one thing is clear – completely suppressing our emotions and not expressing them at all is not a viable long-term strategy.
So, what should we do instead?
These days, there is a lot of conversation around the importance of being authentic at work, especially for leaders. While in principle we at IDC agree with this, we also think it is important to recognise that when it comes to emotions at the workplace – the conversation around authenticity needs a bit of nuance.
For instance, people in positions of authority & influence within organisations will recognise how what leaders say, do and express is amplified and subjected to much greater scrutiny than what other employees say, do or express. For instance, even a moderate level of uncertainty at the level of senior leadership may, in some situations, inadvertently create panic a few levels down!
We also need to look at the intersectionality of authenticity about emotions when it comes to gender and race. Some people expressing some emotions might have to bear more severe consequences than others. For instance, women in the workplace are much more susceptible to the criticism that they are “too emotional”, and they are more vulnerable to their competence being questioned if they are expressive with their emotions, especially if they are leaders. Thus they often feel the need to be more guarded about expressing their emotions at work.
The race or ethnicity of a person may also influence how their emotional expression is interpreted. For instance, stereotypes like the “Angry Black Woman”, “Angry Black Man” or “Karen”, may force individuals to suppress the genuine expression of emotions like annoyance or frustration to avoid being unfairly pigeonholed into such a category.
There is thus a need for organisations to change the norms and culture around emotions. However, this is a slow, systemic change that will unfold over time.
In the meantime, what should individuals do?
The solution lies in recognising a middle ground between suppressing one’s emotions and expressing each emotion one feels. We can call this balance “adaptive authenticity” – authenticity informed not by one’s emotions and thoughts in the moments, but by one’s deeper values for themselves, their team and their organisation.
To do this, the first important skill is being able to better manage difficult emotions. This doesn’t mean getting rid of them entirely; instead, blunt their effect by “unhooking” ourselves from them. To “unhook” from one’s thoughts and feelings, it is first important to cultivate the awareness that this is happening. After that, there are two broad principles you can deploy:
- Creating some distance between yourself and your thoughts
- Learning how to allow your emotions to be
When it comes to the first principle, you can do this by recognising that thoughts are just sounds and images in your mind that may potentially not be important or even false. Thus, we can take thoughts that are disruptive or negative less seriously. We can even start to look at the automatic flow of our thoughts as a “mental radio” of sorts – when it’s tuned to a channel that’s helping us, we can turn the volume up and listen in, but when it’s tuned to a channel that isn’t of value to us (e.g. reminding us of doubts and worries), we simply tune it out.
When it comes to the second principle, we must recognise that unpleasant emotions are always uncomfortable to experience. However, what makes them even more uncomfortable to experience is when we try to resist them, fight them or escape them. Instead, we can try to adopt a more curious perspective towards our emotions – observe them, breathe slowly and deeply as we watch them rise and dissolve away like waves, etc. This usually allows us to feel less overwhelmed by them.
Once you can “unhook” from your thoughts & feelings using the principles outlined above – you expand the menu of choices you have at any given moment. The question changes from “Do I express emotions or not?” to the more nuanced “How do I express emotions?”. Is your emotional response going to serve you and your team in both the short term & long term? Will it help you steer others in a direction that furthers your collective purpose? Are you acting in a manner congruent with being the leader you most want to be and living the life you most want to live? Or are you merely acting compulsively based on your emotional state at a particular moment?
In conclusion, it is time for us to break free of the emotional straitjacket of past norms. We should be able to express our emotions more freely at work. However, we are benefitted more by being able to express our emotions in a consciously chosen manner as opposed to impulsively. If you notice emotions are frequently bubbling over uncontrollably for you at work, it might be worth considering that there is a larger problem in your life or work that needs addressing and you may wish to seek out professional help as well.
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