We may believe that expressing our feelings in some contexts is a virtue, and we may be vulnerable or lose our cool from time to time at home or with friends, but most of us long ago got the memo that unfiltered emotional reactivity is a big no-no at work. We don’t need research to tell us not to scream at our boss, walk out of a team meeting in disgust, go mute with anxiety in the middle of a presentation, or cry anywhere outside a locked bathroom stall.
In the workplace, where freaking out isn’t a viable option, emotional suppression is the number one barrier between us and our purpose. We equate professionalism and leadership with emotional suppression, and we don’t see a problem with that (other than that it can be a challenge to maintain our composure on a particularly stressful day). We believe that productivity, professionalism, and respect are dependent upon our projecting an air of emotional neutrality and that it’s on us to hide or deny our feelings at work. Thinking the feelings themselves are the problem, we try to get rid of them or ignore them altogether, not realizing how much of our mental resources are burned up in the effort. And the effort is a fruitless one. We think that stuffing our feelings down is the best and only way to get by at work, but when we do that, we block the pathway to a vital source of information: our emotions.
James Gross, the godfather of the psychology of emotions and a senior professor at Stanford, was a pioneer in the field of emotion regulation before it was a field. His research has demonstrated very clearly that the more we try to get around our emotions, the worse off we are. Avoidance, rumination, and suppression all correlate with more anxiety and depression, negative emotions, less working memory, more stress, diminished feelings of authenticity, and a worsened ability to take tests. People who employ suppressive strategies to deal with their feelings are also seen as less likable by others.
There’s a reason our emotions hang on so stubbornly despite our repeated attempts to extinguish or ignore them: we need them for our survival. We are hardwired as emotional creatures. Throughout the millennia of our evolution as social beings, feelings have been encoded into our DNA. They aren’t an add-on but, rather, a key part of our makeup as humans. We are social creatures and have an incredible capacity to internalize social norms (how our actions will be interpreted by others). In our own emotional reactions, we can get quick and efficient information about what will fly with the members of our tribe (or office team). Our ability to register the group’s norms efficiently in our own experience is the benefit that our interior, emotional lives offers us. According to Gross, the primary reason emotions exist is to prompt us to action. We can think of our emotions as alarm bells that alert us to pay attention to the things that are important to us. Our emotional response system is a biologically based, highly evolved mechanism of gathering information about our environment. This information allows us to see more clearly our goals and needs in a given situation.
For example, difficult emotions, such as anger or jealousy, are signals that we care about something. It’s like the cliché goes: we don’t pick a fight with someone we don’t care about. The same principle applies when we feel irrationally upset with someone at work. When a coworker is driving us crazy, we can choose to take the perspective that we are upset because we care about our work. This is a good thing.
When we learn how to listen to our emotions, we can see that they are not a problem we need to fix. Rather, they are our very deepest source of wisdom. Listening to them is a survival skill. To turn them off is antithetical to our ability to function. In fact, one of the telltale signs of burnout is growing detached and cynical in our work relationships and duties.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we walk around the office letting everyone know how we feel about our day, about our boss, or about the organizations for which we work. But I would like to suggest that instead of ignoring or suppressing our feelings at work, we pay attention to them. The path to our purpose goes through our emotions— even (especially) the hard ones. In Buddhist tradition, we might use the metaphor of the snake trapped in a stalk of bamboo: There is no “getting around” our emotions. The only way out is through. If, say, a coworker is using humor that is making us uncomfortable, we might do well not to ignore that feeling. To do so is not only damaging to us but may also prove harmful to others.
Emotions at Work: The Gender Gap
When emotions appear to get in our way, it offers us an interesting opportunity to investigate what emotions are. According to a Kreamer Survey of two hundred working Americans, women reported that they felt anger at work slightly more than men—51 percent versus 42 percent. But young men (42 percent) versus women (23 percent) believe that anger is an effective management tool. Forty-one percent of women reported that they had cried during the past year versus 9 percent of men. But here’s one thing both sexes agreed on: 80 percent of the men and women surveyed said they would like to see more emotion expressed openly in the workplace.
What Doesn’t Work
Given what we know from the research, we need to question the idea that we basically live in the upper few inches of our heads, and that emotions are add-ons that “happen” to us. Mindfulness offers us the tools for decoding our emotions and making it through to the other side of even the most difficult ones. When we cultivate self-awareness, we can learn our triggers and understand how to self-regulate or adapt to challenging situations. With self-compassion, we can experience an emotion without becoming it or acting on it in a way we’ll regret. By setting intentions and working with our big-picture puzzle box cover in mind, we can listen to the wisdom our emotions have to offer and make better decisions.
When we suppress our emotions, we are also clouding judgment, blunting our emotional IQ, and increasing stress. Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective on emotions too often gets boiled down to the idea that our feelings, once helpful in the context of saber-toothed tigers and hard-to-come-by food, are no longer adaptive in the modern world. The corresponding advice amounts to dealing with our feelings as so many false alarms. True, our emotions don’t always reflect objective reality, but nor should we go too far the other way and categorically ignore them. There can be wisdom in our feelings even today, cues for adaptive behavior if we’re willing to look for them and learn from them.
HOW WE WORK. Copyright © 2018 by Leah Weiss.
Reprinted here with permission from Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers