One thing you should know about me – I am a crier. Whether nature or nurture or whatever else is going on in my brain, I have always been a crier. I cried in the first grade. My teacher sent me to the principal’s office. I cried at home. My mother sent me to my room – or rather – anywhere AWAY from HER. It didn’t stop the crying. In my first semester of college we were assigned a professor for guidance. Every time I met with him I would cry. I could still have conversations and nothing was really wrong, but, nonetheless, I would have tears streaming down my cheeks the entire time.
Why did I cry? Different reasons. I screwed up. I wasn’t perfect. Something went wrong. I think something MAY have gone wrong. Someone doesn’t like me. I am stressed or angry or having a strong feeling about something and I don’t know what to do about that. I have these feelings that I feel I can’t share with anyone or even if I share them they don’t really understand. And then on top of all that, I was crying in public and now I am embarrassed so I am going to cry about that too.
So, naturally, when I started working in a professional environment, I brought my emotions with me. And that meant from time to time, I would have tears at work. It happens. Or at least it happened to me. That said, I know all women don’t cry. I never saw my mother cry. But more women seem to cry than men. I know there are some physiological reasons for this, but, more importantly, it is a psychological thing, a socialization thing – society trains women to cry and men to get angry. While this is certainly not a statement about all women or all men, there are stereotypes: a woman is depressed – she cries, a woman is stressed – she cries. A woman is happy – she cries. Happy tears, but still tears. Men, on the other hand, have traditionally been taught that it isn’t okay to cry. Instead, they get angry. A man is depressed – he seems angry. A man gets stressed – he seems angry. A man is happy – well, hopefully he is just happy. But somehow, society has determined that anger is a more acceptable emotion in the workplace because that is the emotion that is typically the only emotion regularly used in a traditionally male-dominated workplace.
So, does that mean that we can’t be emotional in the workplace? Do we have to suppress all of our feelings in the workplace – stuff them in a box and not let them out until we get home? As an employee and a manager I believe that to be an emphatic “No!” Emotions – both having them and also NOTICING THEM IN OTHERS – can make us better at our jobs and more effective in navigating the workplace. My ability to empathize, to observe emotional leakage, if you will, helps me keep better in tune to when employees are having issues or how to better communicate with and persuade bankers. Doing a role play as a fraudster in a training course one year, one woman got my “character” to confess to the crime. The men in the room were badgering me and the woman was empathetic, understanding, sympathetic, and caring – all the tips we had given the students during the course. I told her she had done a great job. She said after class that day that she had always been told that her empathy was a workplace negative. With this training experience, she finally understood that it could be a positive.
All that said, there can be emotions that may seem too strong for the workplace, or that we just don’t want to share with everyone. We need to be professional, particularly when we are working directly with the public, when we are working in a cube farm or a goldfish bowl and everyone can see us. So, how do I deal with that? Here are some ways I have used to help me deal with my emotions at work:
Take a Break – When things are overwhelming, get away for a moment. Leave. Go take a walk, go sit in your car, go outside and buy a coffee or tea. Or an ice cream cone. Separate yourself for a little bit and get away from people to have a moment for you. I also find that physical exertion, for example, walking, can be mentally and physically re-energizing.
Reach out or call a friend – Remember you can always reach out to someone. Whether for advice or just to listen, you are NOT alone. There are people in your life who will understand, who can commiserate, who can give advice.
Problem Solve – Can this issue be fixed? Is there a possible solution? Put your mind to problem solving and strategizing to figure out how to make the situation better rather than just despair that it is bad.
Remember it isn’t personal – Sometimes we get into situations that we take very personally, but it is not about us. When we are having a difficult conversation with a customer or a coworker, they may get emotional, they may get angry. Maybe you are telling them something negative and they feel personally attacked. Their comments back to us are not personal. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes people get defensive. But it isn’t really about you – it is about the other person. Keep it calm and professional and detach your ego from the conversation.
Know that you are more than this situation – Sometimes things happen and we feel upset. Devastated even. We didn’t get the rating we thought we deserved. We didn’t get that promotion. We got criticized on some aspect of a project. It is easy to let one negative thing drag you down. Take it, learn from it. But you are more than this incident and more than this situation. Don’t forget who you are and how many great things are in your life.
Have confidence – This goes well with the two pointers I just discussed. Having confidence gives you the assurance to know you will get through this. However bad it seems in the moment, you have the ability to get through it.
Fake it ‘til you make it (or positive self-talk) – This may initially sound like boxing up your emotions, but not at all. It is about giving yourself positive self-talk and positive experiences that will actually help you feel better. When I was a teen and I was depressed I would walk into a classroom and faceplant my head on my desk. That certainly didn’t help me feel better. Now, if I am feeling depressed I make sure I pet my guinea pigs before I leave the house, I smile at people when I come into the office: I act positive and confident. Having people smile back at you, reacting positively to you, and you reacting positively to life actually can help make you feel better.
Experience makes it easier – The more experiences you have the more you realize that whatever situation is happening is going to work out and the more you become effective at knowing what tools work for you and in what situations. You still have emotions – you just get more experienced at knowing how to effectively cope with them or creating a safe space for yourself when you don’t feel that you can cope with them.
Finally, just be yourself. We are all human. We all have feelings. Sometimes letting people see your vulnerabilities lets them know that they can share their vulnerabilities, too.
So, those are some of my techniques. I hope that sharing my experiences and my tools in some way helps you better navigate your emotions in the workplace.