There is more talk now about emotions than I can ever remember. I have always had emotions, as have you, but talking openly about them was not seen as the thing to do. Emotions were to be kept private, certainly in public. And certainly, in work. With the pandemic, stress has
risen and we cannot continue to ignore emotions. Research tells us that it is important to acknowledge how we feel and to raise our empathy awareness. By doing so, we are more authentic and such authenticity helps us to feel more comfortable and confident in life and at work. We can also then be kinder to others which improves workplace morale overall. Did we need science to tell us this?
What are emotions? We all have emotions and know they are present from how we label them and how they make us feel. For example, anger, fear, sadness or happiness. You can probably recall a time when you have felt all of these emotions. Some are more pleasant than others and, whilst we would all prefer or have more positive emotions than negative, they are all normal and negative emotions may even be helpful as a signal that we need to act on something. But why do they arise?
An emotion is the reaction of the body to mood, situation or person. Emotions are generated by neurobiological processes but our life experiences and interpretations may impact our emotions. Emotions can also appear to arise instinctively, automatically. We know emotions are here because of how we feel - happy, sad, angry, scared, anxious, excited and so on.
By understanding your own feelings, for example, where they stem from or how you react in certain situations, you are raising awareness than can support how you show up in life and at work. Can you recall a quick-to-anger boss who seems to have no control when it comes to a certain client or a deadline? Or perhaps you know you tend to be quick to anger. It may be that you notice another person is often very quiet and never willing to get involved in team meetings, leading to your frustration. What do you do with such anger or frustration? Suppress it? Acknowledge it? Judge the other person or yourself?
How often do you reflect on how you feel and what it may be telling you – about yourself or another person?
We all have emotions. You. Me. Everyone.
Emotions cause us to behave in ways that may well be in our interests (for example, you are very happy in a relationship and both choose to marry) but also in ways that may not be in our best interests. I have worked with high achieving individuals my entire career and I help them to figure out what is possible. For them. Sometimes I have noticed that people are in careers they do not enjoy and so are in a state of chronic sadness (without acknowledging it); this is normal, I have been there. They may convince themselves that they are fine and that they even enjoy some parts of their job and that, for them, is ample. And yet the years may pass with hopes and dreams of life offering them more. These individuals fail to act on these hopes and dreams. I can tell you that this is not the healthiest or most satisfying way to live life.
Being in tune with your emotions in the workplace can give you clues about what is working and what is not working. For example, if there is conflict with a colleague that makes you feel frightened, you may avoid that person rather than find sensible ways to change the situation. Sometimes we do not want to be in touch with our emotions – but as I repeated earlier we all have emotions. Negative emotions left to fester can be painfully damaging to your authentic self.
When we feel something that we know is negative, my view is that we must acknowledge it. Of course, I understand that nobody ideally want wants to sit in negativity. However, by acknowledging negative emotions, you can then ask what is going on for you. What is the feeling signalling to you? Could it be that a conversation needs to happen? Perhaps you are avoiding something you feel anxious about and that is causing greater stress and you are in a vicious cycle. It is common.
Addressing emotions means dealing with them. When you deal with them, rather than suppress them, you are in control. When emotions seem to take us over, they are in control and we feel helpless.
How energetic, motivated or active are you when you feel helpless?
Did you know that even perceived positive emotions could be detrimental if not regulated? For example, over-excitement may cloud your judgment leading to indecisiveness or making the wrong choices. Be mindful.
How to start understanding your emotions better?
Taking control starts with being willing to notice your own emotions. This may seem uncomfortable but when you master this, your life can change for the better.
Here’s what I and my clients do:
1. Notice the emotion – what is it? Is it really anxiety or is it sadness or frustration? Is it anger or is it confusion? Really take a few moments to notice.
2. Notice where in your body you are noticing the emotion – in the abdomen, the chest, the throat, the back? Or somewhere else? What does that feel like? Most likely, it is unpleasant but as you notice more of the negative emotions, you can catch them quicker and question their truth.
3. Do the circumstances only lend themselves to negative emotion or emotion of this strength? In other words, is there another way to look at the situation causing the negative feelings? Some people call this re-framing. In lay terms, I would encourage you to ask whether what you are feeling is justified and whether it is coming from only one lens that you have never previously questioned. This is important because we have embedded certain thoughts and emotions and patterns of behaviour connected to these. Patterns sometimes need to be challenged and changed. There is no harm is asking yourself: How else could I look at this situation? One way may to view it from the lens of a colleague, a partner, a child or parent.
4. If necessary and possible, remove yourself from the situation you find negative and take time to reflect on your emotions in a different space. Sometimes, it can be a change of environment that enables fresh thought.
5. Remember that emotions and thoughts are connected. How you think can impact how you feel and vice versa. Imagine, for example, that you are sitting in a reception for an interview – other candidates that you see, you assess as being better than you as they appear so confident and are well groomed and look more like the type of person the company would hire; when you hear them speak, you assess they attended an Ivy league university. You sense you will never get the job. These thoughts are thoughts in your mind. How do you feel?
Now, imagine the opposite. You have prepared well, you know you have all the answers, you know you fit in, you are confident in yourself, you have taken care of your physical and overall wellbeing. You tell yourself you are well placed for the role. These thoughts are thoughts in your mind. What do you notice as you imagine this latter scene? What other thoughts come to mind, what emotions?
This tells us that if we can manage our thoughts, we can regulate our feelings. This suggests we need to therefore be aware of how we think especially if there are automatic thoughts that do not serve us well. Such thoughts lead to, or reinforce, unhelpful emotions. Unhelpful emotions hold you back. Being held back means that you cannot flourish to the best of your ability in life or at work.
I invite you to start pausing and reflecting on how you think and how you feel and perhaps note down what you notice. Try this for a week. When you catch a negative thought, ask what emotion you feel and notice if there is another way to view the situation. Even if there is not, noticing can help you to choose what to do with the emotions – sit in it or acknowledge, choose sensible steps and move forward.
By understanding your emotions more clearly, you can also build empathy towards how others may be feeling. Rather than judging, you may be more patient or understanding.
Sometimes in the workplace, we may get frustrated with others but, if everyone builds their emotional awareness muscle, cultures can transform. Imagine that!
Disclaimer: I happily share insights and information in short and provocative ways to help readers learn and grow. The views shared are my views as a coach with an focus on the mind and resilience and helping people to thrive. I am not a scientist or psychologist and the article is for information purposes only. If you feel anxious, depressed or burnt out or are curious about other extreme feelings and thoughts, please see your doctor.