I’ve been thinking a lot about dessert lately. What’s the most memorable, delicious bite of dessert you’ve ever tasted? Chances are, it wasn’t a store-bought, plastic-wrapped ball of sugar and food coloring. It probably had complex and thoughtful ingredients, designed to delight your senses.
The same, I think, is often true outside of the kitchen. While we may be hard-wired for emotional sugar cravings, it’s the more complex parts of life — a dash of salt alongside the caramel — that create a full, meaningful experience. And just as bitter notes can enhance food, challenging emotions, even in the workplace, can improve our lives.
Addressing anger or sadness at home or in a relationship can be difficult, but beneficial. Addressing these same things in the workplace can be both difficult and impractical. But does it have to be? At first thought, keeping emotions out of work makes perfect sense. We want to be productive, and relishing in an internal debate about whether or not your boss is disappointed in you could get distracting, quickly. Better, then, to push that thought aside, put on a positive face and perform. But what if part of doing a good job is facing those complicated emotions head-on? And what if avoiding these feelings altogether could hasten a costly outcome?
In general, it’s no secret that suppressing emotions can be damaging to health. Studies show that people who don’t address their emotions experience lower overall well-being, including physical symptoms like headaches and generally stronger stress responses. According to one 2019 paper, people who don’t manage their emotions are more likely to display substance abuse, poor nutrition, lack of exercise and poor sleep, all of which can cross over to your workplace and impact performance.In other words, if you’re not well in life, you won’t do well at work.
Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s wise to sulk in your cube or lash out at a teammate. Embracing negative emotions isn’t about expressing your discouragement or anger in unhealthy ways. It’s about processing them and learning to integrate negative feelings with positive ones, so you can move forward with resilience.
There’s evidence that acknowledging the entirety of an emotional experience allows us to make meaning out of it, which can improve mental and physical health. For example, maybe you’re frustrated with a co-worker who isn’t contributing but proud of yourself for taking on extra work. It may be tempting to minimize one emotion over the other, but embracing the tension between the two can have a powerful effect in your work and personal lives. “Taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being,” wrote researchers in one 2012 study.”
With the ability to tune into negative and positive emotional insights, you’ll also find more opportunities to grow. Suddenly, a difficult email from a customer might offer insight into changing your processes rather than derailing you, which could benefit your organization in the long run.
So what’s the best way forward in facing, and getting the most out of, your emotions in the workplace? First, practice some self-reflection.
How can you tell if you’re repressing negative emotions at work? Frequent cases of the so-called “Sunday scaries” — a looming feeling of dread as you transition into the work week — might be one indicator that you have some emotional work to do. To help uncover potentially repressed feelings, meditation scholar Leah Weiss suggests asking yourself a series of questions about your job, including whether you dread going into the office or are lacking motivation and energy.
If you answered “yes” to any or all of Weiss’s questions, it might be time to take a new approach. Here are a few suggestions to get started:
If you’re not used to allowing your emotions surface in the workplace, it may take a bit of practice. Begin by developing a willingness to, at the minimum, accept your uncomfortable feelings in the moment instead of immediately switching the subject. For example, if you find your heart racing and palms sweating after you bomb a presentation, resist the urge to escape that feeling by jumping into another project right off the bat. Disappointment can feel overwhelming, certainly. But the first step to breaking a habit of repressing feelings is challenging yourself to sit with them longer.
When you feel out of sorts at work, are you simply mad, or could you be offended, embarrassed or disappointed? Finding what’s beneath the surface of your emotion is one key to figuring out how to manage it. Labeling emotions is effective because it’s far easier to be overwhelmed (and, consequently, run away from) an emotion you can’t name. When you can call a feeling what it is, it becomes more realistic to manage. On the other hand, incorrectly diagnosing emotions leads us to respond incorrectly.
Suppressing negative emotions may not be intentional in every case. I find that the busier I am, the longer I go without processing the emotions that come up during the day. That’s why I try to make a daily practice of reflecting on what I felt each day, and what triggered those feelings. By keeping “short accounts” of my own emotions, I ensure they don’t grow more complex or inhibit my ability to relate well with others.
Often, we avoid difficult emotions because we want to avoid conflict with others. This inclination is intuitive. Studies show that we’re most likely to lash out at others when emotions are high. But bottling emotions could have a similar effect. To reduce the risk of an angry outburst now (or later), give your body tools to calm itself down and process the physical effects of the emotions you’re experiencing.
Arizona State University professor of global leadership Christine M. Pearson recommends that when you notice anger beginning to brew, pause to take a focused, deep breath. “That momentary delay can help reason rather than instinct drive your response,” she writes.
Finding the good in scenarios that yield undesirable emotions is another way to train yourself not to avoid negative feelings at work. If you can shift your perspective to see positive side, which researchers call “reappraisal,” you won’t be so discouraged or overwhelmed when those feelings come.
I know from my day-to-day experience how easy it is to give preferential treatment to positive emotions like excitement and joy, especially when we’ve been conditioned to put on a happy face and move on. But running away from messier feelings can have negative repercussions on our physical and mental health. Avoidance can also keep us from opportunities to strengthen our character and improve our work performance. Remember: Negative emotions aren’t the enemy; we just have to develop a taste for them.