Getting real with difficult emotions at work

Photo by Michael Keen /creative commons— Art by Banksy

“Happiness” — it’s a coveted and much celebrated state of being. A lot of companies advocate for the power of positivity to create a company culture and environment where people can thrive and “be happy.” The belief is that encouraging positivity while discouraging negativity will cultivate an environment that is positive. Negativity = bad/sad and positivity = good/happy — right?

It’s not that simple, though.

The positivity myth

It’s an idea that has good intentions on the surface — research suggests that working in positive environments can bring about more productivity, harmony and certainly, happiness — but when positivity is forced or mandated, a culture built upon real, authentic happiness is not likely to be cultivated. Maria Konnikova’s piece in the New Yorker “What Makes People Feel Upbeat at Work” discusses forced positivity in the workplace:

“Alicia Grandey (an organizational psychologist at Penn State who studies emotional labor) cautions that it is incredibly difficult to impose positivity from the top and actually exert a positive effect. ‘When anything feels forced or externally controlled, it doesn’t tend to be as beneficial as when it’s coming from the self,’ she said. ‘The irony is, when you’re trying to get people to do something positive, you can’t do it. Once it’s required, it’s fake and forced.’ What you create instead is a negative backlash. ‘It feels like Big Brother.’”

Making room for constructive negativity

Requiring or forcing positivity in the workplace flips its intention. It can be silencing as well. When positivity is the only option, there’s not space to experience the breadth of human emotions that come into play day in and day out (yes, even at work — we don’t stop being humans with complex emotional needs from 9am-5pm).

The absence of this space can lead to the bottling and suppression of all those other emotions that are not seen as ‘positive’. Bottling emotions can lead to emotional leakage, outbursts, breakdowns and it might even make you sick. Suppression can facilitate a general state of being out of touch with one’s feelings. The School of Life touches on this below:

I’m not arguing that genuine positivity is a bad thing — nor do I think it’s constructive to enable brooding, downtrodden or negative behavior constantly or to share all feelings at work — but when positivity is the only option, there’s not a space for constructive negativity. Yep, I said constructive negativity. Susan David discusses this in her book Emotional Agility:

“Trying to impose happy thoughts is extremely difficult, if not impossible, because few people can just turn off negative thoughts and replace them with more pleasant ones. Also, this advice fails to consider an essential truth: Your so called ‘negative’ emotions are actually working in your favor. In fact, negativity is normal. This is a fundamental fact. We are wired to feel ‘negative’ at times. It’s simply part of the human condition. Too much stress on being positive is just one more way our culture figuratively overmedicates the normal fluctuations of our emotions.”

Constructive negativity is born from sadness, fear, disgust, anger and all those other difficult emotions. These ‘negative’ emotions are just as important and normal to feel as happiness and joy — so called ‘positive’ emotions. Comedian Louis C.K. talks about embracing those uncomfortable feelings below:

Using negativity in a constructive way involves processing uncomfortable feelings and emotions. A process that can include acknowledging and naming the emotions you are feeling, accepting that they are present and part of this ‘being a human’ thing, learning from them, then putting them to the side and moving forward.

So, what does constructive negativity look like at work? It can take many forms and can be personal or shared, but here are some examples:

Acknowledging and processing ‘negative’ emotions: This can be personal or shared (with a trusted colleague or friend) and it’s a good place to start, because it’s a process you can dictate, direct and control. Brené Brown (a researcher, storyteller and expert on vulnerability) offers these tips to reckon with uncomfortable feelings. This involves engaging with your feelings, acknowledging them and accepting them. Ultimately, it’s up to you to figure out the best way to process through difficult emotions — you can choose the speed, the method and if you want to keep it to yourself or share the process.

Using negative emotions to bring about more clarity and strengthen relationships: This is shared and involves another person, so it can be a bit scary to work through at first. It’s examining ‘negative’ emotions and then using them to clarify misunderstandings/miscommunications and strengthen interpersonal relationships. For example, if your boss keeps emailing you during your off hours or scheduling meetings that you are expected to attend on your day off — you might assume that’s because they don’t respect your time. This can lead to resentment, stress or anger. That might not be their intention, though. They might just be disorganized and unaware of your work hours/day or think you are totally fine working on your time off.

Instead of making up a story by filling in the blank space between what your boss might mean (the story you make up) and how that makes you feel (your feelings) — speaking to them directly about how their actions affect you and make you feel, will give the other person in the situation the chance to tell their side of the story. It could be that they do expect you to be available all the time, they don’t respect your time or they might not be open to talking it through at all. At the very least you will have more clarity surrounding a situation than you started with and you can make more informed decisions about how to proceed.

Embracing constructive criticism and feedback to open communication channels: Making space for and embracing constructive criticism and feedback involves turning this sometimes uncomfortable activity into something more normalized. Then, using these opportunities to make changes and improvements — if possible — but more simply, allowing for the sharing of dissenting viewpoints, perspectives and opening communication channels where they might not have been before.

Leaders can take the reins and lead by example here — opening up communication channels by encouraging and embracing feedback and constructive criticism, being transparent about issues a team is facing (positive as well as negative), tweaking or being aware of their mindset surrounding employee feedback/criticism and the intent behind why an employee is speaking up about something — constructive negativity usually has a positive intent and is not meant to be an attack against leadership.

Being human

Constructive negativity is not complaining, yelling, punching a wall, venting by ranting to a colleague or engaging in ‘brooding’ behavior — becoming closely attached to the feelings that are being felt, thinking you ‘are’ the feelings you feel and holding onto them tightly. For example, brooding thoughts sound a bit like this:

  • “When I share my dissenting viewpoint, I’m immediately shut down. I’m not going to voice my opinions and needs any longer, because they don’t matter and no one listens to me anyways. I’m resentful about this now and I’m going to stay resentful and show how resentful I am.”
  • “I’m not good at support, because I get upset and feel apathetic towards customers sometimes. I’m not good with people and I don’t see a way to change how I feel. I’m going to be passive aggressive and negative about this to show how upset I am when I’m asked to help with support or speak with a customer.”
  • “This is terrible — it will never get any better. I don’t see any solutions down the line for this problem. We are doomed!!!”

These are exaggerated examples, but you get the point. Brooding behavior does not just affect the person exhibiting it — it’s contagious. If a colleague is displaying signs of intense stress, anger or any other destructively negative thoughts/actions (without trying to work through them), you can inhale those dark feelings like second hand smoke. Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D. wrote about this in her Psychology Today article entitled Emotions Are Contagious — Choose Your Company Wisely”:

“Just as second-hand smoke can have the same or worse effects on the health of nonsmokers, second-hand emotions (*the destructively negative kind) can have significant, long-lasting effects on the health and well being of those experiencing them. The negativity keeps pounding away at you and ultimately results in significant second-hand stress, which as you might expect, has the same effects on your mind and body as direct stress. The body experiences and interprets it as one in the same.”

Awareness surrounding how constant destructive negativity affects others as well as yourself, could be effective motivation to encourage positive change — by flipping the script and using those negative feelings in a constructive way. Although, it’s OK to feel this way and react in ways that are not constructive at work sometimes — we are all human. No one is perfect. Working through emotional pitfalls, examining feelings and learning how to process emotions in a way that works for you as an individual is not easy. It’s hard and it is a process, after all!

*It’s important to note — if you are feeling incredibly stuck — like there’s no way out of those dark thoughts and feelings, you feel like you are drowning in them, anxiety has taken over your life or you are exhibiting signs of depression — it might be time to ask for help. Here’s how you can find it.*

Getting real

The next time negative emotions pop up at work, I want to suggest getting real with them— instead of pushing them aside or covering them up with metaphorical or literal smiley face emojis.

Again, from Susan David:

“Once we stop struggling to eliminate distressing feelings, or to smother them with positive affirmations or rationalizations, they can teach us valuable lessons.”

Examining and processing through negative emotions can lead to more opportunities for:

Hope in a situation where there was none seen: Instead of jumping to conclusions, feeling hopeless or quitting when something gets hard— examining and naming the distressing emotions that are being felt can create hope that there’s space for change or development. There’s an opportunity to use those negative feelings to figure out solutions to problems you are faced with — sparking curiosity surrounding your work and opening up space to job craft. You might also find this space does not exist at your current place of employment (and quitting might be the best option), but the addition of hope helps to expand viewpoints that were once more narrow.

Strengthened communication channels and increased trust within a team or company: Cultivating space where it’s possible to be heard and to listen to dissenting views can lead to more strengthened and open communication channels. Once you know you won’t face dire consequences for really talking through hard issues, giving/receiving tough feedback, sharing dissenting viewpoints and giving/receiving constructive criticism — trust within a team also grows.

Increased feeling of ‘belonging’ vs ‘fitting in’: When you don’t need to mute yourself, hold your ideas back or ‘fake it’ to fit in, increased trust that ‘being yourself as you are’ in a company culture, builds and this can lead to a more solidified sense of belonging.

And, yes…it can also lead to more overall happiness at work. So, don’t force that frown upside down — instead, start small by first acknowledging those difficult emotions when they pop up — then, you can experiment with processing through them and see how that makes you feel — you might be pleasantly (but, not too pleasantly 😀) surprised!

If you are interested in learning more about emotional agility & how to process through negative emotions which is something I did not touch upon too much above, check out Susan David’s book Emotional Agility here — for a brief version, her popular Harvard Business Review article on the same topic is here.

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