Illustrator: Ashley Siebels
Many of us have been taught to ignore, discount, or devalue our feelings. Or we learn to only express particular emotions in specific settings at certain times. For example, we hear things like “boys should never cry” and “it’s unladylike to express anger,” and we are supposed to behave accordingly.
These messages may be passed along by our families, our cultural and religious institutions, and society at large. Perhaps these communications are well-intentioned to seemingly help us follow public rules and not stick out like a sore thumb.
As psychologists and faculty at Yale University, we spend a lot of time encouraging people to understand their emotions. We teach a course called “Interpersonal Dynamics” at Yale’s School of Management to help current and future business leaders develop the capacity to create more open, effective, and rewarding relationships both on and off the job. A large part of the course is teaching theoretical and practical frameworks and skills to help identify, understand, use, and express emotions wisely.
Don’t bottle your emotions at work
If we had a giant megaphone, we’d tell people who say workers should suppress negative feelings at work to please stop promoting this line of thinking.
When people suppress feelings, they wind up shutting out access to a lot of great thinking. People can sometimes succeed in suppression but can wind up throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
In addition to suppressing emotional expression that is unwelcome, they can also suppression good ideas, enthusiasm for being at work, and the capacity for connecting with others.
Has anyone ever told you to smile when you’re having a bad day or to be just “be nice” when you really feel like knocking someone upside the head? If so, you were being told to essentially bottle your emotions.
But telling people to zip their emotions, lock it, and put it in their pocket doesn’t work. Eventually, these emotions will come out one way or another — they’ll leak, burst, or fester inside you and take a toll on your emotional or physical health.
This kind of suppression of emotions is not only bad for people; it’s destructive to our organizations and the world.
Why emotions are good
There are reasons why we have emotions. We need emotions to motivate and organize us for action (e.g., overcoming obstacles), communicate with and influence others (e.g., sending them a message) and communicate with ourselves. Emotions are powerful data that help us understand the world around us.
The goal is not to express all our feelings all of the time. That would exhaust us and tax our co-workers. The objective is to start becoming more aware of the emotions we do have — and have a choice in their expression, both on and off the job.
Psychologist and President of Yale University Peter Salovey and Jack Meyer devised a model of emotional intelligence. Essentially, they found that those with stronger emotional intelligence have the ability to accurately identify emotions (their own and others), the ability to use emotions to help them think through problems and develop solutions, the ability to understand the causes of emotions and the ability to manage emotions to help make decisions and take effective action.
Most of us aren’t born with superior emotional intelligence, but we can learn to be more effective in our everyday interactions, even in our adulthood. Having access to emotional information can help us to motivate ourselves and others in ways that positively impact work culture and job performance.
Building your emotional vocabulary
Some of us need an emotional vocabulary list to help us see and accurately label a broader range of emotions.
Take anger for example. Some of us think we understand this powerful emotion — we know when we are angry or we’re not.
But there are large gradations between fleeting annoyance and full-fledged rage. Understanding the differences along that continuum makes us more effective human beings and better communicators.
For example, if a co-worker borrows your stapler and you go into a fiery wrath and make aggressive or threatening gestures, that’s problematic.
But if you allow yourself to experience the appropriate level of aggravation from such an inconvenience, and you express it to the other person with a clear head, concordant tone, posture, and facial expression, you not only get your point across and feel good about yourself but you also often gain power and respect.
Not everyone can appropriately self-regulate especially under duress. Being able to do so while remaining authentically engaged can wind up being a useful way to positively differentiate yourself.
So rather than suppressing your own and other people’s emotions on the job, be willing to take the risk of being familiar with a gaining the ability to wisely use your emotions. It may feel a bit vulnerable at the start, but over time, you can gain choice and using your emotions can be an asset rather a liability.