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Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Your Emotions, Even at Work

Originally posted in collaboration with StyleBlueprint.

Though we’ve made progress in opening up the conversation around mental health, there remains a stigma associated with being “too emotional” — especially for women, and especially at work. Still, many experts urge us to embrace our emotions and learn to value them as information that can help us learn, grow, and even become more successful professionally. And, let’s get real: Having an emotional connection to our work shouldn’t be considered a negative.

We spoke with Candi Shelton, one of the emotional wellness experts at Onsite, for ways to better understand and manage your emotions in the workplace and beyond.

Read on for strategies that will help you interpret and share your emotions effectively, tips for navigating the emotional dynamics of a team, and more!

Managing Your Emotions at Work and Beyond

Try looking at emotions as information.

Many of us grew up with a narrative about our emotions, even if we can’t readily identify this narrative. Sometimes it is shaped by phrases: “Don’t cry,” “You’re being too sensitive,” or “That’s enough of that.” Sometimes the narrative gets told through the unwritten rules inside our families of origin. For instance, maybe certain emotions were off-limits for us because they were monopolized by someone else. Or perhaps certain emotions were labeled “bad,” and others were labeled “good.”

If we can consider our emotions as vital mechanisms for delivering information, then we can begin to see just how useful ALL emotions can be. In fact, if we’re willing to get curious, each of our emotions offers us a gift and invitation that will serve us in every area of our lives, including work.

Each emotion offers us a unique gift:

  • Sadness: Sadness values and honors what is missed.
  • Anger: Anger awakens us to injustice and motivates us into action.
  • Fear: Fear keeps us safe. It helps us practice and prepare.
  • Shame: Shame awakens us to our humility and our humanity. It creates an opportunity to embrace self-love.
  • Joy: Joy helps us discover the fullness and richness of life.

Managing emotions in the workplace

There’s a significant distinction between being viewed as “too emotional” in the workplace versus “emotionally intelligent.” The first suggests a sense of volatility and the impression that your emotions are ruling your decisions; the second suggests a sense of wisdom and understanding of your environment.

To be emotionally intelligent, awareness is crucial — awareness of ourselves, our own emotional landscapes, and also the experiences of others. Through awareness, we develop a healthy working relationship with our emotions, allowing us to remain in the driver’s seat while gaining insight into what our emotions may be communicating.

We’ll dig deep into the best ways to share your emotions (and receive when others share), but often, the perception of being emotional (or unemotional) is directly related to our behavior.

Here are three tips from the folks at Onsite for managing the way that you show your emotions in the workplace:

  • Get curious: Showing emotions is about expression, and expression is up for interpretation in many ways. Things like cultural norms, personality types, and even our ever-changing moods can dictate how we express our emotions. So, one of the first things we can do in showing emotion is to simply start paying attention. Remember, we think of emotions as pieces of information, so if we get curious and pay attention to how we express them, we can use that information to build more self-awareness.
  • Be conscious of context: One thing we can do to show our emotions appropriately is by aligning with the context of a given situation. For example, if we are in a meeting with colleagues and it gets heated, it’s appropriate to express our emotions in a way that communicates our passion and perspective. It’s not appropriate to express emotion in a way that harms others or shuts down the conversation. Gaining that self-awareness will help us express emotion so that it aligns with the moment. Sometimes raising your voice may be what the moment calls for; sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes laughing loudly is a perfect display of emotion, and other times it’s not.
  • Don’t try to control: Another thing to note is that sometimes we express emotions in ways that we don’t always mean. Sometimes when we’re angry or frustrated, we might tear up. Sometimes when we’re sad, we may laugh. Expressing emotions is tricky because we may feel we don’t always have “control” over them, and that might be the most important thing to consider when we talk about how we express emotion in the workplace. Perhaps we could be better served by not trying to “control” our emotions, but by identifying them, understanding them, and then working with them so that they serve us instead of feeling like a liability.

When and how to share personal hardships with coworkers

Bringing our whole selves to our work makes us better leaders and employees, but it can be difficult to know what to share and when. If you’re dealing with something difficult in your personal life that affects your work, it’s beneficial to let your colleagues and supervisors know.

You don’t have to share every detail. Instead, share how it affects your ability to complete your work and what you may need in the way of support. For example, “My partner has been sick, so I haven’t been sleeping well, and my anxiety is high. I can’t seem to focus the way I want to. If it’s possible for me to push this deadline by a few days, it would be helpful.”

Navigating the emotional dynamics of a team

When it comes to workplace dynamics, there IS a place for emotion, but it’s important to maintain professionalism. Use these tactics to ensure that your emotions (and those of your colleagues and clients) are being respected — without getting in the way of your goals.

  • Less is More: Sharing is about being seen because it requires offering something of yourself to another person. It also requires building trust and holding space to show up authentically without fear of judgment or messing up. By definition, the people with whom you share your emotions in a work context will likely be fewer, and that’s a good thing.
  • Ask Questions: Questions are often better than directives: “Do you need to take a break for a moment to de-escalate?” “What are you feeling right now? On a scale of one to 10, how big is it?” These kinds of questions help cultivate more awareness and introduce a sense of agency and accountability for how we are showing up. This is helpful at all levels of an organization.
  • Set Boundaries: Set boundaries for yourself and gently remind people when they bump up against them or cross them. For instance, if someone repeatedly overshares with you in ways that erode healthy work boundaries, acknowledge their energy around the topic and let them know that you cannot be the person to hold space for them right now.
  • Communicate Clearly: For supervisors who manage direct reports, a good framework is “more of this, less of this” feedback. If someone is having trouble finding the balance in sharing and showing emotion, you may say, “I love how passionate you are. I would like to see more of that passion directed into the work (problem-solving, process improvement, etc.) and less reactionary behavior or side conversations.”
  • Avoid Venting: Ensure that sharing emotions doesn’t become code for perpetually venting frustrations. Asking questions is helpful here as well. A question like “What’s one thing you can do to move toward a resolution?” creates forward momentum and accountability. It’s a good question to ask yourself and others.

Keeping emotions “in check”

Viktor Frankl famously said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Even when something feels like an emergency, there is always a space, even if it feels really small. One of the best tools we have is “the pause.” One deep breath can actually change the trajectory of a heated moment. It has the power to change the temperature in the room and the direction a conversation may move. You may even communicate your need for a pause out loud. “I need to step out for two minutes to reset, but this is important, and I want to show up to it as best I can.” Cultivating the awareness of that moment when you’re not in it will serve you well when you are. But even without time to practice, the pause is a powerful tool.

Handling conflict at work

Sometimes emotions arise in the workplace due to conflict with a supervisor, team member, or client. Onsite’s CEO, Julie Smith, often says that “time is a great thickener of things,” which means that conflicts might have better outcomes when we give ourselves the gift of time. Even 24 to 48 hours can offer clarity and perspective.

When we find ourselves feeling things like frustration, anger, resentment, or even shame, one of the best things we can do is let our nervous systems come back to a state of calm so that we can find objectivity. This is the state where we can engage in fruitful dialogue, take ownership of our piece of the pie, and more accurately name the things we see and feel in the conflict. It can become less accusatory or confrontational and more objective and relational.

So, next time you’re tempted to see your emotions as a setback and push them aside, try viewing them as visitors who have dropped by to share a piece of valuable information — and consider the strategies above to help you make the most of them!