Consider the various negative thoughts and emotions you've ever experienced at work--perhaps fear of failure, guilt about success, feeling like an imposter, or the discomfort of receiving negative feedback. In addition to these common sentiments, Harvard psychologist and executive coach Susan David says people often struggle with feeling cheated, bullied, embarrassed, humiliated, frustrated, stressed, unprepared, overwhelmed, excluded, unwelcome, and unconfident. Whew! What's more, no one is immune, not even big shot C-level types who outwardly appear to have everything together.
Like it or not, negative emotions are an inevitable part of life. But according to David they can be useful to your career and life. The key is handling them properly.
Three Roots to Feeling Bad
She says the negative feelings people experience generally emerge from three main roots:
Business professionals often struggle with anger or frustration when they feel their goals are being blocked or what they're trying to achieve is being stymied. Anxiety is future-focused and commonly involves an underlying fear of being threatened or vulnerable. Sadness tends to be focused on the past and involves feelings of disappointment or a sense of loss.
The reasons behind negative emotions differ from person to person.
"For one leader it might be 'I'm this far in my career but I haven't made the mark that I've wanted to,'" David explains. "For other people it's going to be about an opportunity that might have been in front of them that they didn't get or feeling that they've messed something up."
Negative Emotions as Catalysts
Charles Darwin was one of the first people to assert that these types of emotions are useful, Davis says, pointing to his book "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," in which he postulated that all emotions are critical because they have evolved to help us survive.
"They are helpful even if some of those emotions are undesirable and we don't like feeling them," she says. "Emotions are a way of messaging to us how we are doing in relation to things that are important to us, like our core goals, values, and relationships."
Someone who values autonomy, for example, may feel angry and frustrated by a boss who likes to micromanage. If family is important to you long stretches of 16-hour work days may surface feelings of guilt. Or an entrepreneur bootstrapping a fledgling business may experience anxiety if she highly regards financial stability.
The trick is to see your emotions as providing information about what is important to you. Step back and notice your negative emotions, and find the underlying value or goal that's being deprived. Identifying it is a first step in making positive changes in your life.
Wrong Ways to Deal With Bad Feelings
Unfortunately, people often don't handle negative emotions well, with men being more likely to try to ignore them and women more prone to rumination, Davis says.
"When people suppress or dwell on emotions--even though they're two totally opposite ends of the spectrum--they tend to have lower levels of ability to tolerate stress," she says. "They have higher levels of anxiety and sad feelings, which is kind of interesting when it comes to suppression, because they're trying to push their emotions aside so that they don't feel them but it actually leads to a magnification. A lot of research has shown that suppression, paradoxically, results in the emotions resurfacing more frequently and often more intensely."
People who suppress or ruminate on their feelings also experience lower levels of interpersonal effectiveness and exhibit what David calls "emotional leakage," which involves taking frustrations out on the wrong people at unexpected times. For instance, someone frustrated by a situation at work who tries to ignore it or dwells on it too strongly is more likely to go home and be disproportionately angry with a child for leaving a bicycle on the front lawn.
David says leaders often feel that suppressing feelings or overthinking helps them get on with their work or problem-solve, but it actually reduces their cognitive resources and negatively impacts on their ability to be effective.
Thoughts Are Not Necessarily Facts
Another damaging behavior involves treating your feelings as fact. For example, just because the thought "I'm a fraud" pops into your head doesn't mean you really are a fraud. If you treat it as fact, however, you may do something counterproductive, such as not contribute in a meeting to avoid looking like an idiot.
"We start confusing 'Gee, I'm anxious that I might mess up this presentation' which is a thought into 'I am anxious and I am going to mess up the presentation' so we start to almost become the thought and we don't have any space between us and the thought and emotion," David says.
For example, imagine you have a co-worker whose behavior consistently fouls your mood. Maybe he's a braggart, criticizes everything you do or shirks his duties so you have to take up the slack. Every time you see him you vent inwardly or outwardly that you can't work with this person. Over time, you find yourself avoiding him or trying to get assigned to projects in which he's not involved. While your actions might seem reasonable, what if the projects and the skills you may gain working on them are actually important to your career? Essentially, your reaction to your emotion and buying into it by letting it direct your actions may be negatively affecting the quality of your work, your development, and your career.
David suggests a better response. With a curious and compassionate orientation, notice your feelings and how you respond to them. What are they signaling to you about your values and your goals? Are you consistently sarcastic when you talk to the annoying co-worker? Do you put him down or avoid him? Is your pattern of behavior helping you?
"Sometimes simply prefixing your feelings internally with the words 'I am noticing' can help enormously to defuse and create some space between you and your emotions," David says. "'I'm so angry' becomes 'I am noticing that I'm getting angry.' 'I just can't be in this meeting any more' becomes 'I am noticing the urge to shut down.'"
Noticing emotions, and leaning in to them while not suppressing or ruminating isn't simply a mechanistic process. "It involves adopting a real stance of compassion towards oneself and one's experience and then moving forward in a way that is workable and values-aligned," David says.
She calls this ability to manage one's thoughts and feelings "emotional agility" and writes on the subject for Harvard Business Review. Want to know how emotionally agile you are? Check out David's assessment at HBR as well as a short video that sums her advice regarding negative emotions.