Tell me if this sounds familiar:
Have you ever been so frustrated with matters at work that you exploded with anger at your kids at the end of an exhausting day?
Or perhaps you have become anxious or fearful, wondering why your boss or coworker hasn’t respond to one of your messages. Are they mad? Are they going to fire you?
And there have probably been times when you found yourself distracted by worry during a Zoom meeting, so much so that you weren’t able to focus on the task at hand.
If you can relate to the above, it goes to show how common it is to experience a range of different emotions, even within one day. And when you feel overwhelmed by your feelings, it’s easy to push them aside and keep working.
Even though we’re told that emotions have no place in the workplace, trying to avoid your feelings is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater—at a certain point the ball forces its way to the surface no matter how hard you try to keep it from springing up. As long as you can hold the ball underwater, the surface of the pool is smooth and serene, but with only one hand free, your actions and energy are restricted. And when you loosen your grip, the ball inevitably comes rocketing to the surface anyway, making a big mess.
That’s because avoiding emotions doesn’t make them go away. This is especially true for Sensitive Strivers—individuals who are both highly sensitive and high performing. Sensitive Strivers tend to battle with unbalanced emotionality and spend an enormous amount of energy pretending that everything is okay while silently brooding and trying to process the intensity of their reactions. On the other end of the spectrum, letting your emotions run rampant can be similarly disruptive and exhausting if you live life constantly at the whim of an ever-changing stream of feelings.
How then do you find balance between trying to ignore your emotions and letting them run the show? The answer is learning to accept your internal reactions and to manage them better. Feeling deeply and experiencing a range of emotions is the reality of who you are, and I’m here to tell you that leaning into and embracing that quality can be a competitive advantage—if you know how to do so effectively.
What You Resist Persists
Among my coaching clients, I’m known for saying, “What you resist persists,” which means the longer you try to fight your emotions, change them, or tell yourself you’re wrong for having them, the longer you’ll struggle. This is particularly true in the workplace, where you’ve probably been led to believe that you need to tamp down your Emotionality to be successful. A better approach is to see your feelings as a natural extension of your innate strengths.
Just like the weather, emotions are always present whether we like it or not. They are important to identify, consider, and understand; however, they don’t necessarily need to be an overriding factor in your plans. When the weather is bad (or not to your liking), it doesn’t mean you deny it, focus all your attention on it, or cancel your plans because of it. What you do is accept the weather and adjust accordingly. So although it may seem easier said than done, you can begin treating your emotional life like you treat the weather—by accepting and preparing for it.
According to research, sensitive people tend to be more ashamed of their feelings and to believe that there’s nothing they can do about them.
One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to see your emotions as a constant part of your inner life and to navigate them as they arise. Willingly allowing, acknowledging, and absorbing your feelings helps you to:
- Avoid depletion. High-intensity emotions like anxiety, distress, and nervousness are mentally taxing because they activate the body’s fight-or-flight response. Emma Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track, notes that when sustained over long periods, high-intensity emotions can compromise your immune system, memory, and attention span. Even if you avoid them, high-intensity emotions don’t go away. Paradoxically, they amplify, which only drains you further. Experiencing your emotions as they are—annoying, maybe, but not permanent—is much less of an energetic drag than pushing them away.
- Influence your reactions. In the throes of avoidance, you feel helpless and emotionally hijacked, as if you’re spiraling out of control. When you accept your emotions, on the other hand, you have a chance to learn about your inner life and become more skilled at navigating it. You prove to yourself that you can handle your emotions flexibly, for example, by changing their intensity or duration and recovering more quickly.
- Heed their message. Emotions are a source of sensory intelligence and insight that give you important information about your needs or actions you can take to respond more authentically. Even so-called bad or negative emotions have a function. For instance, fear is one way to keep yourself safe and protected, and guilt signals the need to make amends. When you start thinking of your emotions as messengers, your relationship to them changes.
- Strengthen your emotional balance. Acceptance is different from passive resignation in that it involves dropping the struggle with your emotions without giving up on yourself. Ironically, accepting your emotions can boost your psychological health, contributing to fewer mood swings and higher overall life satisfaction. Most importantly, acceptance paves the way for you to leverage the upsides of your Emotionality rather than seeing it as something to be overcome.
Strategy: Find Your Center
No matter how intense the feeling, you can take charge of your emotional reactions before they take charge of you. Since all emotions start as energy in the body, calming your physiology is the quickest, surest way to become more present and in command of your experiences and yourself. Once you’re centered, you can make sense of your responses and hear the messages your emotions are trying to send you.
One simple way to get back to center is with a mindfulness technique called grounding. Grounding activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and recovery. When your parasympathetic nervous system switches on, your heart rate slows and blood flows to your prefrontal cortex, which improves your decision making and concentration. Grounding directly impacts nerves in your brain’s arousal center and signals to your mind and body that it’s safe to settle down. There are dozens of different grounding exercises you can try, everything from deep breathing and progressive relaxation to visualization. Most are inconspicuous, meaning you can do them on a call, at your desk, or even while driving. Below are a few of my favorites, and in the upcoming Exercise in this chapter, you’ll be guided to discover which works best for you.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Tool. Select five things you see around you (a white notepad or a spot on the ceiling, for example). Describe to yourself in detail the things you see, either out loud or silently. Pick four things you can touch or feel, such as your tongue in your mouth or your hands in your lap. Notice the texture, temperature, and sensations you’re experiencing. Pick three things you hear (like a phone ringing or the hum of an air conditioner). Say two things you can smell (if you can’t smell anything, name your two favorite scents). Name one thing you can taste (like a lingering toothpaste taste). Engaging all five senses helps bring your attention back to the present moment.
Clench and Release. Visualize yourself gathering all your uncomfortable emotions up into your palms. Make a tight fist for five to ten seconds. Then let go and open your hands as if you were releasing the feelings and letting them melt away.
Box Breathing. Breathe in for four seconds. Hold air in your lungs for four seconds. Exhale for four seconds. Hold your breath, lungs emptied, for four seconds. Ideally, you’ll repeat these steps for three to five minutes, but even one minute is enough to experience an effect. You can find guided visualizations online to assist you in a box breathing practice if you’re just getting started.
Instead of finding yourself drained by high-intensity negative feelings like worry, fright, or humiliation, grounding helps you move toward low-intensity positive emotions like serenity, contentment, and tranquility so you feel alive, at peace, and in control. Best of all, you can process and sort through your feelings in an evenhanded way. Once you’re in a calmer, more composed state physically, you’re in a better position to figure out how you want to move ahead.
Excerpted and adapted from Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work by Melody Wilding. Published by Chronicle Prism, an imprint of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2021 by Melody Wilding.