We are emotional beings. Expressing emotion during a bout of frustration or fear isn’t something to hide, nor should it induce guilt or shame. Yet I see a different picture when I visit workplaces to teach emotional intelligence and resilience. Students often tell me privately, “Emotions are not welcome at work.”
In many work environments, expressing emotion is seen as unprofessional. But when we’re compelled to check our feelings at the door, we tend to disengage from our duties, feel alienated from our team members, and have less creativity. No one feels comfortable showing who they really are.
Researchers from the likes of Google and MIT find psychological safety to be one of the most important elements of successful teams — and thus high-performing organizations. Psychologically safe workplaces create space for teams to share feelings, needs, and truth without reprisal or punishment, and they foster an environment in which people can share their wholes selves.
The emotions we hide — and why we hide them
In the last 10 years as the Founder of Living Well Awake, I have specialized in corporate consulting and leadership development. I’ve worked with thousands of professionals across diverse organizations and I notice three emotions pop up most frequently in the workplace:
, and I notice three emotions pop up most frequently in the workplace:
- Frustration, a flavor of anger
- Fear, which can appear as insecurity or stress
- Disappointment, a flavor of sadness
As a human being these are the 3 BIG Feelings we navigate on the regular (fear, sadness, and anger). These feelings can be harder to express than others, and gender can play a role in which emotions we decide to conceal and why.
Diane, a leader in a technology firm, once told me, “If I show anger at work, I’ll be seen as a bitch or, even worse, that I have ‘lost it.'” On the flip side, I often hear male leaders say, “I would never consciously show fear or sadness, or I will be seen as weak.” As these anecdotal examples suggest, women tend to mask anger and hurt that comes up in the workplace, while men are more likely to repress fear or sadness.
Emotion, perception, and the glass ceiling
The risks associated with expressing emotion are real. For women in particular, being perceived as too emotional can carry harsh implications in the workplace.
“An angry woman loses status at work no matter what position,” Victoria Brescoll, an associate professor at the Yale School of Management, concluded in a 2008 study. In an analysis of emotion in the workplace, Brescoll and her team found that both male and female co-workers were quick to denigrate the “angry woman” at work. They were also more likely to perceive a woman’s anger as an internal characteristic — “she is an angry person.” Men’s anger, on the other hand, was more often attributed to external events — “he is having a bad day.” In short: Men are often given a pass for expressing anger at work, while women are not, because it is seen as outside of their gender role. The challenges can be even more intense for women of color.
These differences in how men and women are perceived can be seen as products of unconscious bias, and our hidden belief about women’s capabilities can hold undue influence in important workplace decisions.
In 2015, researchers at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research analyzed the performance reviews from four technology and professional-services firms. Women received 2.5 times more feedback about aggressive communication styles, with phrases such as “your speaking style is off-putting.” Women were described as “supportive,” “collaborative,” and “helpful” nearly twice as often as men, and women’s reviews had more than twice the references to team accomplishments, rather than individual achievements. If bosses expect women to be more team-oriented and men to be more independent, women are more likely to be shunted into support roles rather than landing the core positions that lead to executive jobs, the researchers argued.
These findings introduce two core problems that can impede women’s advancement in the workplace:
- Many female employees will internalize these stereotypes. Over time, this can sap their confidence and render them reluctant to ask for raises or take on more leadership roles at work.
- Women will spend more effort monitoring and analyzing how they are perceived, and this can take time away from getting work done.
Why emotion matters — and how to take control
Creating space for emotional expression is a necessary strength in an organization’s culture and performance. We all know our feelings will come out eventually, whether they leak out by accident or we courageously share them. It’s better to acknowledge what we feel and take control of how we express it than wait until we lash out.
The Dalai Lama says, “Where there is fear, frustration will come.” Frustration is a flavor of anger, and fear and anger are also closely related. They are the two parts of our natural response to perceived stress or threats. We prepare to flee (fear) or fight (anger).
Because anger and frustration seem to come up the most often, let’s start by understanding how to “be with” frustration and anger so we can express it skillfully at work or at home.
How to feel angry at work
Anger is like an invisible shield that protects you, the people around you, and your environment. If someone pushes a boundary that doesn’t feel good, anger will come forward so you can reassert your boundary and feel in balance again. But we can’t experience these benefits unless we learn to feel our anger, recognize what causes it, and express it in healthy ways.
Here is a simple exercise you can employ in the moment to feel and express any big emotion, including frustration or anger, with skill at work and in life. Remember: When you encounter an experience that triggers you, the best thing you can do is breathe, feel, and relax your body so you can get to the wisdom underneath.
The NESTS exercise
Bring to mind an experience that recently triggered the feelings of frustration or anger, and give this exercise a try. After practicing on past events, you can learn to use these mental tricks to help you respond mindfully in the moment. The exercise has an acronym, NESTS, which will help you to remember it.
Number. Rate how triggered you felt by the experience on a scale of one to 10, with one being cool as a cucumber and 10 being the most upset. You can assess the most helpful response by understanding what your numbers mean. For example, usually anything over a five means you are feeling pretty activated and hot-headed. This number implies you are much more likely to inflict harm with your words or actions and should proceed with caution. If you are at a stress level of five or below, you are likely still leading from your heart.
Emotion. Next, identify the emotion you felt. It will usually be one of the big three we mentioned — anger, fear, or sadness. This simple act of naming our feelings has been shown to calm our nervous systems and help us control the physiological response to perceived stress or danger. In my professional community, it is common to say, “You have to name it to tame it.”
Sensation. Now ask yourself, what physical bodily sensations did you experience? Did your heart beat quickly? Did your palms sweat? Was your stomach upset? Were you shaking? How much space did this bodily sensation take up, and where? The more we can feel the sensations and not go into a story about what we think is happening, the more quickly the emotion will pass through our bodies.
Thought. Examine the thoughts you had. When anger is present, get to know it. What thought might have triggered your anger? Feel your anger in the body, and ask these two questions:
- What needs protection?
- What needs to be restored?
For example, do I need to care better for my heart or body? Is my sense of safety or honor under threat? Do I need to restore my sense of respect, acceptance, or trust? These questions allow you to label and then reset your boundaries without hurting yourself or someone else with the reactivity of anger.
Support. Now that you have gone through these steps, you might identify a loving and calm phrase or action that will support you and help you come back into balance. After the feeling has passed over, try to introduce a kind thought, “You are amazing, and you are doing the best you can right now.” Or treat yourself to a calming action, such as a walk in the middle of the day, a little spontaneous dancing or stretch, or even a yoga class. Do whatever it takes to nourish and support yourself, and you’ll be able to return to work with a fresh head.
What happens when we repress our anger?
When we feel anger but don’t allow ourselves to express it — some call this “stuffing” or “repressing” anger — we are unable to restore our boundaries and won’t have the strength and/or focus needed to protect ourselves.
Your anger exists to protect you. If you repress it — for example, if you refuse to respond to an insult or a crossed boundary — you aren’t honoring or loving yourself. Anger, like all emotions, will eventually show itself, but you have a choice in the how. What we resist persists.
Psychologists call anger a secondary emotion because it comes as a defense to feeling threatened. We can acknowledge and express our fear and how we are feeling threatened. Then, we can soothe anger with compassion and understanding. When we can be compassionate and understanding with ourselves, we can offer the same to others in our life. Anger, when it is channeled honorably, sets healthy boundaries without destroying the boundaries of others. It is work to get from our current misuse of anger to something more respectful and relational, but it is probably the most important work we can do.
Diane, the leader I introduced earlier, now uses the NESTS practice on a regular basis. She found that she feels more aware of her emotions and can now take appropriate action to reset her boundaries and restore a sense of calm from which she can respond more effectively.
Now, when anger arises, she knows that the best thing to do is pause. She knows that the worst thing she can do when she is feeling triggered above a five out of 10 is to take a call, write an email, or even be in a meeting. Instead, she’ll take a walk, breathe through it, or shake it out. She says being mindful of her emotions has enabled her to take a time out. She is aware that reacting — lashing out verbally or writing an angry email — can cause a lot of damage that will take time to repair. NESTS allows her to stop, release, and respond with clarity to the stressor instead.
Call to action
If we can discover our role in creating the situations that upset us, we are able to reduce our feelings of frustration and anger. With awareness, we are able to recognize that other people have their own fears, hurts, suffering, and loss, and we have a chance to dodge the normal reflex of anger as a result of what they may say or do.
Notice when anger arises throughout your day, such as when your expectations aren’t met or when someone does or says something that doesn’t quite feel “right.” Give it space, and then ask yourself the questions: What needs to be protected, and what must be restored? In the restoration piece, you can decide if speaking your truth is necessary or if another action needs to be made first.
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