How to manage emotions at work

How to manage emotions at work

This subject just keeps coming up with my clients! Whether it’s in the guise of

  • how to manage anger at work (a big one for female leaders)…
  • how to manage anxiety at work (and all of the ways it leaks out of us if we don’t),
  • or managing conflict at work (or rather not, as is the case may be for many).
These are all variations on the same theme – how we manage our ‘negative’ emotions in the workplace.

Emotions in the workplace have historically had a bad rap and we as a culture have become so afraid of them, but there’s often little knowledge or training on what to actually do with them when they inevitably do come up. These difficult or ‘negative’ emotions are the ones we all experience at one time or another, and they fall under three main categories:

  1. Anger (rage, frustration, disappointment, resentment).
  2. Fear (anxiety, hesitation, doubt, lack of trust in self and others).
  3. Sadness (helplessness, victim mentality, apathy, indifference).

Looking at the list, which is your go-to? (we all have one – mine’s Fear).

But I just want to stop ‘feeling’ it – can’t I do that?

This is what one client said to me last week when I asked her what she wanted by the end of our session.  It’s extremely rare that I say this, but I had to say

“Sorry, No – we can’t give you that”.

This is because whether we like it or not, we are emotional creatures. Contrary to common belief, all of our decision and responses are governed, not by rational thought processes, but by our emotions – consciously or unconsciously – so better to be conscious about them, know what’s actually running the show – so we can make better, wiser decisions.

Emotions are a source of data and information.

Avoiding, suppressing or controlling any of these difficult emotions, as well as having us miss out on this vital information, takes a great deal of mental and physical energy. More importantly, it also prevents us from moving forwards in our leadership and life.

The link to illness

Plus, not only are we denying ourselves the information being sent via these emotions, but we are also and denying our bodies the natural physiological process of release. How many times have you experienced this, – just by allowing yourself to have a good cry – don’t you always feel just that little bit better and more optimistic after? If we do not allow our bodies to do this, to discharge these feelings freely, these blocked emotions will drain our mental energy, and can even lead to serious health problems.

Numerous studies have shown that negative feelings and attitudes can create stress, which depletes the brain chemicals required for happiness, and damages the immune system. Stress reduces our life span, affecting our DNA strands and causing us to age more quickly. Poorly managed or repressed anger has also been linked to several conditions, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and digestive disorders.

High levels of cynicism in later life linking to both a greater risk of dementia and heart disease, as well as earlier death in women. Hostility (being antagonistic, bitter, unkind and angry towards others), has been linked with a higher risk of stroke. Then there’s depression, which has been linked to an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and disability in later life.

That’s quite a list. The theory is that when you’re stressed or depressed, cortisol levels increase, making your immune system less able to control inflammation in the body, which may lead to disease over time. I would also argue that when you feel low, you are more likely to smoke or drink, and less likely to exercise or take good care of yourself, and this, in turn, has a negative impact on your brain and body.

The link to addiction

In his book Magnificent Addiction, Philip Kavanaugh PhD says that our need to control these negative emotions is at the root of all addiction. Indeed, he says that often the control of negative emotions is the ‘master addiction.

I agree… In trying to suppress these emotions, you are also much more likely to behave in destructive ways and use various, addictive, avoidance or ‘sticking-plaster’ techniques, which give you a temporary sense of relief from them. Drinking, working excessive hours, drug-taking, ‘comfort’ eating, social media addiction, sex, shopping.

All of these things give us a temporary hit of the feel-good hormone dopamine. The problem is that you have to keep doing them more and more, and the emotion you are trying to distract yourself from will still keep coming back (and feels even worse on a hangover).

There is another way….

When we take notice of these emotions – when we are fully aware of them and acknowledge them, they give us a deeper insight, they are an extremely valuable source of data and information. Plus, when managed effectively, emotions will also give us greater intelligence and have us be much more effective, influential, and impactful as a leader (and human being ;)).

How to manage your emotions

When you work with these emotions, you can make a choice as to how you respond – Do I lash out and shout at this person as I do normally? or Do I take a moment to allow it to dissipate, give my self a chance to learn something, and then respond more wisely?

 If you’d like to try the latter I have something for you – my AAA exercise.

You can do this either in the moment or on reflection.  However, if the emotion feels extreme, you may have been triggered (into an old historical pain or trauma), or you may be having one of your core values dishonoured.

If this is the case, you may find it useful to take some deep breaths to engage your parasympathetic nervous system (which naturally calms the body). If this doesn’t help you may consider extricating yourself from the situation (a simple “let me think about this and get back to you” can sometimes suffice). You can literally do this exercise internally within a few seconds, and as with any new behaviour, the more you practice it, the more automatic it will become.

01: Accept

As soon as you are aware of this emotion, as soon as you feel it in your body (eg the burning/tightness of anger), take a moment and accept it. You can even state (internally or externally) ‘I feel angry’ or ‘I feel sad’. The key here is not to try and escape from it or push it away – this is what often happens, and that is why the pause is helpful here. Identify the emotion.

02: Allow

Once you have taken the big steps of accepting and identifying the emotion, next (and this is usually the frightening bit we don’t do) let it run through your body. Allow yourself to feel it. If you are in an interaction with a person, wherever possible, give yourself a time out saying you’ll have to get back to them and wherever possible end the interaction. (if this is not possible, allow them to talk while doing the next steps).

Go to where it is in your body – and although it will feel scary, know that nothing bad is actually going to happen to you. You may experience the emotion as a tight feeling in your chest, an ache in your stomach, a constriction in your throat, but however you do, really let yourself go there, give it your full attention.

Notice it and be curious: what colour is it? What is its texture? Is it moving? Is it solid or made up of many different particles? Once you have done this, breathe down into it, and allow the breath to fill it up with new, fresh air.

Notice what happens to it: what happens to the shape, the texture, its density? While you are doing this, your brain will try and pull you away – this is all normal, but just keep coming back to where you are consciously focusing your attention.

It is the act of going there and staying there (versus avoidance or suppression) that is important. Courage and patience are required – but it is worth it, I promise you. When you have done this successfully, you will ultimately feel that shift, that dissipation, that sense of calm.

03: Ask

  • What is this emotion telling me? What is the message?
  • There is one thing I can do about this situation?
  • What is the one thing I need to accept this situation?
Remember, all emotions are messages from the body. The next time you receive one of these messages, I ask that you try this process, and in doing so, choose another way to feel and respond.


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