As a young engineer, I found myself getting upset with a lot of things at work that I felt weren’t handled the right way. I was told over and over again that I was too emotional, too passionate, and I needed to have a thicker skin. Mind you, I worked primarily with men in manufacturing environments, but even the older women said this. To me, this repetition meant there was something to it, but I felt strongly about things and I didn’t know how to change that. I also didn’t really think there was anything wrong with being too passionate. I switched jobs and still I heard things like I wore my emotions on my sleeve and my coworkers could read me like an open book. What I have learned over the years, was that strong emotions were not acceptable in the workplace. To be professional, you need to keep your cool, you need to keep a straight face, and you need to just do your job and be done with it.
This is not the lesson I want anyone to learn from working with me. I don’t really want coworkers to think that they need to be a robot around me but I also don’t want people coming into my office and tearing up or using profanity directed at me. There has to be some balance between “too emotional” and acting like robots.
I’m actually pretty proud of how much I’ve accomplished in terms of controlling my emotions in the workplace. I’m working for my fourth company and have gained something from each one, even if I came really close to the robot status at the last company. I finally grew a thicker skin. A coworker at my current company made a comment to me recently that she was impressed by how much I am able to keep my cool and not let stuff get to me. I laughed. Then I told her why I laughed and how this is the first time a coworker has ever said anything like that to me.
There are times when things get to us. Someone says something with a weird or dismissive tone, someone ignores us, someone forgets to invite you to a meeting, someone tries to sabotage your work, or someone tells you that you messed up. Sometimes, it could just be the stress of life, deadlines at work, and lack of sleep that make it so easy to lose your cool when someone says the wrong thing to you. I know. I’ve been there.
I’ve learned it’s not okay to show strong emotions to your boss or the people that report directly to you. At least not extreme negative emotions like anger, frustration, and upset. It’s okay if they know that you’re tired or stressed out. A lot of times, if you are feeling particularly stressed out because of work, the people around you are probably feeling the pressure also. Sharing common emotions and activities may help with team building.
I am by no means an expert or unemotional. However, here are some of the things I have learned to do over the last 15 years to change from being told I’m “too emotional” to having a coworker being impressed with how well I can keep my cool. When enough is enough and you feel you want to cry, punch, scream, or tell someone off, try these some of these techniques instead:
Take a deep breath and remember whatever you say is going to be held against you. It can be good or bad – it’s your choice. I’ve read articles to count to 10 and take a deep breath. That alone doesn’t motivate me or calm me down. The thought that whatever I say in this moment could end up on a performance review because the person standing in front of me is either my boss or can go report what I say to my boss or Human Resources really helps me bite my tongue.
2. Go for a walk.
If you can’t cool off, ask yourself – do you need to deal with it right now? Can it wait 10 minutes? If it can wait 5-10 minutes go on a very brisk walk and calm down. Tell anyone you run into that you have to run to your car to grab something. Have a pre-planned route that you can always just go walk. Find someone in the next office complex that you can walk over and use as your excuse to walk away quickly. Say you have to step outside and return a phone call to your child’s school, the doctor’s office, your spouse, whomever. Lie – no one cares and no one is going to check. Just make sure you don’t walk where you’re going to run into someone who needs to talk to you. This might sound like the ‘flight’ part of ‘fight or flight’ but that might be the most appropriate thing to do in the workplace for this instance.
3. Get out of the building.
If your company is not set up with a good walking route or much space, leave the building. Run a quick errand, get lunch, or buy a coffee. These options consume more time, but a quick trip to buy a coffee from Starbuck’s is usually enough to give you time to think about the situation and figure out how to respond appropriately.
4. Vent to a friend.
Find peers (i.e. not people that report to your or that you report to) that you can vent to. If they see you get upset, it’s not the end of the world. Make sure you trust the person and they trust you. This is the person who is always on your side no matter who he or she is talking to. If he is asked for feedback on you, he will give honest but positive feedback or say he’s not interested in giving performance review feedback for you.
There’s something called emotional eating for a reason. If chocolate makes you feel better, is a small piece going to hurt if it helps you to calm down? If it’s going to take three Swedish Fish or a Jolly Rancher to calm you down, go for it.* Gum is another alternative. A lot of stress can be taken out on a piece of gum.
I will never believe there is such a thing as someone being “too passionate.” However, I am willing to concede that there is such a thing as “too emotional.” I believe people (especially women) are expected to be unemotional and robotic in the workplace. I’ve even worked with men who are too emotional and extremely unprofessional in the way they show their emotions. I will forever be changed because of one of them. The things you say and the strong negative emotions you show can make an impact on those around you. It can make a workplace environment uncomfortable and unpleasant for others. In the same manner, strong positive emotions can make a workplace environment happy or exhausting (if everyone feels like they’re supposed to be exuberant all day at work, this can be construed as false emotion and demotivating also). A mistake may happen and you have to move on as best as you can when you say or act with too strong an emotion. Learn from the emotion and figure out how to react differently the next time. Try one of these ideas for how to calm down while at work. Practice them all and find a way to balance your emotions for the majority of the people you work with so that you do not have regrets for the things you’ve said or done.
Good luck and let me know if you have any other suggestions for how to balance your emotions in the workplace!
*Note: Emotional eating has been known to cause people to gain weight (the author included). You have been forewarned…
Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert in stress reduction and how to handle deep emotional problems. This is a list of strategies that has worked for me personally and I have seen work for coworkers and friends. Use these strategies at your own discretion.