Truly learning a lesson is deeper than simply knowing the lesson. It’s possible to know a whole lot more than you’re capable of acting on with regularity. And it’s the act, not the mere knowing, that makes the difference.
When it comes to physical lessons, we instinctually know this. I know the steps it takes to do a kickflip ollie on a skateboard, but I still haven’t practiced nearly enough to pull it off. I wouldn’t expect to be able to do this without spending hours and hours of repetition.
Take the simple example of “I shouldn’t infer intention from action”. I know and believe this, but I still fail to practice it frequently.
Let’s say someone criticizes my work. I might infer that they’re just doing this to needle me needlessly because I criticized their work a few weeks back. That this really isn’t about the work, but it’s about retribution for an earlier skirmish.
That might be true. It is one of the possibilities. But it’s probably not that likely. It’s probably more likely that there’s simply a mistake in my work and the person spotted it. Unrelated to whatever discussion we had about their work weeks back.
But we humans love to jump to conclusions and validate our insecurities. That’s why we need lessons and coping mechanisms to do better. And that’s why it’s not just enough to know them, but to practice and be reminded all the time.
A strategy I’ve successfully used to remind myself in moments of need is to look for emotional smoke. If I’m getting upset about someone pointing out an error in my work, and it’s not because they’re being a dick about it, then that’s smoke. If you tune your emotional smoke detector to go off when your mood changes or your temperament flares, you give yourself a pause to contemplate which lesson you should be practicing.
The instinctual autopilot is great when the sky is blue and there’s no turbulence, but as soon as the clouds gather and the ride gets rocky, it’s time to grab the wheel with intent. So that’s what I try to do. Be mindful of emotional disturbances, hit pause when I spot them, and go through my current curriculum to find the lesson that clearly still needs attention.
The most important lessons are so because they’re hard. They’re the ones that take the most work to internalize, lest we forget in the moment and take action without their input. They are the ones we need to hear over and over again.
“Happiness” — it’s a coveted and much celebrated state of being. A lot of companies advocate for the power of positivity to create a company culture and environment where people can thrive and “be happy.” The belief is that encouraging positivity while discouraging negativity will cultivate an environment that is positive. Negativity = bad/sad and positivity = good/happy — right?
It’s not that simple, though.
The positivity myth
It’s an idea that has good intentions on the surface — research suggests that working in positive environments can bring about more productivity, harmony and certainly, happiness — but when positivity is forced or mandated, a culture built upon real, authentic happiness is not likely to be cultivated. Maria Konnikova’s piece in the New Yorker “What Makes People Feel Upbeat at Work” discusses forced positivity in the workplace:
“Alicia Grandey (an organizational psychologist at Penn State who studies emotional labor) cautions that it is incredibly difficult to impose positivity from the top and actually exert a positive effect. ‘When anything feels forced or externally controlled, it doesn’t tend to be as beneficial as when it’s coming from the self,’ she said. ‘The irony is, when you’re trying to get people to do something positive, you can’t do it. Once it’s required, it’s fake and forced.’ What you create instead is a negative backlash. ‘It feels like Big Brother.’”
Making room for constructive negativity
Requiring or forcing positivity in the workplace flips its intention. It can be silencing as well. When positivity is the only option, there’s not space to experience the breadth of human emotions that come into play day in and day out (yes, even at work — we don’t stop being humans with complex emotional needs from 9am-5pm).
The absence of this space can lead to the bottling and suppression of all those other emotions that are not seen as ‘positive’. Bottling emotions can lead to emotional leakage, outbursts, breakdowns and it might even make you sick. Suppression can facilitate a general state of being out of touch with one’s feelings. The School of Life touches on this below:
I’m not arguing that genuine positivity is a bad thing — nor do I think it’s constructive to enable brooding, downtrodden or negative behavior constantly or to share all feelings at work — but when positivity is the only option, there’s not a space for constructive negativity. Yep, I said constructive negativity. Susan David discusses this in her book Emotional Agility:
“Trying to impose happy thoughts is extremely difficult, if not impossible, because few people can just turn off negative thoughts and replace them with more pleasant ones. Also, this advice fails to consider an essential truth: Your so called ‘negative’ emotions are actually working in your favor. In fact, negativity is normal. This is a fundamental fact. We are wired to feel ‘negative’ at times. It’s simply part of the human condition. Too much stress on being positive is just one more way our culture figuratively overmedicates the normal fluctuations of our emotions.”
Constructive negativity is born from sadness, fear, disgust, anger and all those other difficult emotions. These ‘negative’ emotions are just as important and normal to feel as happiness and joy — so called ‘positive’ emotions. Comedian Louis C.K. talks about embracing those uncomfortable feelings below:
Using negativity in a constructive way involves processing uncomfortable feelings and emotions. A process that can include acknowledging and naming the emotions you are feeling, accepting that they are present and part of this ‘being a human’ thing, learning from them, then putting them to the side and moving forward.
Moving on doesn't mean you forgot about things. It just means you have to accept what happened and continue living.
So, what does constructive negativity look like at work? It can take many forms and can be personal or shared, but here are some examples:
Acknowledging and processing ‘negative’ emotions: This can be personal or shared (with a trusted colleague or friend) and it’s a good place to start, because it’s a process you can dictate, direct and control. Brené Brown (a researcher, storyteller and expert on vulnerability) offers these tips to reckon with uncomfortable feelings. This involves engaging with your feelings, acknowledging them and accepting them. Ultimately, it’s up to you to figure out the best way to process through difficult emotions — you can choose the speed, the method and if you want to keep it to yourself or share the process.
Using negative emotions to bring about more clarity and strengthen relationships: This is shared and involves another person, so it can be a bit scary to work through at first. It’s examining ‘negative’ emotions and then using them to clarify misunderstandings/miscommunications and strengthen interpersonal relationships. For example, if your boss keeps emailing you during your off hours or scheduling meetings that you are expected to attend on your day off — you might assume that’s because they don’t respect your time. This can lead to resentment, stress or anger. That might not be their intention, though. They might just be disorganized and unaware of your work hours/day or think you are totally fine working on your time off.
Instead of making up a story by filling in the blank space between what your boss might mean (the story you make up) and how that makes you feel (your feelings) — speaking to them directly about how their actions affect you and make you feel, will give the other person in the situation the chance to tell their side of the story. It could be that they do expect you to be available all the time, they don’t respect your time or they might not be open to talking it through at all. At the very least you will have more clarity surrounding a situation than you started with and you can make more informed decisions about how to proceed.
Embracing constructive criticism and feedback to open communication channels: Making space for and embracing constructive criticism and feedback involves turning this sometimes uncomfortable activity into something more normalized. Then, using these opportunities to make changes and improvements — if possible — but more simply, allowing for the sharing of dissenting viewpoints, perspectives and opening communication channels where they might not have been before.
Leaders can take the reins and lead by example here — opening up communication channels by encouraging and embracing feedback and constructive criticism, being transparent about issues a team is facing (positive as well as negative), tweaking or being aware of their mindset surrounding employee feedback/criticism and the intent behind why an employee is speaking up about something — constructive negativity usually has a positive intent and is not meant to be an attack against leadership.
“When I share my dissenting viewpoint, I’m immediately shut down. I’m not going to voice my opinions and needs any longer, because they don’t matter and no one listens to me anyways. I’m resentful about this now and I’m going to stay resentful and show how resentful I am.”
“I’m not good at support, because I get upset and feel apathetic towards customers sometimes. I’m not good with people and I don’t see a way to change how I feel. I’m going to be passive aggressive and negative about this to show how upset I am when I’m asked to help with support or speak with a customer.”
“This is terrible — it will never get any better. I don’t see any solutions down the line for this problem. We are doomed!!!”
These are exaggerated examples, but you get the point. Brooding behavior does not just affect the person exhibiting it — it’s contagious. If a colleague is displaying signs of intense stress, anger or any other destructively negative thoughts/actions (without trying to work through them), you can inhale those dark feelings like second hand smoke. Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D. wrote about this in her Psychology Today article entitled “Emotions Are Contagious — Choose Your Company Wisely”:
“Just as second-hand smoke can have the same or worse effects on the health of nonsmokers, second-hand emotions (*the destructively negative kind) can have significant, long-lasting effects on the health and well being of those experiencing them. The negativity keeps pounding away at you and ultimately results in significant second-hand stress, which as you might expect, has the same effects on your mind and body as direct stress. The body experiences and interprets it as one in the same.”
Awareness surrounding how constant destructive negativity affects others as well as yourself, could be effective motivation to encourage positive change — by flipping the script and using those negative feelings in a constructive way. Although, it’s OK to feel this way and react in ways that are not constructive at work sometimes — we are all human. No one is perfect. Working through emotional pitfalls, examining feelings and learning how to process emotions in a way that works for you as an individual is not easy. It’s hard and it is a process, after all!
*It’s important to note — if you are feeling incredibly stuck — like there’s no way out of those dark thoughts and feelings, you feel like you are drowning in them, anxiety has taken over your life or you are exhibiting signs of depression — it might be time to ask for help. Here’s how you can find it.*
The next time negative emotions pop up at work, I want to suggest getting real with them— instead of pushing them aside or covering them up with metaphorical or literal smiley face emojis.
Again, from Susan David:
“Once we stop struggling to eliminate distressing feelings, or to smother them with positive affirmations or rationalizations, they can teach us valuable lessons.”
Examining and processing through negative emotions can lead to more opportunities for:
Hope in a situation where there was none seen: Instead of jumping to conclusions, feeling hopeless or quitting when something gets hard— examining and naming the distressing emotions that are being felt can create hope that there’s space for change or development. There’s an opportunity to use those negative feelings to figure out solutions to problems you are faced with — sparking curiosity surrounding your work and opening up space to job craft. You might also find this space does not exist at your current place of employment (and quitting might be the best option), but the addition of hope helps to expand viewpoints that were once more narrow.
Strengthened communication channels and increased trust within a team or company: Cultivating space where it’s possible to be heard and to listen to dissenting views can lead to more strengthened and open communication channels. Once you know you won’t face dire consequences for really talking through hard issues, giving/receiving tough feedback, sharing dissenting viewpoints and giving/receiving constructive criticism — trust within a team also grows.
Increased feeling of ‘belonging’ vs ‘fitting in’: When you don’t need to mute yourself, hold your ideas back or ‘fake it’ to fit in, increased trust that ‘being yourself as you are’ in a company culture, builds and this can lead to a more solidified sense of belonging.
And, yes…it can also lead to more overall happiness at work. So, don’t force that frown upside down — instead, start small by first acknowledging those difficult emotions when they pop up — then, you can experiment with processing through them and see how that makes you feel — you might be pleasantly (but, not too pleasantly 😀) surprised!
If you are interested in learning more about emotional agility & how to process through negative emotions which is something I did not touch upon too much above, check out Susan David’s book Emotional Agilityhere — for a brief version, her popular Harvard Business Review article on the same topic is here.
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In June, I went on a 5 week sabbatical from work — I ventured out into the woods with my boyfriend and we hiked. We climbed mountains, slept in a tent and got dirty — we took showers infrequently and we had a hell of a time. We went all over Oregon and then onto the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. It was hiking heaven and the 5 weeks went by slowly — I felt fully rested and reenergized, daily.
During that time, I noticed things — small things; details. Slowly and then all at once. I noticed how my boyfriend’s beard seemed to grow more quickly in the wilderness — not kidding, beards grow more freely in the wild — they can’t be stopped. I noticed my legs and how they felt stronger after each day of climbing rocks and scrambling up mountain ridges. My attention and focus were sharpened — I felt a clarity after so many months of distraction and information overload. My mind in fact, became saturated with all the things I had failed to notice previously.
Out in the woods and on mountaintops, I was learning how to be quiet again and listen. I noticed so much more when I slowed down. The first week, it felt like coming off a drug — the drug of distraction. I could not sit still. I was jittery — I felt left out — I wanted to be connected. Then, it got easier to sit down and read — it got easier to avoid Facebook and Twitter and put down my phone and pick up a pen or my camera. The days felt longer — the hours stretched endlessly — I felt truly immersed in every bit of it and when it was time to sleep, I felt completely ready for rest. I felt incredibly fulfilled.
Over the last year and a half, my personal life has blossomed — I’ve learned new things — roller derby, I ran a 10K, started training for a half marathon and I hit the books daily — reading up a storm. I failed a lot too, but learned that failing does not make you a failure (I’m still working on believing that). I was challenging myself and it was invigorating. I learned how to say “no” more and build more healthy boundaries. I stopped asking “can I do it” and flipped the script to “how can I do it” — I was less afraid and more empowered to try new things. My mindset was changing from being okay with inner life complacency, to a more growth mindset.
As my personal life flourished, it sadly left my work life in the dust. I noticed a huge contrast in how I lived my life (weekends, evenings, vacations) versus how I felt and lived my work life every Monday through Friday 9am -6pm. I just assumed, “well this is how it’s gonna be — you can either thrive in work or life, but not both”.
But, something had been stirring for a while in me and having a break to really think, made me wonder if there was a way to apply the new ways of living that I was learning in my “off hours” life — to my work life as well. It was a whisper of a thought, but it intrigued me. Was there a way to integrate the two? Did they need to be separate? Was it possible to bring in more critical thinking, more self compassion, more growth, more vulnerability, a space for challenge and more mindfulness and use all those things to enhance my performance at work?
Then, I came back to work.
After 5 weeks of quiet and solitude and space to think, I tripped and fell headfirst into my old habits. Habits that left me feeling stuck to my computer, glued to my smartphone, email, Twitter & Facebook.
Falling into my old habits made me feel uncomfortable — like putting on clothes that are a few sizes too small. They didn’t fit anymore. The things that felt so normal before (rushing through emails, checking into work off hours to squeeze in more work, multitasking 5 things at once, distracted to the point of numbing, stressing, not taking time to respond to coworkers or talk to them because it was busy..etc), suddenly felt so wrong.
I had been doing an objectively “good job” every day, but looking back — I was in “low power or energy saving mode”— not really using my strengths or challenging myself to my full potential; saving my energy for something else — I’m not sure what. This is not in anyways the fault of my employer — my job is wonderful and we have amazing employee benefits — I am very lucky and privileged to work where I do. I recognize that daily. I am in the best work environment that I could hope for. I just did not have a very flexible mindset when it came to what kind of person I could be at “work”.
I was ready for a real change.
There are a few things that I think can help in the process of cultivating a healthy work / life integration. Consider this a guideline and not the only set of rules to follow:
Mindfulness is defined as “a sustained awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment.” This is the definition I identify with the most and what author Ellen Langer speaks about in her book by the same name. So, what does it mean? It means thinking more about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Langer expands upon how to bring mindfulness into work below:
“You can come to mindfulness in one of two ways. First, you can engage in noticing new things. It can be new things about a product you’re working with, your supervisor, your manager, about your family, whatever it is; you’ll come to see that by noticing them, they’re different. And when something is different it becomes naturally engaging. By having people notice new things it leads people to become mindful.
The second way to become mindful is by learning the importance of uncertainty and understanding the power in uncertainty. When you approach things with the mindset that you no longer think you know everything about it, you bring a different kind of attention to it. This respect and understanding for uncertainty leads people to become more mindful. “— Ellen Langer
For me, a way to bring mindfulness into work is by recognizing why I feel the way I do — when I’m angry, sad, frustrated, happy or any one of the many emotions humans have — I like to think about the “why” behind it all. Yes, I’m a person who likes talking and thinking about feelings and I’ve embraced that. For example, during the day, if I feel overwhelmed (if it’s a really busy day or I am doing a lot of things) I slow down and make sure to breathe and consider why I am stressed out. I know if I’m feeling flustered that I need to ‘put on the brakes,’ take a walk or just stop for a moment to recover a bit.
Define healthy boundaries
Defining healthy boundaries at work is really important. So what does it mean and look like? People who have developed healthy boundaries are described as:
“People who had very, very clear boundaries about what they were willing to do, what they were not willing to do, what they were willing to take on, and what they were not willing to take on.” — Brené Brown
Brené goes more in depth into this in the video below:
I like defining boundaries. When I’m going on vacation, I communicate clearly what my boundaries are while I’m out. I communicate that I’ll be out and define who can help in my absence. I politely say “no” if someone requests that I take on a new project the day before my vacation and I maintain consistency while “out of office” — by not checking emails or work stuff — so then, my colleagues know my words line up with my actions. Work can wait and being tired is not a badge of honor, but sometimes you’ve got to remind yourself and others of that — even when you work at Basecamp.
Care less and let go of control
Care less about situations that you cannot control — it might sound like not caring, but it’s not. It can be a much needed shield when working in emotionally draining jobs/environments. Chris Gallo from Highrise wrote about caring less in customer support:
“When I care too much, I’m putting the other person in control of a relationship I shouldn’t even be in.
You have to have thick skin working in customer support. You have to let some things go. One person being upset isn’t a reflection of you or the majority of people that use the product.
It sounds backwards, but you’ve have to care less. Not more.”
I agree with Chris. I also work in customer support and I used to get really stressed worrying about people’s replies. Something that’s helped me a lot is to know that I can’t change how someone reacts to a situation. I can do my best and be my best in an interaction, but it’s not a guarantee that an interaction will go well. Even if I reply and you can practically hear a smile or the aura of a rainbow colored mini goat dancing the tango, shining through an email. It does not matter sometimes. I can’t control how someone reacts to me. It’s not the end of the world and I can move on more easily.
Communicate openly and directly
Having the space for open lines of communication and the ability to directly communicate without fear of retribution is very important at work.
“People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool–even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs. Now, obviously they don’t agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.” — Joseph Grenny
A safe space for open communication is key. This is given and I believe cultivated from the top. If team leads/managers, senior employees and CEO’s aren’t demonstrating that it’s okay to disagree or give constructive feedback without getting publicly snubbed, it’s hard to to believe it’s really okay. This can lead to silence and silence is a noxious gas. Claire Lew from Know Your Company, offers her perspective on how to create a space for more open communication:
“If you’re a manager, business owner, or CEO, the most important thing you can do is act on the feedback your employees give you. After all, that’s why an employee is giving you feedback in the first place — they simply want action to be taken.
Now I’m not saying that you should blindly appease every request that an employee makes. But you have to start somewhere. If you want an open, transparent work environment, you can’t just talk about being open and transparent. You have to act in an open and transparent way.” — Claire Lew (source)
Having open communication channels and being able to directly communicate, helps me to feel more connected with my teammates and bosses. If there’s a misunderstanding or miscommunication between myself and another teammate, I bring that up and prefer to talk through that — rather than leaving things unsaid. It’s uncomfortable — it does not feel great while it’s happening and it can be scary, but afterwards I’m always glad to have had those tough conversations.
My sabbatical is long over, but the lessons I’ve learned during it are still fresh in my mind. I don’t claim to know all the best practices surrounding how to integrate work and life and I’m learning as I go. My “real life” is something I’m more happy with now and it combines all parts of my life (work and life and everything in between). It’s nowhere near perfect — but, I don’t think “perfect” is a state that can be reached. My “out in the woods & on mountaintops” experience has continued to grow at my work desk, inside my apartment, on a busy street in Berlin. I now find comfort in the belief that I don’t need to be thousands of miles away to experience a fulfilling life — it starts at home — wherever that might be.
How do you maintain a work/life integration or balance? Is it important to you and how do you achieve that? Tell me in the comments below or tweet me here.
If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, communicating more openly, setting healthy boundaries, self preservation and more, I recommend the books and blog posts below: