A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.
For me, the worst part of being upset is this completely irrational expectation that I will feel that way forever. I can’t see past my current emotions to recognize their fluidity.
Many of my clients struggle with this as well. I used to tease that I could write off tissues on my taxes because so many women cried as we talked through workplace dynamics, fears surrounding failure and being an imposter, and big decisions about their careers.
In those moments of intense emotion it can be hard to remember that how you feel right then is not how you’ll feel for the rest of your life.
Here are tools that can help you navigate those more challenging emotions, maintain perspective – and keep your job.
During work: celebrate the small successes
When I’m struggling with a professional setback or challenge, my brain is quick to pile on with other self-defeating thoughts. Glaring at my unfinished to do list, I end the day feeling unproductive. I compare myself to all of my most efficient colleagues and jump to the conclusion that I can’t do anything right.
It turns out, even in the best of circumstances, we’re better at remembering unfinished tasks than completed ones. Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychiatrist who discovered this phenomenon in the 1920s, says, “Unfinished items that we’ve left hanging are like cognitive itches.”
When you’re feeling crappy, be realistic about what you can accomplish. Find things that have a low cognitive lift, that are easier or more enjoyable.
As you complete these tasks, write them down on a clean piece of paper. (I use stickers as motivation.) It can help you avoid the spiral of self-doubt and insecurity that can come from feeling totally unproductive. Rather than an unfinished to do list focused on those nagging unfinished items, you’ll end the day with a list of the things you’ve accomplished.
This little boost can help you keep perspective. Plus, stickers!
Outside of work: don’t underestimate the emotional release
Know how you usually feel relieved after a good cry?
Colette Melancon, a licensed clinical social worker, encourages people to experience the full intensity of their emotions. She describes this outlet as an “emotional orgasm”. In an appropriate setting, cry or yell or do whatever we need to do to experience release.
There are many places it’s not appropriate to be fully present with your emotions – like your office. Once you're not at your desk, carve out some time to recognize and name the emotions that are coming up for you.
Writing can help. Author Elizabeth Gilbert says that when we’re spiraling through a whirlwind of nasty thoughts, “The ego and the mind go too fast and can sabotage you. You have to slow them down with writing by hand.”
Whether I use a computer or old school pen and paper, this method can feel a bit like an exorcism or a powerful release valve. I don’t have to hold all of these thoughts in my head, but instead I can let them out, for them to live on the paper.
Try a Virginia Woolf-style stream of consciousness and write down – as quickly as they come – all of the emotions and thoughts that are coming your way. You’ll likely notice subtle shifts as you write. As a therapist once told me, “When you write for long enough, what needs to come out usually does.”
Whether you're grappling with imposter syndrome, a stressful negotiation, or a professional failure, these tools can help you move through your emotions and still get your work done.