Post-Election Lesson: How Women Can Use Our Emotions At Work

Women get “should-ed” all the damn time. You should just lean in. You should overcome the confidence gap. You should #ask4more. In practice, there are no easy answers when it comes to negotiating workplace dynamics as a woman, so try not to “should” yourself about how you feel or what professional path is right for you. Now more than ever, I think it’s important for women to stay grounded in their own emotions and priorities.

Since November 8, I’ve had a lot of friends ask “What do we do?” They’re hurting, angry or scared. Some feel a moral imperative to take action. Others feel helpless.

Working with female clients on navigating workplace dynamics, we talk a lot about recognizing the feelings they’re experiencing. Whether clients are anxious about asking for a raise or feeling guilt about deciding not to negotiate a new position, a lot of the work is centered on naming and working through the emotions that are coming up rather than trying to push them away.

As psychologist Tim Kershenstine says, “When we name and observe our emotions instead of shunning them, we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves and make more informed decisions on how we truly want to proceed. Therefore, learning how to feel our emotions and learn from them is an empowering exercise, albeit at times temporarily uncomfortable.”

We have to operate within the system as it exists today, while simultaneously – if we choose to – trying to change it.  That means recognizing that bias and discrimination impact the way women are treated in political discourse, as well as in the workplace. We can’t choose the way the system treats us or how we feel, but we can choose how we respond.

Tapping Into The “Feels”

Personally, I’ve been through a wide range of emotions since the election. An eternal optimist, my instinct is toward action. I’m feeling inspired, comforted by working with clients and my ability to support women and the businesses that value them. I’ve also been less efficient – staring into space for who knows how long or taking breaks to talk with friends or cry. Vacillating between these wildly different emotions can be exhausting.

I can wake up feeling like shout singing Kesha’s “Warrior” and hours later feel disillusioned and like I’m trying to boil the ocean. For me, what’s most challenging is giving myself permission to cry and be present with that discomfort. For some friends, it’s just the opposite: they’re paralyzed by sadness and only occasionally feel motivated to engage with the work that matters to them.

And that’s all just fine. To co-opt Sheryl Sandberg’s expression, “lean in“ to whatever is coming up for you.

In her book Lean In, Sandberg paraphrases Arianna Huffington’s advice on dealing with criticism: “We should let ourselves react emotionally and feel whatever anger or sadness being criticized evokes for us. And then we should quickly move on. [Huffington] points to children as her role model. A child can cry one moment and run off to play the next. Experience emotions with the intensity of a child.”

Maybe you have all the feels and your emotions vary wildly over the course of a day, or even a single hour. Maybe you’re inspired to start a women’s network at your company, to mentor young girls, or to write a letter to an elected official. Maybe you want to slow down and hug a puppy. That’s ok.

As Kershenstine told me, “Emotions, like waves in the ocean, will be there and continuously change. Learn to surf the waves of emotions, as opposed to the futile effort to control or change them.”

However you’re feeling, I encourage you to be present with what’s coming up and to be gentle with yourself. You get to choose how you respond to the world around you, and you can make a different choice tomorrow. Know that how you feel in this moment won’t be how you feel forever.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.