“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”
“You better not pout, you better not cry”
“Tis the season to be jolly”
Despite the messages in every department store soundtrack, if you don’t feel very merry this season, that’s ok.
Last Tuesday I had a bad day, and it was made worse by the time of year.
Most every task on my to do list overwhelmed me. It was the kind of day best characterized by opening and closing windows on my laptop. When I wasn’t in meetings, I’d dutifully sit at the computer, miserable and numb.
Fortunately, my Tuesday included a mastermind call with my beloved friend and former colleague Jen Engquist. I described my feeling of unsettledness or something being off. Then I made the long list of things I was excited about, not because I felt remotely excited in that moment, but because I felt obligated to feel grateful – to snap out of it and get back to work. I was trying to override these “negative” emotions with appreciation and holiday cheer.
In one moment I felt I was self-indulgent, racked with guilt for being lazy and feeling anything other than joyful this time of year. In the next, I told myself to be “solutions oriented”, striving to root out precisely what was causing my distress.
After listening with characteristic warmth, Jen told me, “You don’t need permission to feel crappy.” She encouraged me to accept that “I hurt today,” without having to justify it or try to explain it away.
I promptly burst into tears. I realized that what hurt most was the tension between how I felt and how I wanted to feel. The emotions themselves weren’t actually that scary. We made some hypotheses about what was upsetting me, but my biggest take away was that I needed to accept the pain. Trying to resist the pain or explain it away was only making it worse.
Dealing with undesirable feelings can be exceedingly difficult, and it can feel near impossible when every commercial is trying to coerce me into being all holly jolly (and buy all the things).
Here are three strategies that can help:
1. Practice non-judgment with yourself
For a long time, I thought awareness of my feelings was the key to emotional resilience. (Lord knows, I’m a lady who is keenly aware of her feels.) It turns out, though, observing your feelings is not enough. Multiple studies have shown that non-judgement is key to emotional well-being.
When people who effectively practice non-judgment have distressing thoughts, they “Simply recognize what’s happening, without judging themselves as good or bad, right or wrong,” as researcher Emily Nagoski explains, “Nonjudging [sic] allows you to feel what you feel, whether or not it makes sense to you, whether or not it’s comfortable, whether or not it’s what you believe you should be feeling.”
Said another way, psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps writes, “It’s not unusual for people to be critical of their emotions when they think they are wrong for feeling a particular way. However, emotions can’t be wrong—they just are.”
There’s a Buddhist formula that sums it up: Pain x Resistance = Suffering. As Becker-Phelps explains it, “Fighting against (or resisting) the reality of the pain in your life creates suffering.”
The nasty stories I was telling myself about my laziness and inefficiency trying to work on Tuesday had less to do with the original emotions than my resistance to them. Trying to trick myself into holiday cheer didn’t help, and feeling awful for feeling awful just made everything worse. Accepting the pain allowed me to move it.
Change your language
Instead of “I am sad/anxious/upset,” say “I feel sad/anxious/upset.” As anxiety coach Tim Kershenstine says, “We aren’t our emotions or our thoughts. They change constantly.” He encourages clients to become the experiencer of their thoughts and feelings rather than attaching their identities to those fleeting emotions or thoughts.
This can help you stay present at work without extrapolating about what your emotions say about who you are as an employee, or in my case, as an entrepreneur and Christmas enthusiast.
Don’t underestimate the power of an “emotional orgasm”
Colette Melancon, a licensed clinical social worker, encourages people to experience the 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 if you don’t share my luxury of working from home and having a quick cry-fest with Jen. Find a private space (like a stairwell or bathroom stall) or make time outside of the office and holiday festivities to give yourself that outlet.
The messages we tell ourselves about our feelings matter. These tools can make the difference between berating ourselves for being a bad employee and being kinder to ourselves, which ultimately makes us better at our jobs.
You may be humming along, walking in a winter wonderland, or you may want to curl into the fetal position. Or, like most people, you may be somewhere in between. However you’re feeling, that’s ok.