Holding in Negative Feelings Can Backfire in Your Career (But the Fix Isn’t Complicated)
Stuff down how you feel and cognitive performance can nosedive.
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I'm a little prone to that myself. But thanks to this new gem of research by Judith Grob of the University of Groningen, letting it all hang out has gotten a serious bump up on my priorities list. Here's why I reeeeeally want you to join me.
Hold it in, sacrifice performance
As Melinda Wenner outlines in her article for Scientific American, Grob split research subjects into three groups. Each group had to look at disgusting images. But only one group could react as they wanted. The second group hid their emotions in a normal way, while the third hid their emotions by holding pens in their mouths so they couldn't frown. People in the latter two groups reported feeling less disgusted than individuals in the first group.
But then Grob had everybody take cognitive tests, including fill-in-the-blank exercises. People in the second and third groups who had repressed their emotions performed badly on memory tasks. They also filled in the blanks with more negative words.
Why the negative effect?
Grob's results don't definitively explain why emotional suppression interferes with cognitive tasks. But neuroscientists know that the connections within the brain are incredibly complex, and that the brain will continue to process information and try to find answers to problems when we let our minds wander. They believe that's why, for example, you can get a spark of inspiration while doing something mundane like washing the dishes, or why elements from your day suddenly appear in your dreams. Emotional processing is also very deep rooted, firing faster than reason as an evolutionary protective mechanism.
All this said, Grob hypothesizes that, when your face doesn't reveal how you feel, the emotion will manifest itself in other ways. It might be that your brain subconsciously still is trying to cope with what's not finished, and that the evidence of that work appears as a lack of focus, poor recall and quick verbal or other associations that are more in line with the negative view and feelings.
Suppression and your job
Grob's work suggests that the traditional approach of grinning and bearing it at work can come back to bite you in the rear end. While you initially might avoid rocking the boat by staying mum, projects eventually might suffer for your lack of attention and genuine optimism. And over time, that could have serious consequences for your trip up the business ladder.
From the leadership perspective, the research suggests that it's incredibly worthwhile to prioritize the creation of an environment where people feel safe and valued enough to be honest about what they're feeling. It's very much in line with research indicating that, more than any other perk, workers want connection, empathy and a real sense of purpose on the job. Open door policies, asking for feedback and even eliminating physical barriers in your office layout all are examples of options that can help employees feel like it's OK to talk to you.
3 things you should do to keep yourself emotionally free
1. Talk to your superiors and/or other professionals as soon as you recognize you're feeling something negative. The main idea here is that, by facing the problems early, you address them when they're still relatively uncomplicated and less volatile, which can eliminate some of the anxiety that otherwise would be involved. While using "I feel..." statements is ideal, there are other approaches for this, too. For example, you could say something like "I'm concerned that...", "I'm not comfortable with...", "I don't like x because...", or "My gut's telling me something is off here. I'd really appreciate it if we could discuss it a little more later in private."
2. Become an activist. If you identify the root of your negative feeling, it's often possible to make a practical plan against it. For example, if you feel bad about your company's diversity policy or activity, you could propose diversity appreciation events or bring data to your boss about how diverse companies outperform uniform ones. Others will come to understand what you're thinking and feeling and what you want through your actions.
3. Use other means of expression. If leaders won't hear you or activism gets stonewalled, rather than simply trying to always focus on what's positive to block the "yuck" out, acknowledge the immediate negative reality. Journal about it, punch pillows, vent to a friend, do some scream therapy, beat the hades out of the punching bag at the gym--as long as it's safe for you and others, do whatever feels "you" to work all your stress hormones out of your body.
The one thing you don't want to do? Be passive-aggressive. At best this can confuse or annoy others, and at worst, it can make you seem like the antagonist.
Remember, while we might label certain emotions as "good" or "bad", everything we feel has purpose. Negative feelings help alert us to potential danger or harm, warning us of the need for change. Don't be afraid to go after that and adapt.