Have you ever had a time when you forget what it felt like to be you?
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago. I was meeting some colleagues for drinks after work, and I didn’t feel like going. It was rainy and cold, and I was working from home. So, getting dressed up and heading into town required extra effort.
I was conjuring up a myriad of ways to get out of it. But I couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t come off as rude. So, I kept the commitment, went to town and hung out with them for the evening.
And guess what? I loved it. We laughed. I cracked jokes. They laughed. We smiled, connected and had loads of fun. I left the evening feeling energised.
It struck me on the way home that I had forgotten that I’m an extravert. Not the extravert who dances on tables (well, perhaps in my younger days), but a person who derives energy from being with people. Sure, I need downtime, but I had recently had too much alone time due to lockdowns and workstyle changes that I had forgotten where I derive some of my energy from.
I am not alone on this front.
Research suggests that the last couple of years have changed people’s personalities. As the New York Times reported, “Covid has not only reshaped the way we work and connect with others but has also redrawn the way we are”, with some of the most pronounced effects among young adults. The research contends that we have become less extroverted, creative, conscientious and agreeable.
Over the last six months, I’ve been informally testing a theory that there’s an emotional lag from the last couple of years. In every session I’ve run, I’ve asked: “Who here feels like they have an emotional hangover from the last couple of years?”. In all the situations I’ve asked that question, approximately three-quarters of participants have put their hands up.
My straw poll (not scientifically valid) suggests that many of us don’t feel like we are ok right now. We haven’t ‘bounced back’ to feeling how we were before the pandemic.
In a recent conversation between Dr Brené Brown, Dr Adam Grant and Simon Senek, they talk about this and the importance of normalising talking about how we feel at work and the gap between how leaders think their team members are feeling and how they are actually feeling.
There are several layers to this conversation, but the good news is, just like all hangovers, there is a way through to the other side.
It starts with acknowledging your feelings and working through the emotional dialogue. Putting on a brave face won’t help. Being able to label and talk about how you feel will help.
In the compelling and beautifully written book, ‘Rebel: My escape from Saudi Arabia to freedom’ the author Rahaf Mohammed shares the Arabic expression – “Mwlam ’an yaetaqid klu min hawlik ’anak nayim . . . biaistithna’ wasadatk hi alwahidat alty taraa haqiqataka.” She explains that in English, those words translate to “Painful that everyone around you thinks you are asleep . . . except your pillow is the only one who sees your truth.” She writes about how what we often show people is the opposite of what is inside us and how we feel.
We shield people from our true feelings for many reasons. For example, because it doesn’t feel safe to share, we don’t want to worry them, we don’t think they will care, or we don’t want them to think less of us. Also, at times, we don’t want to face our emotions because it feels too hard to go there.
Connected to this is the way we judge emotions. We label them as either a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’. Here are just a few examples. Anger is seen as a hot and explosive emotion, while contempt is seen as a cold emotion; both are labelled negatively. Happiness is seen as a good emotion, while contentment is seen as a calm emotion. Yet, they all have one thing in common – they are an emotion that has arisen because of an interpretation your brain has placed on the event you are experiencing.
Individuals have different emotional reactions to situations, particularly stressful events, based on the nature of the event, their experiences over time, and its effect. As Dr Bruce Perry, in the book “What Happened to You?” writes “Any long term effects [from a stress event] are related to several factors, including the nature of your stress response, as well as the intensity and pattern of that response”.
In making your way through this, it all starts with acknowledging how you feel. Accept those feelings as real and legitimate. It can help to label the emotions you are feeling. Write them down. Get them out of your head.
Then, dig into the meaning you are giving those feelings and what they are telling you to do. Your emotions matter. They change your physiology, perception, and where you place your attention. We have feelings in the body that are associated with different emotions. These somatic markers can be clammy hands or the quickening of your heart when you feel anxious. Notice that physical reaction and where you are directing your attention, as well as what you are ignoring or avoiding.
Next, consider what you can and can’t change about what is happening around you and how you can shift your perspective to focus on what you have (rather than what you don’t have). Lastly, consider the options to reframe the meaning you are putting on what is happening and what you can do to shift that state.
In doing this activity, recognise that process can take time. Sit with it. Embrace the discomfort. Lean into the learnings you are gathering because you will come out the other end more resilient and with deep insights into yourself.
As part of this process, consider where and what you need to share. Professor of Psychology, Dr Richard Davidson talks about how part of emotional well-being is being able to express emotions in a context-appropriate way so that they serve a function within a context.
For leaders, you will want to pay attention to the emotional environment you are creating at work. Ask yourself, is it safe for you and your team members to talk about how they feel? If it’s not, you have some work to do to create a healthy and supportive environment. This HBR article provides some valuable ideas on how to do that.
Notice the opportunities you have to support and hear others. Just like you want to feel validated, so do they. So, if you are on the receiving end of someone who is expressing how they feel, listen to them. Acknowledge them. Hear what they are saying. See them. Notice what is said and unsaid.
It can be easy to jump into solution mode as you want to help or rescue your colleague, friend or partner. You can’t, and they aren’t ready to hear your ideas on how to fix how they feel. They will find their way through this situation. What they need is bucketloads of empathy. Stand beside them and be ready to listen deeply.
As Dale Carnegie wisely suggested, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion”.
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is bringing back the happy to workplace culture. The award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker, she’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.