How to Keep Your Emotions in Check at Work

Young child sits in grass by fence and screamsAs adults, we don’t typically have tantrums. We don’t throw ourselves on the floor crying and screaming. We can, however, act out when we don’t have a space to honestly express our feelings.

Many people enter therapy with the intention of learning to control their stress. This is often preceded by verbal warnings at work telling them their stress is too visible.

Crying is a big one. Getting angry is another.

Once, a person shared with me that his latest performance evaluation advised him to “find a better way to hide your stress.” Not “decrease your stress.” Not “maybe this job is too difficult and we’re pushing you too hard.” Not “maybe you’re being treated poorly here.”

No, they wanted him to hide his stress better so as not to see it. They didn’t want to deal with his emotions.

I can understand this, to some extent, from an employer’s perspective. It’s hard to work in an atmosphere where someone is crying all the time. Certainly, it’s a challenge to focus on work if someone is screaming and pounding on their desk.

But office or workplace culture often sends mixed, even hypocritical, messages. In many workplaces, when a boss is stressed it’s perfectly acceptable to berate a subordinate, even in front of other employees. Expressions of the boss’ stress are allowed. Anyone else who gets upset or looks frazzled, though—that’s not okay. Giving back anger to a boss who is giving it to you? That’s a big no-no.

Some people can take their stress out on others, but most can’t.

So what to do?

Allow Yourself to Have Your Feelings

It’s important to understand that where there’s a crying jag or aggressive streak, there’s usually a buildup of attempts to push those feelings away by squelching or stuffing them. When those feelings come rushing out, it often follows days, maybe weeks, of holding them in.

When you fully express your feelings in the safe confines of your therapist’s office, you don’t have to do it in your boss’ office. You learn to modulate, but not squelch.

You can learn techniques to hide your feelings, but they’re going to come out somewhere, sometime. They’re going to pop out when you go home and are short with your kids, snap at your partner, or yell at the barista for not giving you the correct change. Maybe you’ll notice your body responds with muscle tension, headaches, or by getting sick.

That can happen with unexpressed feelings.

In session, a person will tell me the story of what’s been happening at work. I’ll hear about various incidents, but the feelings they inspire still might not be fully expressed.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, people in therapy continuing to not express their feelings.

Here’s the thing, though: When you fully express your feelings in the safe confines of your therapist’s office, you don’t have to do it in your boss’ office. You learn to modulate, but not squelch.

Express Feelings Where It’s Safe to Do So

Ever see the kid who’s an angel at school but has big tantrums at home? Ever witnessed how exhausted, yet fully soothed, that child becomes because they were able to show their “worst self” to someone safe and trusted, who acknowledged and empathized with their pain, who didn’t punish them, who comforted them when they were done?

It might seem paradoxical, but having tantrums at home can allow the child to have a higher frustration tolerance at school. The child knows they can express those feelings in a safe environment and, perhaps, explore the meanings behind the feelings with the parents.

You’re Not Too Emotional

The same concept applies with adults and therapy. Regardless of age, we all need to express our feelings somewhere, sometime, to keep them from coming out in destructive ways. Expressing strong feelings in therapy means you don’t have to release them to such a large extent at work.

Many people worry that if they deeply feel their feelings, there’ll be no turning back. If they turn on the tap, will they be able to turn it off? But like the child who feels safe having a tantrum at home and has no behavioral problems at school, we can learn to tolerate difficult feelings as they arise and express them fully in safe spaces.

We learn that feelings come and go. We learn to hold our partners when they cry. We learn to sit with our buddies when they’re depressed. We’re not too emotional. We just spend too much time trying to hold in emotions instead of listening to them.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Marie G

    April 7th, 2016 at 2:48 PM

    There will always be those days when everything and everyone in the building will frustrate you. That is how life goes. But you have to leave all of that at the door when you walk in if you want to keep your job. I know that there are going to be those times when you feel like you will just explode, but take a time out, take a deep breath and remember that nothing like this is worth losing your job over. It just isn’t. Put on your big girl pants and deal with it like a grown up.

  • todd

    April 7th, 2016 at 5:06 PM

    So just becoming emotionless is not an option?

  • Aaron

    April 8th, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    Well for starters you have to learn to be a real adult.
    An age is not the indicator of who an adult always is. I have met many younger people who have a much better head on their shoulders than some of the older people in my life.
    I think that you have to learn to be kind and find something of value in any situation that is thrown at you. So someone did something at work that you may not agree with. That’s ok, try to figure out why they did what they did and then go with it. Take a life lesson or whatever, but it is likely that this one move was not the end of the world. See how much better you feel when you can fix that mistake and the just move on with it.
    Now that is the measure of a true leader.

  • Justin L.

    April 9th, 2016 at 7:54 AM

    Marie G–Thanks for your comment. That’s the saying, right, to leave it all at the door. The issue is–do you pick it up when you leave or do you keep squelching during the other aspects of your life? That’s when it has the greater potential to leak out at work.
    todd–:-) You can try…but unless you’re Data or Spock, I’m not sure it’s going to work out for you!
    Aaron–It would be great if emotional health came with chronically becoming an adult, right? Thanks for your thoughts.

  • debbieM

    April 9th, 2016 at 12:22 PM

    Breathe baby breathe

  • Justin L.

    April 9th, 2016 at 12:58 PM

    debbieM–Breathing–always a good thing! Thanks.

  • Emily C.

    April 11th, 2016 at 4:43 AM

    This explains a lot of the things I see in students and their personalities on social media. A calm and composed person might be an over-enthusiastic funny person or maybe a bully on social networking platform.
    Even when i talk about myself – I see that happened all the while through my childhood.
    Thanks for the lovely post! :)

  • Justin Lioi

    April 11th, 2016 at 8:42 AM

    Emily C.–thanks for the comment!

  • lloyd

    April 11th, 2016 at 11:20 AM

    Our boss had someone come in and do some team building exercises with the company a few months ago and I have to say that I can tell a huge difference in the overall morale of the office as a result. I think that for many of us the reality of being adults and being able to talk things out with each other really hit home with that lesson and it has benefited all of us.

  • Justin Lioi

    April 11th, 2016 at 12:32 PM

    lloyd–That’s awesome to hear. Not only were steps taken, but you’ve seen results. Not easy in the office place. Thanks for writing.

  • lloyd

    April 12th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    Yeah we all thought that it was pretty cool of him to do too. I don’t think that we all understood just how much those petty little things were becoming larger and larger and how that was actually affecting how we felt about our jobs and our workplace in general. I think that we had all started taking out our own dissatisfaction on everyone else in the building and so it started snowballed until he said enough was enough. I wish that there were more companies who see what a huge benefit doing things like this can be for their employees.

  • Justin Lioi

    April 12th, 2016 at 11:58 AM

    lloyd–Absolutely. I hope with more stories like yours people will see the important of not letting little things build within office culture.

  • Elizabeth

    April 16th, 2016 at 6:09 AM

    This is an annoying article. The only advice that is offered is to seek out a therapist and talk out the problem there. Not everyone wants or can afford a therapist and many people have worn out their spouses and family when they are trying to deal with work issues. Rather than suggesting a bringing an expert into the company, which many small companies cannot afford, or that the individuals hire a therapist, which many people cannot afford, it would have been good to provide some suggestions as to how the management themselves could work on this problem so that employees are able to cope or how an individual can find their own ” safe” place that they can vent.

  • Justin L.

    April 16th, 2016 at 1:18 PM

    Elizabeth–Thanks for writing, and I see your point. You’d like some concrete ways to deal with the work stuff, or to have management get their act together and provide this. I appreciate how some work places, like lloyd spoke about above, are doing this, but most are not that “enlightened.”
    Also, I tend to stay away from too much advice giving, even in therapy sessions, because it would mean I know what’s best for a particular person, and I’ve never found that to be helpful for people (I actually wrote another post on this site about “not giving advice.”) On the plus side, therapy is more and more available these days for all sorts of price ranges, especially through clinics if people in private practice in your area are not taking insurance (I’m in NYC and many of my colleagues, including myself, don’t, for a variety of reasons.) Many businesses also offer EAPs (Employee Assistant Programs) that can connect employees, anonymously, to services, as well.
    As to not “wanting” to go into therapy–that’s harder to tackle as it’ll be difficult to get to the heart of one’s issues without exploration within a therapeutic relationship. I wish I had some “tips”, but I know that providing them probably won’t make the workplace any easier. Why we express feelings the way we do and as deep as we do is different for each person. If it’s becoming more overwhelming for a spouse or friends, professional help is an important option.
    I’m guessing my response is just as annoying as the article, but in my experience there’s no short cuts or advice that would be much help in the long run.

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