Why examining your emotions can help you bounce back at work
Many of us have struggled with mental health these last 18 months.
In fact, Harvard Business Review reported that 85% of 3,000 survey respondents (knowledge workers) reported a general decline in well-being, with half of those respondents attributing that decline to their decreases in mental health.
We need tools that help us cope.
Lay things bare
In the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, I briefly worked for a startup as the head of content. It was an exciting opportunity, to be sure, but also intimidating. It was a “stretch role” for me, and I often felt overwhelmed by the ambiguity and scope of everything that needed to be eventually accomplished.
My own boss hired me to learn what our company needed in terms of content strategy and execution, to plan out our editorial calendar, to execute, and to measure the results. But I didn’t think of those steps at the time—I could only see the incredibly lofty goals of the business.
And to top all that off, my routine had been radically affected by the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and world events conspired to fill my head with many negative, discursive thoughts that distracted me from my work.
Then I remembered one of my favorite quotes by Marcus Aurelius in his famous Meditations:
Latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time—all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust—to lay them bare . . . to strip away the legend that encrusts them.
It occurred to me what I should do: I should “strip away the legend” of the scope of my work and of the pandemic-related stressors.
So what I did was this: I journaled more frequently, reminding myself of the things I should be grateful for, despite the obstacles from the pandemic. I wrote down, in great detail, the steps that would lead to success in my role. I broke my projects down to their fundamental components: discovery, execution, and measurement.
“I’m just writing words on a slide deck or a blog engine. I’m not confronting insurmountable obstacles,” I would remind myself.
I also frequently meditated on the relatively mild nature of my own inconveniences caused by the pandemic, challenging the impressions I had of my circumstances.
As I did so, my anxiousness often washed away. Instead of intense anxiety, I often felt intense gratitude for my fortune. I was still relatively healthy. I wasn’t suffering from Covid-19 directly. I still had a job, a loving partner, and a family.
Above all, I felt grateful to have come across a philosophy whose tenets positively impacted my ability to understand my mind better.
This realization was a result of philosophy in action, of self-therapy actually alleviating my nervous anxiety.
A stoic renaissance
My own experience above was an example of practicing Stoicism, an ancient philosophy of life that has enjoyed a recent modernization with many new popular books, conferences, and nonprofit meeting groups. The contemplative practices tend to help people with lessening their negative emotions and finding more ability to experience positive ones.
I became interested in this philosophical framework because of its connections to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the more evidence-based psychotherapies out there. However, you need not buy in to the complete tradition of Stoic practice to benefit from its teachings. After all, we’ve discovered a few things about the universe and the human mind since the Roman empire!
Stoic practice: examining “impressions”
The Stoics were a school of philosophers who taught that emotions had varieties or stages of development. An “impression” was classified as the beginning of an emotional experience, almost like an impulse.
The Stoic strategy for dealing with impressions is one of nonjudgmental curiosity (i.e., mindfulness). Prominent Stoic philosopher Epictetus gave this advice: “Don’t allow yourself to be dazed by the rapidity of the impact, but say, ‘Wait a while for me, my impression, let me see what you are, and what you’re an impression of; let me test you out.’”
The next step to this process is to closely examine the thing causing your impression. Don’t forget Marcus Aurelius’s advice to “see [things as] they really are.” In an earlier part of that quote, Marcus says:
Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood.
Applying this practice at work
When your project seems overwhelming or when your feedback from your boss seems too harsh, try what Marcus and Epictetus prescribe: challenge your interpretation of events. Break things down to their individual parts, and you’ll see they’re not so daunting.
“This project is just a combination of events: discovery, execution, and delivery.” Or, “This feedback is not a personal attack on my self-worth.” Or, “This pitch deck doesn’t have to be exactly how I want—I’m helping others succeed, after all.”
The same goes for the stresses of working remotely in a global pandemic. Yes, things are difficult for most everyone right now. But you’re way luckier than you think.