The impact of under-acknowledging emotions

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With the exception of someone like me, some teachers and some parents/carers putting emotions on the agenda, our society, in the main, disregards them. The modern world likes things to be rational, in control and unaffected by feelings as if we are ever-efficient robots. (It’s why I don’t like the term ‘professionalism’ as I have seen it used (amongst other things!) to point out that the expression of emotions is inappropriate or irrelevant in the workplace.) Emotions seem to be a tad too unpredictable and illogical for the professional world, and even in later primary school come to that. So somewhere in the process of growing up, we’re meant to have ditched emotions and developed a stiff upper lip, ready to join an effective workforce/school place.

And if you’re male, you’ll almost definitely have been told by significant adults, or picked up from ‘the world at large’, things like, ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘boys are strong and self-reliant’ and possibly teased if you attempted to express how you felt. (My book It’s OK to cry tackles this as it was written with boys in mind.)

The expression of emotion has become such an ‘anti-aim’ that doing so can cause others to be uncomfortable. There is also an assumption that if emotions were not suppressed, people would be having emotional meltdowns all over the place. In fact the contrary is true because good emotional literacy and effective emotion management starts by acknowledging emotions – something the suppression of them tends to inhibit. To be able to respond to emotions resourcefully and in a way that does not make situations worse, we certainly need a degree of focusing on them. That’s hard to do if we’re not even acknowledging them.

Another component of our attitude towards emotions is the acceptability of positive emotions and the unacceptability of negative emotions. Nearly all of us were conditioned to think being emotions like angry, jealous and sometimes even sad was ‘bad’. Those who received this message as a child will suppress these emotions – guarded with shame. ‘If I express anger, I am a bad person’. This is such a common piece of conditioning that is perpetuated, most commonly, totally unconsciously.

So what happens as a result of trying to make workplaces and schools, emotion-free and a general belief that emotions are to be kept ‘out of it’? Well, it depends partly on where we are on the spectrum that goes from those who deny, ignore and suppress emotions to those who openly express emotions and feelings. For some people the unacceptability of expressing emotions results in feeling foolish when they do become emotional in the workplace (e.g. profusive apologies for crying). Others attempt to pretend they are not having an emotional response even though it is clearly affecting their behaviour (e.g. snubbing the colleague that made them angry earlier) and others are so detached from their emotions they are unaware that the disproportionate angry outburst that occurs sometime after the triggering event, is linked to what happened at all.  All this expectation that emotions be blocked can mean the expression of emotions comes out in irrational behaviours – arguably more tricky to manage in the workplace than the discomfort we might feel when an emotion has been expressed (and certainly worse than an emotion being expressed in an emotionally intelligent way).

Also, another point worth making is, when we suppress or block emotions as many people are conditioned to do, this tends to distance us from others. Being in tune with emotions helps us to develop and maintain relationships, contributes to developing any kind of community and makes us aware of others’ emotional needs. I’ll add it is generally recognised that a fantastic manager is emotionally intelligent. I remember a headteacher once telling me that when a post became vacant in his school, he invited an ex-member of staff to return as a temporary solution as this teacher lived locally, knew the school and had the expertise needed. He was completely astounded when this caused a complete outcry with his existing staff because apparently the person in question had caused considerable and frequent upset amongst staff. He was clearly oblivious to this and put it down to never acknowledging emotions! He prefers to look only at ‘what makes rational sense’.

The attempts to ignore emotions also tries to negate their impact. It assumes, as humans, we can put our emotions and their effects, aside. When we are feeling negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness, guilt, envy or disappointment we don’t acknowledge that our perspective tends to narrow, we focus on what is wrong and our brains are tuned into what is, or is perceived as, an immediate threat. I strongly suspect these emotions inhibit the quality of our ‘work’ and our ability to get on with others. Whereas when we feel positive emotions like compassion, pride, happiness and hope, we tend to feel inspired, we open up, reach out, are much more tolerant of others, become more open to new ideas and can think expansively. By ignoring the impact of emotions, we assume everyone can engage with their work in an optimum state to do so. This is, of course, absurd!

So I write this to hopefully help you start to value the development of emotional intelligence. Acknowledging and expressing emotions is still quite counter-culture but I will continue on my quest to put emotions on more agendas and hope you value it too.

P.S. I deliver developing emotional literacy in the workplace sessions that helps increase self-awareness and emotion management.