Emotional Hygiene at Work

Feelings in the workplace are still a taboo for many people, even though they play a crucial role in the daily life of every company. Emotional intelligence expert Vivian Dittmar knows how consciously dealing with difficult feelings can help teams move forward.

While until recently it was quite normal for managers to vent their pent-up emotions on employees from time to time, this solution is less and less acceptable today. Managers are therefore challenged to find a new way of dealing with difficult emotions – especially if they want to retain highly qualified and correspondingly self-confident employees in the long term. The same applies among colleagues, of course. Because saying goodbye to command-and-control behavior also means that more relationships are lived at eye level – as a result of which feelings and emotions suddenly take on a new significance.

Emotional baggage distort our perception

Dealing with emotional baggage poses a particular challenge. Everyone carries unfelt feelings from the past around with them in their emotional backpack. And even if we would like it to be so, unfortunately this baggage cannot simply be handed in to the doorman. We have to deal with it constantly – whether we are aware of it or not. In concrete terms, this means that time and again things happen that trigger inappropriate reactions in us. Unfortunately, we often don’t even notice this or only when it’s too late. Our perception becomes distorted, our emotional control fails, we become unobjective and irrational.

Often it’s just little things that set these reactions in motion: a colleague who shows up late for a meeting. A certain way our boss reminds us of a deadline. An email that accidentally went out without an attachment. What we don’t usually realize is that these emotional processes don’t actually belong in the current situation. They are remnants from long past experiences that we have not processed. That’s why people react so differently to stress factors. What drives one person up the wall is not an issue for another.

Emotional baggage burden professional and private relationships

These unprocessed experiences are waiting in our backpack for an opportunity to be felt. Yet it is not at all healthy for our system to carry them around with us for decades. But what would be good for our emotional healing is not necessarily good for our relationships. On the contrary, professional and private relationships can suffer greatly if emotional baggage keeps coming into play – especially if we are not aware of it.

Recognizing emotional activations in ourselves and others is the first step to developing a new way of dealing with these challenging situations. I like to compare emotional charges in conflict situations to drinking and driving: If I know I’m driving drunk, that’s bad enough. But if I don’t realize that I’m drunk, it’s infinitely more dangerous. And of course, an awareness that I’m not quite myself right now is a prerequisite for not getting behind the wheel or having important arguments in this state.

Out of the drama loop

But how do we recognize emotional activation? Common symptoms are: tunnel vision, change in voice pitch, increased pulse, thought carousel, strong emotionality or even the sudden absence of any feeling.

Once we’ve identified what’s going on, it’s a matter of developing a new way of dealing with the difficult baggage. The gossiping round at the coffee machine is a proven way to give us temporary relief, but real clarification and development does not happen through it. To resolve the conflict between what would be good for our backpack and what our relationships can tolerate, I recommend conscious unloading. In very simplified terms, this means getting everything off your chest for five minutes in a confidential setting and thereby returning to a clarified inner state.

Unlike gossiping, this is not about talking badly about others, but about feeling exactly what emotions the other person’s behavior triggers in me. A small but subtle difference. In this context, conscious discharge relies on familiarity: our conversation or discharge partner is not only bound to absolute secrecy towards third parties, he or she is also not allowed to address me about what has been said. This prevents what we let out in an unfiltered manner from blowing up in our faces afterwards.

In many companies, emotions officially play no role

In my work with teams, I experience that there are huge differences today when it comes to emotional competence. Unfortunately, in many companies emotions do not officially play a role, but for this very reason they dominate everything to a certain extent subliminally. In other companies, it is common practice for employees and managers to speak openly when emotional baggage are up to mischief. The good thing is that everyone can make a start on the subject of emotional hygiene by beginning to consciously deal with his or her own old burdens. Which leads to more serenity and ease with the activations of others and sets a new standard of maturity that can be inspiring for other team members.

Vivian Dittmar is founder of the Be The Change Foundation For Cultural  Change and author of several books on feelings, relationships and consciousness. Her childhood and adolescence on three continents in different social contexts allowed her to develop an early awareness of the global challenges of our time and are her drive to find and implement holistic solutions. Her book successes include The Power of Feelings, The Emotional Backpack and Your Inner GPS.


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