Getting Honest About Emotions


You can find loads of books and articles about how to “handle” emotions in the workplace. Most of them are pretty useless, because they are based on the unquestioned premise that to succeed, and to lead, we are required to pretend we don’t have emotions at work.

I have long known this to be a bad way to deal with emotions in the work place. And now I have some science to back me up.

If I ever get back to Finland, I’m going to look up Lauri Nummenmaa just to shake her hand and thank her for doing the work she does. Dr. Nummenmaa is a neuroscientist who does research at Aalto University, and she and her collaborators use brain imaging tools to figure out what happens when we experience emotion. 

Two of her recent papers speak directly to this issue of emotions and the futility of pretending we don’t have them. In case you want to check them out yourself, here are the titles and URLs: 

“Bodily maps of emotions”

“Emotions promote social interaction by synchronizing brain activity across individuals.”

Dr. Nummenmaa and her research colleagues figured out a way to measure something that many who work in behavior and psychology have know for a long time: that what we call “emotions” are sets or packages of bodily sensations that we have learned to label anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and so on.

You can‘t make yourself not have emotions, they just show up, like the tide. And, like the tide, the ebb and flow, wax and wane. And although we think we can hide our emotions from those around us, we give ourselves away in myriad ways, from small changes in our facial expression or tone of voice, to changes in the way we smell.

Dr. Nummenmaa also found that when people sharing an emotional state, their brain activity synchronizes in a way that enhances our ability to predict and understand each other’s actions. By attempting to suppress our emotions in the workplace out of some belief that having emotions at work is “inappropriate,” we are cutting ourselves off from one of the ways our brains make it easier for us to get along and work together.

Since you can’t avoid having emotions, ask yourself, what are you doing with them? Are you storing them up? Building a case out of them? Making yourself sick pretending you don‘t have them? Or are you feeling them, letting them move through you, and speaking your mind when necessary, to get over yourself?

I used to brag that I had a strong temper but a long fuse. What was really going on is that I would suppress anger so quickly I wasn’t even aware of it until much later when it emerged rather explosively – or it oozed out indirectly, as gossip, or nagging, or wanting to avoid someone. I eventually learned that the most frequent sensation I feel when I get angry is tightness in my chest and stomach. I’ve learned that when I notice that sensation, I need to check in to find out what I’m making myself angry about, and then deal with it in a way that I get over being angry, rather than just squelching it.

The challenge is that we are all taught, from the time we are small children, to suppress the emotions our cultures regard as “negative” – particularly anger and its derivatives such as frustration, fear, and sadness or its milder cousin, disappointment. We also learn to keep a lid on our joy, in part because the physical sensations that accompany anger (which we learn to suppress and become uncomfortable around) are similar to those that we feel when we are joyful.

Of course as little, immature human beings we do have a lot to learn how to coexist with other little (and big) human beings. We had to learn how to live with our emotions without causing harm to others or ourselves. 

Now, as healthy adults, we are capable of fully experiencing and expressing our emotions without causing damage, physical or otherwise, to ourselves and others. To do that, we have to unlearn what we learned as kids.

We have to be willing to fully experience our emotions, acknowledge and take responsibility for them as self-generated, and express our emotions in ways that lets them move up and out, rather than hanging on to them.

To tell the truth about emotions, to fully express them, we have to start by noticing we have them. We have to be willing to own them as ours, and to express them in the moment, in ways that are congruent with the power of the emotion in the moment.

With practice, you can get so good at this that, most of the time, you’ll be able to notice, express, and get over emotions when they are still small, before they pile up and build up to explosive levels. Not just anger, sadness, and fear but also happiness, joy, and appreciation.

I got a lot of help in learning how to do this from Brad Blanton, author of Radical Honesty and Practicing Radical Honesty and from my amazing life coach and co-author of The Book of How, Raven Dana. Read those books. Do the practices.

Learn how to express your emotions, at work and everywhere else you go. That’s how to manage emotions.