Emotional Pain at Work
What is it about being human that seems to compel us to both give and receive agony of the heart? Is it beyond our reach to lead a richly fulfilling life without emotional pain? It may be, but here are some ideas of the causes and solutions to reduce the pain.
Some Causes of Emotional Pain
1. Unfulfilled Expectations
Early in my career I worked very hard on a project and was very pleased with the result. When I presented the project to my supervisor she hardly acknowledged it. I was expecting at least some recognition, if not a bonus of some kind. My expectations were unfulfilled and I was disappointed. For a time I became disengaged, even passive-aggressive at work. I had created a story in my mind about what the response of my supervisor “should” be. Maybe you have had similar experiences at work or at home. Expectations in work or personal relationships can be harmful when unspoken hopes are projected onto the other person. Assumptions and unrealistic expectations sabotage relationships. We can recognize that we may be setting ourselves up for the pain of unfulfilled expectations if we find ourselves saying:
“If you really loved me, you would…”
“Why didn‟t you…”
2. Being Misunderstood
Oprah gave the 2013 commencement speech at Harvard and revealed a startling observation. “I have done over 35,000 interviews…and as soon as the camera shuts off everyone always turns to me and they all want to know: Was that okay? Did you hear me? Do you see me? Did what I say mean anything to you?” It seems that people from every imaginable background, demographic, and level of expertise have this one thing in common: the desire to be understood and validated. I have felt the painful frustration, as I suppose you have, of not being understood. People not really listening to each other, not seeking to understand, is a huge source of conflict in business. Feeling misunderstood can sometimes drive us to use hurtful words, thereby magnifying the problem. It comes out in words like:
“This is not rocket science” (meaning: you’re stupid not to understand me) or,
“You always interrupt me!” (meaning: you’re not listening to me) or,
“Why do you contradict everything I say?” (meaning: I don’t feel validated).
3. Unrequited Love
When I was in the first grade there was a little girl named Sarah who was so cute and sweet I just wanted to be near her. It was the first time I felt affection for someone my age. I wanted to play with her at recess and lunchtime, I wanted her to come over after school. But Sarah liked Larry. He was a funny boy with a bubbly personality. This was my introduction to unrequited love. Because my little heart was hurt I was much more cautious about who I would give it to in the future. Subsequently nearly all my teen romantic relationships I was the one who did the heart breaking. That early pain was memorable. Whether investing our caring in a friend at work or in our romantic relationships we learn early to be cautious and not invest more into a relationship than the other person. When we find ourselves wanting to give and say more about our caring for another, but we hold back, this is evidence that we’re protecting ourselves from possible emotional pain.
We don’t feel safe. We think someone is out to get us. We feel vulnerable to the malicious intent of others. These feelings can be very painful if we allow them to fester and grow. Similar to having unfulfilled expectations, we make up a story in our mind about the terrible things that another person or circumstance may do to us. Maybe we’ve failed or been mocked or abused in the past and that taints everything we see now. Our fears may grow to anxiety and panic if unchecked. The same physical reactions may manifest as with the reaction to fight or run from a predator in the wild. We may be setting ourselves up for unnecessary pain from fear if we notice ourselves fortune-telling. We tell ourselves all the terrible things that will happen to us in the future.
Some Solutions to Emotional Pain
1. Expect Differently
Hope is the positive side of forward thinking. A hope is an expectation without the teeth. When we see evidence in ourselves of unfulfilled expectations we can avoid the pain by softening our expectation into a hope. For example, rather than thinking, “I wrote the work team meeting minutes last time so I expect Orville to write them this time,” we can soften it to, “I wrote the work team meeting minutes last time and I hope Orville will write them this time. I’ll ask him if he thinks it would be fair for him to take a turn.”
2. Give First
Knowing that everyone craves being understood and validated, what if we become the ones who give it. What difference would it make in our lives if we became the one everyone enjoys talking with because our only intent is to understand and validate others? A funny thing happens when we give people the gift of being understood and validated, they want to give back. Let it start with us.
3. Bigger Love
Rather than protecting ourselves against unrequited love, I propose making our love bigger, into the kind of love the Greeks call agape where you forget about yourself. It’s where we care about the wellbeing of the other as our primary concern, not what we can get or have with the other person. This is the kind of love that allows us to say, “I want the other person to be happy whether or not s/he cares about me.” It takes a big heart to have this kind of big love. Our hearts can grow into it by practice. When we find ourselves protecting our hearts by not caring about others as much as we could, we can ask ourselves, “Who am I really concerned about?” and reply, “Forget about me, what can I do to make her/him happy?”
4. Step into the Darkness
Feeling emotionally vulnerable is uncomfortable. I avoid it as much as I can, and I’ll bet you do too. I was listening to a speaker describe her feelings about a traumatic event that happened to her husband, and her emotions overcame her. As she wept and struggled to continue speaking I found myself liking her, feeling connected to her, and wanting to ease her pain. As I’ve tried to figure out this phenomenon so common to human beings I’ve decided that it was her vulnerability in allowing me to see her humanity. I was trying to understand how her pain felt as it related to the pain I’ve felt. I could only imagine her pain, but I wanted to relate to her. This built an invisible connection. In an amazing Ted Talk by Brenè Brown I learned that, what may seem most scary to us, may be the very thing that relieves our pain.
A little less pain in the world is what I hope for. I little less pain in me and you, at work and at home.
By Doug Lundrigan