What even is an emotion?

The psychologists Beverley Fehr and James Russell said it best: “Everyone knows what an emotion is, until asked to give a definition.” The most visible aspect of an emotion is a facial expression. If we asked you to show us “fear,” you would probably widen your eyes and open your mouth. But would any person, regardless of how or where they were raised, be able to interpret your expression as “fear”?

Scientists fall into two camps. The first argues that humans share an innate set of emotions, which they express in the same way. This camp tends to view emotions as hardwired products of evolutionary instincts that motivate us to act in ways that promote survival. The plot of the Pixar movie Inside Out is based on this theory. The movie’s five main characters, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, represent the emotions that live inside our brains as separate entities and press buttons to control our behavior.

The second camp points to scientific evidence that emotions are not universal but rather learned and shaped by culture. Psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, a leading proponent of this view, explained to us, “Emotions are not your reactions to the world; they are your brain’s way of making meaning.” Say your heart starts beating wildly. Are you afraid or are you excited? If your boss just emailed you, “We need to talk about your performance lately,” you might attribute your racing heart to fear. But if instead your crush just confessed how much they like you, you might interpret the thump in your chest as excitement (although Liz says for her this is another “fear” situation).

Emotions are universal graphic

Barrett explains, “Utku Eskimos have no concept of ‘anger.’ The Tahitians have no concept of ‘sadness.’ This last item is very difficult for Westerners to accept…life without sadness? Really? When Tahitians are in a situation that a Westerner would describe as sad, they feel ill, troubled, fatigued, or unenthusiastic, all of which are covered by their broader term pe’ape’a .” Westerners, in comparison, are taught the concepts of “anger” and “sadness” as children. Why does this matter? When you’re judging someone’s emotion based on their facial expression, that perception is coming from you, not from the other person. According to Barrett, we’re able to perceive a “happy” face as happy because we are socialized to do so, not because of evolution. Barrett’s research also shows there is nothing inherently “bitchy” about resting bitch face, or RBF (here’s a handy definition from Urban Dictionary: “a person, girl especially, whose regular facial expression makes them look like a bitch”). In 2015 The New York Times reported that women were resorting to plastic surgery to escape the tyranny of RBF. “When you look at someone’s face, it feels like you read emotion,” Barrett told us. “But you’re reading it based on past experience. These faces are structurally neutral. When you see a bitchy face, that perception is coming from you.” So the next time someone mentions RBF, you can correct them: “Actually it’s resting neutral face.”

Three core skills to deal with emotion day-to-day

Here are three core skills that will help you understand and effectively express emotion.

1. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to acknowledge, understand, and express your emotions and to handle relationships with empathy. Workers high in EQ are better able to cooperate, manage conflict, and make thoughtful decisions. Without emotional intelligence, warns psychologist Daniel Goleman, “no amount of attention to the bottom line will protect your career.”

EQ does not involve sharing every feeling you have with every person you encounter. People with high EQ channel and filter emotions in ways that help them become more effective. This requires:

Job Checklist
  • Acknowledgement. Mollie wakes up and feels anxious. She doesn’t suppress (or express) this emotion, she simply gives herself permission to feel and observe it.
  • Understanding. Mollie realises she is nervous because of an upcoming book deadline. Liz is working on a chapter draft but hasn’t emailed Mollie in a few days.
  • Expression. That morning, Mollie sends Liz a friendly text. “Hi!” she writes. “I’m confident you’re going to get this done, but you know me – I get anxious about deadlines. I want to respect your process, but do you think we could review the chapter together this afternoon?” After a few minutes, Liz writes back, “Of course! Didn’t mean to make you anxious,” and Mollie feels the tension drain from her shoulders.

2. Emotional regulation

Surveys about fear reveal that we are more afraid of public speaking than we are of dying. Say you have to give a presentation in front of fifty of your colleagues. Your anxiety might make you stumble over your words, sweat profusely, or freeze.

The ability to regulate your emotions can be a life- (and job) saver. You can manage which emotions you experience, when you experience them, and how you react to them. Even though emotions can be useful signals, they can also hurt, come at the wrong time, or be too intense. Three common ways to regulate your emotions are reappraisal (when you reframe how you see a situation), suppression (when you actively avoid an emotion by shifting your focus), and response control (when you stifle your laughter or take deep breaths to calm your body). Say you’re the anxious public speaker we described above. If you practice extensively, you will build confidence and decrease the anxiety you feel during the presentation (and the amount of emotion you need to regulate). If you memorize the first few sentences of your presentation, you will be able to launch into the talk without any initial anxieties.

3. Emotional agility

LIZ: My partner and I have a rule where we tell the other when one of us is stuck in an emotion. For example, if I feel irritable, I say, “I’m grumpy right now, but it has nothing to do with you – I think it might have to do with an upcoming deadline or the humidity.” This prevents us from getting into a grump spiral where he feels like I’m upset with him so he becomes confused and grumpy, which makes me confused and more grumpy.

At work, we tap into a constant stream of emotions. Some of these emotions are positive and some are downright difficult. Psychologist Susan David advises that instead of trying to distract yourself from your difficult emotions through affirmations and to-do lists, you can unhook yourself from them. This does not mean you should ignore them, but rather, work through them so their existence doesn’t define your entire mood. There are four steps to unhooking yourself from difficult emotions:

1. Notice difficult emotions

Let’s say you’re on a project team and one of your team members suggests big changes right before the deadline. You start to get annoyed. Instead of snapping at your coworker, pause and observe the feeling.

Emotional Granularity Bird

2. Label each emotion

The ability to describe complex feelings, to distinguish awesome from happy, content, or thrilled, is called emotional granularity. Emotional granularity is linked with better emotion regulation and a lower likelihood to become vindictive when stressed. People who have this skill “have a texture to the way they are able to talk about emotions: not only what they are feeling but the intensity with which they are feeling,” says LeeAnn Renninger, neuroscientist and founder of workplace training firm LifeLabs Learning.

In the project team example, without emotional granularity you might say something lacking specifics. “I have a bad feeling and I’m not liking the way this project is going.” But with emotional granularity, you’ll be able to realize that by “I’m feeling annoyed,” you really mean, “I’m worried that we won’t have time to make these changes.”

Emotional vocabulary words: To help you get started on expanding your emotional vocabulary, here are three of our favorite lesser-known emotion words. Ilinx (French): the elated disorientation caused by random acts of destruction, like kicking the office copy machine. Malu (Dusun Baguk people of Indonesia): the awkward feeling around people of higher status, like riding an elevator with the CEO of your company. Pronoia (English): the creeping feeling that everyone is involved in a conspiracy to help you.

3. Understand the need behind each emotion

Once you’ve labeled each emotion, flip your perspective and explicitly state what you’d like to be feeling instead. Dwelling on a difficult feeling will only enhance that feeling. Instead, ask yourself, “What do I want to feel?” If you’d like to feel calm instead of anxious, figure out what you need to do to successfully relax. In the project team example, that might be ensuring stability: you want the project plan to stay on track.

4. Express your needs

Once you’ve identified your need, articulate it. Don’t say, “I’m annoyed by this request for last-minute changes.” Try, “Your edits are good, but because we are down to the wire, stability and predictability are important. What edits do we have time for? How can we make this work?”

The Emotional Employees Journey
  • No Hard Feelings

  • How do you deal with your emotions at work?

    'Full of lively illustrations and practical examples to show how you can harness emotions to become more creative, collaborative and productive' Adam Grant, author of Originals


    We all know what it's like to feel overwhelmed with emotions at work - everything from jealousy to insecurity, anxiety to straight up panic - and there's no field guide to coping with them well.

    But we also know that ignoring or suppressing what you feel hurts your health, happiness and productivity.

    This book will help you figure out how to express your emotions productively in order to be both happier and more effective at work. Drawing on behavioural economics and psychology, No Hard Feelings will show you how to bring your best self to work every day.


    'A must-read' Susan Cain, author of Quiet

  • Buy the book

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