Emotional regulation is all about control and self-management of your behaviour, emotions and thoughts. When you are able to manage your impulses to do things, you can manage and change the way you feel and cope with situations, both at work and in life. The better you are at emotional regulation the better you will be at bouncing back from failure and staying calm under pressure.
In a work environment, there will come a time when you are under excessive pressure. There will be times when you have strong opinions about topics affecting you, or you feel quite emotional about what’s going on. Difficult problems that need solving might cause you stress. You might find yourself in a situation where you are not getting on with someone at work – all of which can trigger strong reactions and impulses to behave in certain ways – not all of which will be positive or helpful.
Why is emotional regulation important at work?
When you take on your day with a positive attitude, your compassion, empathy and relationships with others will only benefit. Being upbeat at work creates an energy that rubs off on other people. Positive expression of emotion – such as supporting ideas, being optimistic about solving problems or simply having fun with a challenge, all creates an environment that makes working collaboratively more enjoyable. It’s not possible to find this healthy balance all of the time, but it’s definitely something to aim for.
Emotional regulation skills are key to living healthily and with balance. When we are in balance, our emotions are less likely to catch us by surprise and throw us off course.
It goes without saying that no one wants to feel overcome by negative emotions at work. Whether a co-worker has said something that upset you, or you took negative feedback a little too personally, sometimes dealing with the situation calmly can be a challenge.
Consider these workplace situations:
- You disagree with a work colleague about how something should be done. Your boss decides to give your colleagues idea a go, over yours
- In a team meeting a colleague criticises you openly – at least you feel like it’s criticism
- You have your performance review with your line managed and you don’t agree with their assessment of you
- You were relying on someone to finish a piece of work so that you could get your project update in on time. They are late and now so are you
- You feel like you can’t get a word in with your teammates and it’s beginning to grate.
What emotions and feelings might you want to express in the face of these challenges? Annoyance, anger, resentment, disappointment, sadness, frustration or irritation? When potentially intense feelings like these take over, they can feel uncomfortable.
Emotional regulation isn’t necessarily about suppressing these emotions – it’s about recognising that they are welling up inside you, then adopting strategies to respond to them in a helpful way. Of course, sometimes, it will be necessary to let your work colleagues know that you feel sad or angry. Finding the right way to do this will not only help you protect yourself and stand up for what you believe to be right, but you’ll do so without feeling out of control.
Emotional regulation is also important because the way we feel can really affect those around us. If you’ve been in a situation where, for whatever reason, the atmosphere at work has felt particularly tense, heavy, and negative, there’s a good chance it’s made you feel uncomfortable and in turn, affected your emotions of those of your colleagues.
So, how do you proactively give yourself the best chance of remaining in control of your emotions when you encounter difficult situations at work?
Get to know yourself
A good first step is to learn to objectively observe your thoughts, emotions and behaviour. To get to know yourself better, ask yourself some personal questions such as:
- What behaviour in others triggers negative thoughts and feelings?
- What kind of language used by others make me feel uncomfortable?
- Which emotional responses in others are hardest for me to tolerate?
- What situations typically lead to a negative reaction in me?
- When I react without control, what happens?
- What words or behaviours in others create positive feelings in me?
- What helps to calm me or bring me back to equilibrium?
Write these answers down in a journal (try our ‘getting to know me better’ Notebook Mentor). Reflect on the role that emotions have played in any given situation, and consider you might change things for the better if you allowed yourself internal space to mindfully observe what’s been going on.
Journaling in general is a great way to take a step back to explore and paint a picture of how you are emotionally wired. By becoming more in-tune with your emotional responses, you can recognise patterns and prepare yourself to cope with stressful situations.
The STOPP technique
Once you are more in touch with your emotional makeup, you will find it easier to take yourself out of a situation and assess it before acting out. Between stimulus and response, there is the chance to choose how we behave in a situation. If you are struggling to get your emotions under control, having a ‘go-to’ technique to lean on can be really beneficial.
We recommend the STOPP technique by Carol Vivyan:
- S – stop
- T – take a breath
- O – observe your thoughts and feelings
- P – pull back, put in some perspective and look at the bigger picture
- P – practice what works and proceed
STOPP is almost a first-aid response for difficult situations. Of course, it can be a difficult thing to implement. If you struggle to get your emotions under control in the moment, how are you expected to stop and assess them before acting?
Well, it may be useful to take some time to think about a scenario where you think STOPP may be useful and exactly what you would tell yourself whilst implementing it. Start small with less difficult or emotionally charged situations and work your way up with practice to managing the things you know evoke highly charged responses.
Think of it like learning to ski. If you jump straight onto the black run, you are likely to fail and give up. Instead, stick to the bunny slopes and get there gradually. With practice the next time you find yourself in a position where you feel you may need to use STOPP, you should be familiar enough with the steps to implement it.
Set your emotional intent
If you aren’t very good at regulating your emotions, you may not believe that you hold the power to control them within your mind. With the right knowledge and some practice, however, you can manipulate the way you feel by telling yourself how you want to feel.
Ever heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’? In the same way, you are what you think and what you do. When your attention and conscious focus shifts towards negative and unpleasant thoughts and behaviours, your emotions usually follow suit. Instead of creating an internal state of distress, you are capable of creating an internal state of peacefulness. You can do this in the moment, for example by telling yourself to remain calm in an angry situation, but it may be more beneficial to set an emotional intent at the start of the day.
When you wake up in the morning, set an intention to feel a certain way – be that grateful, content, motivated or calm. Spend a little bit of time putting yourself in this mindset, actively directing your thoughts this way as you take a shower, have your breakfast and get ready for the day ahead. A good way to do this is also to make a mental list of things that you are grateful for – no matter how small. Focus on the light, and not the dark.
Do your best to keep this intent at the forefront of your thoughts as the day goes on instead of letting your emotions rule you. With a bit of practice, this will do wonders to help you stay in control and motivated in the face of negative emotions.
This reframing or programming of the voice in your head is part of a psychological practice called Neuro-Linguistic Programming or NLP. It’s been around in management science for a long time but is as relevant today as it was forty years ago. You can be trained in NLP techniques if you’d like to learn the practice more fully.
Clearly label your emotions
People have a tendency to give their feelings and emotions a generic label. For example, I’m feeling angry, sad, or happy. While there’s nothing wrong in expressing your feelings like this – particularly if it’s part of a passing comment or a less important greeting, when you feel strongly about something, it’s important to pinpoint what’s really going on.
So, if you feel angry – is anger the true emotion you are feeling – or is that you feel let down, frustrated, unsupported or criticised? When you feel sad, is it really that you feel lonely, frightened about a situation, or worried about something outside of work? Labeling our emotions correctly is an important part of learning how to manage and express them.
So, the next time a work colleague is late with a piece of work you need from them – don’t be angry. Firstly, understand what might be going on for them? Then let me know how it has made you feel – let down and perhaps worried that you will be criticised for not getting things in on time. It will make the conversation more human and easier to handle.
It’s important to remember how connected our minds and bodies are. By keeping on top of a healthy diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep, you will find regulating your emotions much easier – that’s why we get cranky when we have too many late nights and early mornings!
Alongside this, getting away from your desk throughout the day and moving your body, preferably outside in the fresh air, can also release endorphins that make you feel good. Endorphins can help you stay clear and focused whilst increasing your self-confidence, putting you in the perfect mindset for regulating emotions.
Arguably the most important way for your body to work with your emotions is to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to a negative mood, low energy, difficulty concentrating and a general inability to function as normal. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that regulating your emotions will be ten times more difficult in this headspace! Set yourself up for the best chance of a good night’s sleep by fatiguing your muscles and relaxing your mind as much as possible before your head hits the pillow.
Accept your emotional makeup
Lastly, try and remember that experiencing intense emotions is not a bad thing. For all of those intense negative emotions that you might feel, you are also likely to experience intense positive emotions, allowing you to embrace happiness and joy to your full ability.
Allowing yourself to really feel your emotions takes courage. Your emotions make up part of who you are, and it’s important to ride that wave. Emotional regulation is not about bottling up your emotions and hiding them away at work. It’s just about expressing them in the right way and not feeling overwhelmed by them. In order to be emotionally resilient, you must be able to explore your emotions, understand your emotions, and most importantly, feel them and sit with them – no matter how uncomfortable.
Your emotions are a powerful force in influencing how you live your life. You experience positive emotions, and you experience negative emotions, and by regulating your emotions, you will be able to navigate them in a constructive way, enabling you to carry out your work to the fullest.