Emotions in the workplace can be tricky.
You may find that sometimes your emotions inspire you to act in your best interest, while other times they lead you to self-sabotage.
One way to handle intense emotions in the workplace is through the principle “opposite action”. This psychology principle encourages us to accept and work with our emotions, rather than deny them.
“Opposite action” involves redirecting intense emotions to healthier behavior by doing the opposite of what our emotion tells us to do.
Let’s take an example of getting negative feedback:
Identify the Urge Associated with the Emotions You’re Experiencing.
Let’s say you tend to feel crushed when your boss gives you constructive feedback about how your presentation could be improved. What comes up for you as you recall times other times in your life when you typically experienced strong feelings of disappointment? What actions or urges did you find yourself experiencing? It’s likely that you felt the urge to run or hide. Maybe you locked yourself in your bedroom for hours to cry after getting a bad grade on a school report. As an adult, maybe you have the same urge to hide and retreat when you get negative feedback now.
Decide Whether the Urge Fits the Situation.
Your urge to withdraw in the face of feeling disappointed could lead you to avoid interacting with your boss. Maybe you contemplate ducking into a conference room the next time you see her coming down the hallway or think about working from home for a few days in order to recoup from the setback. Consider if either of those actions would really be in your best interest.
If the Urge Doesn’t Fit the Situation or Move You Closer to Your Goals, then Take Opposite Action.
Put simply, do the reverse of what you feel. I coach my clients to brainstorm 3 alternative actions. The first is typically a fear-driven response, but you’ll find they become less extreme because you are re-engaging your prefrontal cortex (brain area responsible for self-control and high-level thinking). The 3rd option is usually the most emotionally balanced – and will leave you with the highest sense of satisfaction and contentment.
For example, maybe the first action you think of taking is buckling down to make the changes to your presentation. This is a good start, but diving head-first into work can be just another avoidance strategy. It does nothing to help you process the intense emotions you feel.
Let’s say as a second option you consider talking to a friend or seeking out a mentor. Again, it shows great effort, but can your friend or an outside party really help you solve the issue? It’s best to take action on your third option, speaking directly with your boss, so that you can get clarity on the feedback she gave you.
Not only will you get the direction you need, but you’ll also feel empowered and more confident as a result of working through your intense emotions in a productive way that’s aligned with your goals and values.
Opposite action is an emotion regulation skill you can use in the workplace to help you make sense of your emotions and to decide what to do about them.