Navigate feelings at home and at work

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I was preparing a presentation at work and was asked to include details about my personal goals. I came across an illustration by Liz Fosslien that compared how we were taught to measure success and a new way of measuring it – which appealed to me because it crystallized exactly how I was feeling.

What good is a big salary if your health suffers? Or if you feel like you don’t have time to show up as a parent because you’re too busy?

Her illustration reminded me of former Coca-Cola CEO Brian Dyson’s famous speech in which he says to imagine life is a game with 5 balls that you manipulate in the air and try to win make sure they don’t hit the ground. These five balls are: work, family, health, friends and soul. He explains that one of them is rubber and the rest is glass, and it won’t be long before you realize the work is the rubber ball.

In her latest book Great emotions, Liz and her co-author Mollie West Duffy explore feelings that weave through work and life. It is the modern handbook for dealing with feelings of insecurity, anger and despair. It’s when we suppress those emotions and don’t process them – when they can fuel burnout.

“When big emotions get the best of you, it can seem like you’re the only one having problems. But having difficult emotions doesn’t mean you’re dysfunctional. It means you are human.” Liz explained during our interview.

One of the turning points in Liz’s career was working as a barista at Starbucks over a decade ago after experiencing burnout as a business consultant. She noted how much effort the company put into thinking about both employee and guest experiences.

She said the music and lighting change depending on the time of day. Some of the tables are round so if you are alone it doesn’t look like a table with empty seats. It was the combination of design thinking and how a manager can just be there in the moments when an employee stumbles or has questions – that really helped create a positive emotional experience.

“People are so loyal to the brand. They have done a phenomenal job using the power of emotion and creativity to build this multi-billion dollar business. It was an eye opener to see what’s possible when you don’t hold back your feelings – there is so much potential.”

Liz and I touched on some of the most common emotions people have had to deal with over the past few years. Unpacking our experiences and those she shared in the book helped us normalize how to be okay when things aren’t okay.

uncertainty

Liz had terrible headaches in her 20s. She ended up in the ER and she was tested for everything. It turned out to be an atypical migraine and she was given a drug cocktail. One of them was Topamax, which caused severe mood swings, so she decided to stop taking it. This drug actually requires you to taper it off, so her abrupt stop of the medication upset her.

“I was on the L train in Chicago and it felt like a Heart attack. I practically crawled off the train and I felt so ashamed about it. I decided I didn’t want to take any medication, and that put me in a place of massive insecurity.”

At that moment, Liz made some of the needed changes in her life. She decided to make sleep a priority. She began exercising regularly and included acupuncture in her regimen.

“We think we’ll feel this way forever. things will change When you’re in uncertainty or despair or one of those big feelings, it can feel impossible to even imagine that your life can be anything other than this state of excitement,” she said.

resilience

The “just be resilient” nickname peaked in mid-2020. It felt like resilience was presented as the answer to everything. Are you a parent struggling to work from home with no child care and no community support? Just be resilient.

“The dangerous thing about it is that it focuses solely on the individual. And the truth is that resilience is useful and there are definitely coping strategies that we as individuals can implement to make us feel better. But ultimately, it’s a lot easier to be resilient in an environment that makes it easy,” she said.

For example, Liz explained that if you work in a place where your boss is toxic and discriminates against you — you can write all the affirmations you want and write down things you’re grateful for that might help you to feel a little better, but it’s a terrible environment and there’s not much you can do to really thrive in it. It becomes enormously more difficult than when you have a manager who supports you, makes you feel heard and invests in your development.

Fury

I told Liz this story about a colleague I was mad at. He had no respect for his internal partners at work (including me). I figured the best solution would be to outlive him because he was close to retirement. “I don’t have to deal with him anymore!‘ I kept telling myself. Liz helped me see that repressing my anger can manifest itself in toxic emotions.

“We often don’t admit that we’re angry in a moment because we don’t want to be labeled as angry. We don’t see ourselves as someone who is full of anger. Anger is actually a useful signal that a violation has occurred or that we have a need that is not being addressed.”

Research showing that anger is a much healthier response than fear when someone is doing something that violates your boundaries or is genuinely offensive or harmful to you, since the latter doesn’t motivate you to act. Whereas anger often motivates us to stand up for ourselves and others.

Liz shared the remarkable story about Pixar film producer Brad Bird who recruited animators who were frustrated with the recent films they had been working on. Brad would seek feedback on what they should have done better. Eventually, these angry animators came up with the idea that led to the movie The Incredibles, which blew up at the box office at $623 million (the fourth highest-grossing film of 2004).

She explained that it’s important for leaders to recognize when someone is frustrated. It’s often not that they’re a bad employee, it’s that they may have insight into a more efficient way of running the business.

“It’s okay to sit with that anger and say, ‘It’s okay that I’m angry. I don’t have to lash out or hurt anyone.’ It’s useful to know that something about this situation is telling you something needs to change. It is more productive to investigate than to suppress it and pretend nothing is wrong.”

Burn out

The first time I recognized burnout in my career was when I was working at Google. The performance expectations combined with the 4 hour commute caught up with me. At Duke Robinson’s Too beautiful for your own good, he recalls the time he realized he couldn’t whistle to call his dog because his central nervous system had shut down. That’s exactly how I felt. I vividly remember my manager asking me if I “could I do this one more quarter,” to which I replied I could not.

Liz shared her episode with Burnout in late 2020 where she thought she was superhuman, but her flame was actually on the verge of burnout. The most dangerous thing about burnout is that it’s difficult to be aware of until it’s too late.

Liz’s father-in-law died of cancer. Professionally, she worked on her new book while balancing the logistics of cancer treatment. She thought she would crush it.

“I felt all these emotions. But if I had really thought about how crazy my life was, I would have broken down. The moment I was hit from all sides, I felt superhuman.”

She became terribly ill and her body couldn’t handle the adrenaline pumping intensity.

“Something was needed. In hindsight, I should have taken a break from work. I felt manic and unhealthy. The moment you feel like you can’t take a break, you probably need to take one,” she explained.

Liz and Mollie often conduct leadership workshops on topics such as developing an emotionally fluid leader and building belonging in hybrid teams at work. I wanted to know if the executives she works with ask about burnout.

“I feel like leaders often ask: How can I help my team fight burnout? How can I help my organization invest in wellbeing? A question I always ask: When was the last time you went on vacation? And they often have no answer. I think it’s wonderful that they care about their people, but you have to lead by example. By not taking vacation or ever turning it off, you are implicitly communicating that you don’t condone it. In fact, the best thing you can do for your people is lead by example.”

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Click here to listen to the full interview with Liz Fosslien

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