It’s almost impossible to stop even the smallest work issues from gnawing at your general career outlook, whether you’re feeling unbearable pressure from that upcoming presentation or you’re angry with a co-worker for stealing your thunder during a meeting.
Good news, though: You might be able to find the silver lining and turn those negative instances into what could become your greatest workplace strengths. (If it worked for Beyonce’s Lemonade, it can work for you too.)
“When people get stressed about something, they let it take over their entire mind and attitude,” explains Dr. Susan David, Ph.D. and psychologist on the faculty at Harvard University. “You’re not stressed; you’re you—you just feel stressed. If you can learn to separate from your emotions and look at them with a detached view of curiosity, you can learn a ton about what’s most important to you.”
But how exactly do you stop all those negative feelings from taking over? Develop “emotional agility,” which is what David focuses on in her latest book, the aptly titled Emotional Agility.
“A good way to explain it is by using work stress as the example,” she says. “You say you feel stressed because you have 20 projects, but you have to identify the why of the stress. Is it because you want to take on all of the projects, but don’t feel you have enough time? Is it because you think these projects are excessive because your co-workers only have 5? Is it because you think you should be getting more compensation for your work on these 20 projects? Even something as simple as stepping back to find the cause can help you move forward.”
In other words, you can use what you think is getting in the way of you becoming a #girlboss to actually help you make it a reality. Genius, right?
Here, Dr. Susan David shares her four-step guide to making work stress a thing of the past.
1. Show up
The first step to reaching peak emotional agility is to open up and accept every feeling (yes, the “negative” ones too). As David explains, life is full of ups-and-downs—and you need to learn to accept them all. Instead of ignoring difficult thoughts and emotions or overemphasizing positive thinking, she suggests turning into your thoughts, emotions and behaviors willingly, with curiosity and kindness.
2. Step out
Once you’ve opened up to all of your feelings, the next step is to incorporate a mindfulness practice to help you see them for what they are—just emotions.
This, she says, gives you the opportunity to look at something like anger at a co-worker, sadness about a relationship, or stress over a decision as a piece on a chessboard. Yes, really: “When you learn to see yourself as a chessboard, your emotions are pieces on the board with many possibilities of movement rather than confined to certain preordained plays.”
Sounds good, but how can you get that Zen about work drama? In addition to meditation (is there anything it can’t improve?), David also recommends journaling or even something as simple as making a list—which helps make these emotions seem more concrete and approachable.
3. Find your “why”
Emotions don’t exist in a vacuum—so once you’ve evaluated what it is you’re feeling, you can then pull a Sherlock and figure out the values driving them.
David’s suggestion? Look to your past. If, for example, you find yourself stressed and angry at work because you’ve been tasked with 20 projects, ask yourself what about the work is stressing you out. If it’s because you feel your co-workers have way shorter to-do lists than you and that makes you angry, fairness or justice are important values to you. If it’s because it seems like you’re not getting compensated for the work you’re doing, then success or recognition could be something super-important to you. (And it goes beyond stress: If you often feel sad or angry when plans fall through or friends ignore you, then a sense of community or loyalty could be important to you.)
Ultimately, while the emotions you’re grappling with might drive you crazy, the why behind them could actually be really positive.
4. Set your “want-to goal”
Once you’ve established your values and learned to take a step back from your emotions, you’re ready to take on the world—or at least the next tense conference call, says David.
But don’t stop there: These shifts in your attitude are perfect for setting goals and giving you that extra boost to accomplish them. (Score!) “Small, deliberate tweaks to your mindset, motivation, and habits—in ways that are infused with your values—can make a powerful difference in your life,” David explains.
She says that these changes will help you achieve “want-to goals.” Instead of setting an intention because you feel like you have to, you aim for a goal that’s driven by your values.
“The idea is to find the balance between challenge and competence, so that you’re neither complacent nor overwhelmed,” explains David. “You’re excited, enthusiastic, and invigorated.” When you set a want-to goal, your levels of anger or stress will go down because there’s an end in sight—and this is how real change is made.
Take that, burnout.
Need more inspiration to channel into your day-to-day? This entrepreneur keeps it real on what it really takes to succeed at work. Or focus on your office fashion game with these super-chic outfits that prove you can wear sneakers to work.