Emotion Work Identified

As I’ve been working with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s definition of emotions as action-requiring neurological programs, I created a flowchart to help you understand the difference between feelings and emotions. This is my simplified flowchart:

An emotionally evocative stimulus occurs → The stimulus evokes a specific emotion → You utilize your ability to feel that emotion → You name that emotion → You act on the information the emotion provides

As we all know, this flowchart can break down at any point in its progression. First, a person can misinterpret the emotionally evocative stimulus. Second, the evoked emotion may be unstable (for instance, some people move to rage, depression, or anxiety whenever any problem, large or small, occurs). Third, a person may not be tuned into his or her intrapersonal capacity to feel emotions — and may not know which emotion has been evoked. Fourth, a person may misidentify the emotion or ignore it completely. And fifth, a person may act on the emotion without thinking.

The work in The Language of Emotions exists to help you become more intelligent in each step of this process, from stimulus to emotion to action. But because there can be such trouble in the emotional realm, I’ve inserted a crucial step between the naming and the acting, which is cognitively questioning the emotion in a way that supports it. With this step, you become able to behave in truly rational ways that make you more intelligent about and with your emotions. When you question your emotions, you don’t fight with them. You turn toward them, and you work with them:

An emotionally evocative stimulus occurs → The stimulus evokes a specific emotion → You utilize your ability to feel that emotion → You name that emotion → You question that emotion You act on the information that emotion provides, or you decide not to act because the stimulus is invalid

This might look like an involved process, but once you get the hang of it, it’s very quick — and it helps you learn to work with your emotions in focused and rational ways.

Becoming a stimulus for other people

In social relationships, we often work to evoke specific emotions in other people. For instance, in the area of happiness, I’d like you to think about the amount of time and energy you spend trying to make other people feel happy. If you think about this, you may be struck by the absurdity of the situation, because if you try to make someone else feel happy, you almost have to stop being a person in order to become a happiness-evoking stimulus.

Your needs and your private life sort of have to be set aside as you focus on the needs and emotional states of other people. This is, of course, a part of belonging to a social species. If you don’t pay any attention to the needs of others, you will become a socially unsuccessful outcast.

However, you can benefit from looking at your need to make other people feel specific emotions, because while we can assume that being surrounded by upbeat and contented people is more comfortable than being surrounded by angry, anxious, or depressed people, I’d like to question that assumption. That assumption treats the emotions of other people as something we need to manage or control. In fact, it treats the emotions of other people as our personal liability; it treats the emotions of other people as a part of our work.

Understanding emotion work

Cover of the book The Managed HeartIn her excellent 1983 book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, sociologist Arlie Hochschild described what she termed “emotional labor,” or the way that our emotions and emotional states are a part of what we offer (and what is expected from us) in the workplace. For instance, flight attendants must not only understand the intricacies of their physical work on airplanes, but they must also display an open and welcoming demeanor to passengers. Even when passengers are bad-tempered or clingy, part of the labor of a flight attendant is to continually offer a calm, helpful, accepting presentation of self that is intended to evoke happiness and contentment in others.

This concept of the presentation of self is important in sociology, because it identifies humans as skilled behavioral performers in our various social worlds. Especially at work, we all learn to adopt a type of behavioral performance that is quite different from the performances we give at home, with our family, or with our friends. In each different social world, we learn to behave differently: we speak, dress, interact, gesture, and emote differently depending upon the demands of each social world we inhabit.

Hochshild’s concept of emotional labor really helps us look at the behavioral rules that are expected in the workplace (but rarely stated outright) – at how we must manage our own emotions and intentionally evoke or soothe the emotions of others in order to get our jobs done.

For instance, if airline passengers are rude, a good flight attendant won’t generally snap at them or ignore their requests – as he might if his friends or family treated him rudely.  In fact, his normal human reactions would be frowned upon by the airline; therefore, part of his job description (though it may not be written down in black and white) is to deal with rudeness and bad behavior in unusual or even counter-productive (to him) ways. When a passenger does something that normally evokes frustration, anxiety, or anger, a good flight attendant will not display those normal human emotions. Instead, he may ignore his own emotional state and actually work to evoke calm and happiness in the offending passenger (some frequent flyers understand these unspoken emotion-work rules and behave inexcusably on flights because they know they can usually get away with it).

This emotional labor, and emotional management of ourselves and others — this is emotion work. It’s a part of our social contract with each other, and though it’s not given as much importance as other areas of a job description, emotion work is possibly the most important job skill — and social skill — you possess.

As you go through your day, pay attention to the emotion work of the people who serve you, and the people you serve. You probably have very specific (yet unspoken) emotion-work rules for the owners and employees of businesses you visit (especially restaurants and stores), even if you’ve never set eyes on anyone in the business before. You know how every person in the business is supposed to behave, how you’re supposed to behave, and how other customers are supposed to behave. You know which emotions the workers are supposed to evoke in you, and which emotions you’re supposed to evoke in them.

We each have a very specific part to play, and a specific emotion presentation that is expected of us. Strangely, most of us have never been explicitly taught about any of this emotion work; we’re just supposed to pick it up through cultural osmosis.

For instance, it’s nearly always unacceptable to speak or laugh loudly at work (unless you’re on a cellphone, sigh), to display jealousy and envy openly (they’re often handled inside gossip chains), to openly display anger, grief, fear, or joy, or to tell your co-workers when they have hurt or embarrassed you. No one directly teaches you these rules – you often learn them through trial and error. If you break an emotion rule at work, people might become silent, they might stare you down or studiously ignore you, or they might isolate you. And if you study your own behavior, you’ll see that you also engage in this unspoken emotion training with your co-workers.

At your own job, you have very specific emotion-work expectations for yourself, your co-workers, your employees and contractors, and your managers or bosses. Yet even though we all know how everyone is supposed to behave, this knowledge is not made explicit, and it’s almost never written down. We just know when emotion work is not being performed correctly, yet we have very few ways to explain this knowledge to each other.

Accordingly, a great deal of the trouble I see in the workplace revolves around emotion work that is either not being performed (the problem employee), or is being performed but not valued (the put-upon, or heading-for-burnout employee). The workplace can become really miserable when there is trouble in the sphere of emotion work.

Our underground awareness of emotion work

As a younger woman, I was hilariously out of place in many jobs, because emotion work was so obvious to me that I didn’t realize other people couldn’t see it. I tended to get into trouble because I would say out loud, “Hey, why don’t you tell your assistant the truth instead of doing his work for him?” or “That person is working way past her abilities, and she’s bossy and snappy because of it,” or “This person is heading for burnout, and if you call yourself a manager, then manage the tension in this job and protect your workers!”

Empathically speaking, I saw poorly-managed emotions and unjust emotion work as an integral part of the unprofitability and inefficiency of the workplace – but until I discovered Arlie Hochshild’s concepts of emotional labor and emotion work, I had no vocabulary for it.

Due to my persistent questions about the emotionally detrimental atmosphere of so many workplaces, I decided to minor in the Sociology of Work and Occupations (this is in addition to my BA in Social Science and my work as a researcher). I also became certified in Career Testing & Guidance, and in Human Resource Administration – because I wanted to know: What do the experts say about this emotion work situation?

After four years of study, the answer is: The experts say almost nothing.

Career Guidance and HR Administration programs spend almost no time on emotion work. There are a few psychology courses here and there, but the focus is more on how to punish, coddle, or isolate problem employees than it is on understanding the nuances of emotion work and how an unsupportive workplace can create an unproductive emotional atmosphere … and how that atmosphere can create problem employees!

There’s also very little awareness of why people burn out; a great deal of the burnout prevention I was taught focused on making jobs more interesting or varied, but there was almost no awareness of the burnout potential of unsupported, unjust, or unreasonable emotion work. Being an unacknowledged and unpaid emotion-evoking stimulus for other people can be exhausting.

Sadly, the Career Guidance professionals whose job it is to help us find work, and the Human Resource professionals who oversee the workplace … unless they’ve done extracurricular study, these people usually have no direct education in or understanding of emotion work, which is the central human skill that makes the workplace functional (or, more commonly, dysfunctional!). Whoops!

But hey, at least I discovered where the problem lies. Score one for the empath!

Bringing emotion work out into the open

People who are highly empathic tend to act as emotion-work janitors, both in the workplace and in their personal relationships. We who are empathically sensitive tend to pick up on – and then address – the emotional troubles around us. However, because emotions and emotion work live in the shadows, we are often unaware that we are engaged in perpetual, unpaid emotion work.

We tend to clean up the emotional troubles around us. We mediate between people who can’t get along. We jolly the grumpy people in our lives. We translate emotions into easily digestible chunks for our emotionally unaware friends and family. We calm people who are unaccountably anxious. We confront people who are unaccountably furious. We always seem to sit next to the person who wants a confidante, and we are often at the center of gossip chains – even if we don’t like gossip.

People tend to bring us their troubles and their conflicts … and no matter what our stated job description is, we have a second full-time job: We’re professional emotion workers. But because our work isn’t identified as work, we can burn out without knowing why – and without realizing that we need a vacation from all this unpaid work.

Burning contractsAll of the information in The Language of Emotions was created to help empathic people and unpaid emotions workers learn what emotions are, how they work, and how to work with them. The five emotional mindfulness skills I’ve developed were also specifically created to make emotion work less taxing, and less likely to lead to burnout.

The emotional mindfulness skills of Grounding and focusing help you develop your interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence; the skill of Boundary-setting helps you develop a sense of privacy so that your emotion work can become intentional rather than accidental; the skills Burning Contracts and Conscious Complaining help you address and unload the emotional baggage you carry for others; and the skill of Rejuvenation gives you a healthy self-soothing skill you can use whenever you head toward burnout.

Burning Contracts and Conscious Complaining are especially helpful, since nearly all empathic activities occur in the unheralded, unnoticed, yet absolutely crucial area of emotion work. Both of these mindfulness skills help you bring your seemingly ephemeral empathic behaviors into visual, verbal, and tangible form so that you can identify, separate from, and change those behaviors.

Conscious Complaining can help you get to the core of what’s bothering you, and Burning Contracts can help you treat your emotion work as a choice and a presentation of self – as a performance and not as your destiny. When you can visualize or make tangible the behaviors you’ve donned as an unheralded and unpaid emotion worker, you can burn your contracts with those behaviors and make way for a new, more conscious, and more emotionally rewarding approach to your relationships.

Identifying your own emotion work

What kind of emotional labor do you do at work, and is it stated as part of your job description?

At work, are you doing any emotional management for a colleague, such as soothing tempers if your colleague blows up, translating for your colleague when others don’t understand her behavior or her needs, or taking the lead if another colleague cannot speak up on his own?

In your personal life, do your friends, mate, and family openly acknowledge your emotion work? Are you mediating between family members, translating emotions for friends, or working hard to keep your mate happy (as if you are a happiness-evoking stimulus), even though your own needs are going untended? What emotion work do you do? Is it recognized? Is it working for you?

And in the larger empathic sense, is your emotion work working for other people, really? Specifically, how much emotion work are you doing in the area of happiness-creation for others? Is it all right with you when other people feel angry (see Understanding and befriending anger), or do you often try to soothe anger away? If so, could you be training people how not to set boundaries for themselves?

Can you allow people to feel appropriate shame (see Embracing guilt and shame) so that they can learn how to moderate their own behavior, or do you soothe shame away as well? If so, could you be training people how not to amend their own troublesome behaviors?

Can you allow people to feel anxiety (see Welcoming the gifts of anxiety) so that they can get their work done, or do you step in and help them complete the tasks they’ve been procrastinating about? If so, could you be training them how not to become conscientious and self-aware?

Are all emotions safe in your presence, or are you actually helping people remain emotionally unskilled in the presence of any emotions that aren’t happiness?

As you examine your own emotion work, check in with any possible valencing (see There are no negative emotions)  you might be imposing upon others — and upon yourself. Remember that there’s no such thing as a positive or negative emotion; emotions are action-requiring neurological programs that exist in context, and you can’t know if an emotion is appropriate until you understand why it was evoked.

In each of the emotion chapters in The Language of Emotions, we discover ways to do emotion work that allows other people to honestly feel the way they feel – which means that you’ll actually support them in developing their own emotional skills.

That’s good emotion work if you can get it! And I’m saying you can get it.

10 Responses

  1. Kate Riley
    | Reply

    As always, this is great information well presented.

    I wish I could send it to the people that I used to work for. I took an EQ survey with a corporate HR Exec, and after she informed the GM of the property where I was Spa Director of my high scores and hence, what I needed from him as a supervisor (like, a few minutes of personal contact each day), he consciously distanced himself from me and began the process of excluding me and pushing me out.

    Sadly, it seems his comfort level was/is of somewhat empty charisma and not much real human connection.

    A lesson well-learned by me.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Kate, ouch! And how silly, since a spa director absolutely has to have major social and emotional skills. Oy, modern workplace, OY!

      Well, maybe I’m glad you’re not there any more. I hope you’ve found a better place where your skill-set is recognized for what it is.

  2. Michael stumpf
    | Reply

    Thank You Karla,Your work helps in my very everyday life.Peace Be Upon You,Mike

  3. Kitty Kiku
    | Reply

    Great bunch of questions and examples. It’s truly amazing when one’s purposeful “emotion work” is recognized or acknowledged in the workplace. Rare, I think, as important!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Kiku! I just returned from recording at Sounds True, where people can have their emotions at work and talk about them openly. It was really refreshing to be in a place where there was some awareness of emotion work. It’s not a perfect workplace (what is?), but it’s pretty darned fab.

  4. Kitty Kiku
    | Reply

    Fab lab! Wunderbar!

  5. Ricky Williams
    | Reply

    As always you offer a nuanced and understanding perspective on emotions. Such a refreshing reminder of how healing it is to become more self-aware!

    Thank you!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks, Ricky! I see that you write for a living, and I can totally empathize with the amount of heavy-lifting emotion work you probably have to do in your work with clients. Though we can keep it a secret between us — heehee!

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