Early in my career, a colleague who’d had enough of my whining asked if I’d ever considered suffering in silence. The answer was, “No.” (To be fair, I was headed to the emergency room with an infection.) But the words landed and I knew he was right. For the many times I’ve fallen short in “keeping it to myself,” I apologize. Burdening your colleagues with complaints pulls everyone down, including you.
The ability to self-soothe is associated with emotional intelligence. Part of teaching the young is helping kids identify and handle emotions. Yet many adults fling their distress around heedlessly. They grumble frequently and loudly, or they fly off the handle in fits of fury, and then blame others for their upset. They’re impervious to the emotional contagion they spread breeding more anger and tumult. This is what lousy work cultures look like.
The leader lacking in self-soothing skills is particularly destructive. Abusive, emotional outbursts don’t encourage staff members to be candid because they think/know raising an issue will prompt a punitive response. Morale tanks along with productivity and quality. The cascading effect can result in attention-grabbing headlines of the worst kind.
There’s no perfect workplace that is completely free of discomfort. It’s up to us to be able to self-soothe and using multiple strategies is excellent self-care. Even if you aren’t overly verbal or in danger of exploding, people read your stress or anxiety. It leaks out in voice tone, body language, diminished humor, and any number of other subtle ways. Comforting ourselves saves wear and tear on relationships at work and at home.
The ability to access relaxation strategies when needed is a life skill. Identify small actions that allow you to distract yourself momentarily to allow yourself to calm and gain perspective. My go-to list includes funny cat videos, photos of places where I’ve felt at peace, a rock I love to touch because of its shape and texture, and the sound of waves crashing on a beach (thank you, You Tube). The time required to enjoy one of these self-administered soothers is brief. Looking at a photo or touching a rock takes no time at all.
Once you’ve identified dependable strategies, know when to apply them. Once we’re too far down the path of upset, we tend to be oblivious to how our behavior affects others. The idea is to catch yourself at an early stage, not when you’re ready to scream or feel a migraine coming on. Do you know what your distress cues are? Physical reactions such as a clenched jaw, tense shoulder muscles, a racing heart, or becoming flushed are common. Some people find themselves thinking uncharacteristically mean or angry thoughts or they become excessively negative. Other folks make poor food choices (usually carbs, fat, and sugar—hello cookies and pastries!). Some people want to flee or hide. Notice and heed your personal alarm then implement one of your soothers.
A broad list of strategies is helpful because little hits of relaxation need to be easy to obtain in the environment in which you find yourself. A method that can be used only when alone or when you have fifteen minutes may not work in every situation. An annual vacation is a great pay off to a demanding job, but it’s too infrequent to be helpful in the moment. Touching a piece of beach glass in your pocket should work anywhere. Think of simple pleasures that are (hopefully) legal, moral, and not too unhealthy.
Please let me know what you come up with—I’m sure others will benefit from your ideas, too.