The Subtleties of “Staying Positive” and how to Cope with Sadness, Fear and Anxiety - ZM Coach

One of the most important skills that leaders will need to draw on in the coming weeks will be their compassion. As more people get sick and die from COVID-19, chances are high that nearly every organization will be affected by loss – whether that’s the loss of an employee or an employee’s loved one.

In this piece, we’ll look at how to make room for your own emotional experience, as a pathway to expanding your ability to support your colleagues with compassion.

In my Facebook group, I recently posted an article called “The Discomfort Your Feeling is Grief” by Scott Berinato, HBR, March 2020.

It makes a lot of sense to me that right now many of us are experiencing grief. Grief about the major change in our lives from the coronavirus situation. Grief about the loss of connectivity. Grief as we begin to hear of people we know who are sick or dying. Grief about the economic impact the situation is having. Anticipatory grief about what we fear will be coming.

Framing this experience as grief creates some room for us to feel the emotions that are likely to be emerging: denial, anger, sadness before we finally find acceptance and meaning. There’s no single pathway through grief, but each of these pieces will play a part.

In response to my post, one member wrote, “I’m not one to dwell on the negative long, but all this pressure to only see the positive is exhausting. Sometimes I just want to be scared or angry for a few minutes.”

This is actually one of the most important skills you can develop in yourself as a leader – the ability to experience your emotions fully and move through them.

  • That wave of sadness that comes over you when you read about the number of people who are sick or dying, or when you hear news of someone you know.
  • The anger you feel toward people you think aren’t taking the right actions.
  • The irritation that crops up toward a colleague who forgot to go off mute again.
  • The upset when you finally get to the grocery store and see that the shelves have been cleaned out.

Feelings are like the weather. They come up inside us, just like clouds roll in or rain comes down.

For many years, therapists worked with people to plunge the depths of those feelings. To go deeply into their sadness, their fears, their anger. It was believed to be freeing. And on some level, it is — if it’s done well. The problem is, it’s not always done well.

Done poorly, it results in creating a bunch of stories that reinforce the feelings and actually help the person avoid having them.

If the way you deal with negative feelings is to stay in your head about them – thinking thoughts that reinforce them, finding evidence why you should feel that way, it becomes very difficult to get out of them. Our thoughts and feelings create a self-reinforcing loop. And pretty soon what started as a feeling becomes a mood. And in that mood, we are more likely to see evidence in the world that confirms that we’re RIGHT to be in that mood. And there we go. The experience in that thought-feeling loop becomes so big, that it’s overwhelming.

So there’s been a movement in our society to shift away from all of that – to “think positive!” And there’s a lot that we can say about what’s valuable about that. But again, it’s all about how you do it.

If you’re putting up rainbow wallpaper over a big old wall of sadness, that’s not going to work very well. That’s just a different version of avoiding the core feelings. In that version, instead of reinforcing feelings, the thoughts tell you that you shouldn’t have them at all. You start looking for and finding evidence why you shouldn’t feel that way. You think things like, “I shouldn’t be upset about being home all day when there are doctors and nurses working long hours and putting their lives on the line to care for people.” Or “I shouldn’t feel bad about working fewer hours and taking a pay cut when there are other people out there who are out of work entirely.” Or “I shouldn’t feel sad, because after all, I haven’t lost any loved ones yet.”

The problem with both of these versions – either letting the feeling/story loop get so big that we’re overwhelmed by it, or “shoulding” ourselves about what we feel – is that they drain our compassion. If we aren’t able to allow ourselves to feel what we’re feeling, and move through those feelings to the other side, how will we be able to sit with a colleague or a friend or loved one when they’re feeling sadness or anger or grief?

Now more than ever, leaders need deep-rooted, authentic emotional intelligence. They need skills and tools for leading their people through unprecedented challenges. They need the confidence to take care of themselves and to ask for what they need so they can support others without burning out. There is no better time to invest in building your capacity to lead.

If you’d like to learn more about what that could look like for you, let’s talk. Book a call with me today.

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