transcript of “How Can I Control My Emotions At Work?”(Ask a Manager podcast episode 22)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “How Can I Control My Emotions At Work?”.

Alison: Emotions and work are a weird thing. Part of being professional is keeping your emotions in check, but that doesn’t mean that you magically stop having them. Today’s guest is worried that she has a habit of emotional outbursts at work and wants to try to stop it. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi.

Alison: You sent a letter to me that started with, “My out of control emotions are getting me in trouble at work.” And to summarize your letter, you’ve snapped at your boss a few times when you were stressed and you’re worried that if it happens again, you might be out of a job. Does that sound right?

Guest: Yeah, I mean I’m safe for now, but never know what happens if I do it again.

Alison: I want to say up-front that I don’t necessarily think we’re going to solve the whole thing today, but what I’m hoping is that you’ll end up with a bunch of things to think about and a better idea of what the path to working on it might look like. Because details matter, let’s talk about the times that it has happened. I know there was one where you called in sick, your boss asked you about something that you’d forgotten to send to a client the week before, and you snapped at her. What happened there?

Guest: I was sick, so the day before I forgot to send something to a client, which I genuinely forgot – it wasn’t on purpose – and the next day she asked me to come in for a meeting and I and because I had a high fever, wasn’t thinking straight, I just said, “I’ll do it later, can you not call me when I’m sick?” And after I said that she got really upset and she didn’t talk to me for a few days actually.

Alison: And I think you mentioned too, she later gave you a lecture about being rude?

Guest: Yeah, she sort of called me a rude entitled millennial before letting it go.

Alison: So I will say, it’s not unreasonable when you’re out sick that you wouldn’t want to be asked to come in for a meeting. I mean, you had a fever, so I don’t think your stance there was unreasonable – but it may have been something about the way that you said it. Does that sound right?

Guest: Yeah. She did mention something about my tone of voice that rubbed her the wrong way. This is after the whole thing was done and dusted. She said that she didn’t like how I came across. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to give me leave, it’s more she didn’t like the way I said it.

Alison: Yeah, you were sick, and we are generally not at our best when we’re sick. So if it were just that one, I would say you were sick, you didn’t get it quite right, this stuff happens. But it sounds like there have been other cases of it too. I think you mentioned in your letter that there was a time when your boss assigned you to do some work that you didn’t want to do.

Guest: Yeah. The work that was assigned to me involved cold calling a bunch of strangers and, being the extreme introvert that I am, I don’t really like to do that. Usually when my emotions aren’t whacko, we get along fine and I tell my boss a lot of things and she tells me a lot of things. We communicate openly, it’s not an issue. Because of that, I did honestly tell her that, “You know what, I’ll do this, but I don’t like doing this. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like doing this.” And that wasn’t all I said, but she kept pushing that I must do it anyway, that’s what I need to do, if I need to go on and move up the ladder in my field. And then at one point I just said something along the lines of, “But I think I do good enough work already.” So that whole entitled comment sort of came into focus again, and this time she didn’t talk to me for a little longer – a little over a week. We just made up like yesterday, so we’re now on talking terms again. But it was like one and a half weeks of the cold shoulder.

Alison: So I will say, it doesn’t sound like you are handling these things in an ideal way – but it doesn’t sound like your boss is either. I mean, calling you an entitled millennial and not talking to you for a week … that’s pretty weird on your boss’ side. I don’t think this is, like, you have this ideal boss and you’re just messing up. I think there’s a weird dynamic between the two of you, which she is contributing a significant amount to.

Has It happened other than these two times or is it really just these two times?

Guest: There were smaller incidents, but they weren’t blown up to the point that I would get the cold treatment. These were the two times that were the most significant that I could recall as of now.

Alison: And I know she’s telling you there’s a problem with your tone. Do you think there’s a problem with your tone?

Guest: Yes, I could have phrased it much better. I let my frustrations get to me and it doesn’t help that because we’re in busy season, I wasn’t the only trigger, but I pushed her off the edge. I see it that way because I actually went to consult a senior colleague for advice after the incident and that’s what she told me. Because the senior coworker has worked here longer than I have, and she knows my boss much better, so she said that it’s because of the season that we’re in and our clients are being unreasonable, and because of that, it sort of adds on. And her words were, “She doesn’t need to deal with any more drama and the tone that you use, maybe to her it’s like introducing more drama in her life and she wants to distance herself from that.”

Alison: Yeah, I mean, I can definitely see with your second example where she was assigning you the phone calls – I think it’s fine to push back once, to say, ” I would strongly rather not do this because of X, Y, Z – is it an option for someone else to do it?” That’s okay to say. You can’t say that about every single task that you’re assigned, but you can say it occasionally. So I don’t think you were in the wrong to ask once, but it sounds like you kept pushing after she told you, “Yeah, you have to do it.” And I do think she’s right to have a problem with that. Ultimately this is your job. You can speak up and ask if there are alternatives, but if she tells you no, it’s really part of the position – at that point you have to do it.

I do not love her reaction. The giving you the cold shoulder really isn’t okay.

Do you feel like you’ve had problems with your tone with other bosses in the past or even with friends and family?

Guest: I have. There have been people who told me that I come across as too raw and emotional. I don’t have a filter, so when I say things I can unintentionally offend, and they have been taken aback before they process what I said and respond to me in a calm way. And I have offended friends before. I’ve actually lost friends because of this. But that was many years ago when I was in high school. So yeah, the wrong tone really offended them and it cost a friendship even though I did eventually apologize. But yeah, it cost a friendship.

Alison: Okay. That’s really helpful to know. And the reason I was asking that is because I was trying to figure out is there really a problem with your tone or is this more about your boss reacting in an odd way, but it sounds like maybe it’s enough of a pattern that it’s not just your boss. So that’s helpful to know. Okay. So we’ll move forward assuming that yes, there is a problem with your tone.

I think work relationships are different from other relationships in that, while you wouldn’t want to snap at friends or family and ideally wouldn’t snap at friends and family, there’s sometimes a bit more room in those relationships for reactions that stem from stress. You can have a bad day, snap a little, apologize for it – and assuming it’s not the hundredth time you’ve done it, people will usually understand. Of course, if it’s happening a lot it will still be a problem, but there’s a bit more room for emotion in non-work relationships. But at work, snapping even once is a big deal and if it happens twice, it’s a pattern that is going to worry your boss and other people you work with. And it’s especially true at more junior levels of your career. I mean, no one should be snapping at work at any professional level, but especially when you’re junior, there’s even more of a feeling of, “Hey, this is pretty out of line and it’s not something we should have to put up with.” And I’m saying this not to rub it in your face, of course, but just to sort of ground our discussion and in understanding of why it matters.

And I think one of the weird things about professionalism – and there are a lot of weird things about professionalism if you break it down – is that a big part of it is about regulating your emotions. You’re expected at work to maintain a pretty even emotional keel. And you can still have emotions, of course, but it’s got to be in a way that doesn’t disrupt others or make people uncomfortable, or that doesn’t introduce a lot of negativity into the situation. So it’s stuff like not taking things personally – understanding, for example, that getting critical feedback is part of the job and not a personal attack, or being pleasant and polite to people even if you don’t like them, or not letting a bad mood impact how you interact with people. Or in your case, the relevant pieces are probably knowing that you’re being paid to do a job and there might be parts that you don’t always love, but that you’re being paid to do those things reasonably cheerfully and that if you’re frustrated you can raise the issue but you can’t really allow it to affect your work or how you interact with people. Does that resonate with you and seem reasonable or are you thinking it doesn’t really seem fair?

Guest: Well, the other examples that you gave just now, the one about being nice even though people are mean, because I do work in somewhat client facing position, so that applies to me as well. But yeah, it’s a little hard for me. I’m not too sure how I managed to not snap in front of a client yet. I just hope we don’t get there, because meeting more clients is part of my career trajectory. We just had a review maybe two months ago and that’s what my boss says: “Well, you can do the same thing you’re doing now, you’re doing great – but if you want to move up, you’ve got to meet more people, you’ve got to network, you’ve got to talk to people.” And when I signed up for this job, it was more of a technical skills job. I’m not really technical, I’m a writer, but it was more of “Okay, I’m just going to do good writing.” I didn’t think much about the networking part of it. I have to talk to people and make them feel comfortable and answer their demands no matter how unreasonable – up to a certain point, I mean there’s boundaries and stuff. But yeah, because I’m at the two year mark now, it’s the period where I transition between when I was more junior, my boss and the others in my department helped me a lot –they source people for me to talk to, they provided sources – but then now they want me to do everything myself and I’m feeling overwhelmed because of that, and that was part of what factored into the whole snapping at my boss because I didn’t want to cause changes.

Alison: Yeah, that makes sense. I think if you are at a point in your career where moving forward on this professional path means that you are going to have to be doing more client work, then it’s sort of a choice point for you: do you want to do that? There’s no shame in saying no. Some people very deliberately choose careers that don’t involve a lot of client work because they don’t want to deal with the kind of thing you’re describing. But if you do decide that you want to do it, I think it’s really helpful to build in some emotional distance. Whenever you’re working with clients, I think you have to find a way to not take it personally, which can be hard to do if you’re not used to it.

Guest: Yeah, I’m not. It’s really a challenge. Not just at work, because I was one of those kids who did really well in school, never had an issue with exams, I was the model child. Even in uni, I did well and accepting criticism is not something that I naturally do well. This is my first job, but I’ve had internships and part time jobs before. So even in those jobs when I was criticized, it wasn’t easy to accept because all this while I’ve been the best, the top of the class. So, when I get criticized, my first instinct is to constantly question myself: Where did I go wrong now now? What do I need to do to prove to you that I tried my best or that I’m right? I get defensive. So yeah, it’s something that I am actively working on, but one of the reasons why I wrote to you is because I wanted to learn how to deal with this quickly, because I kind of fought to snap at my boss again.

Alison: Yeah. What you’re describing is so, so common for people who did really well in school. If you were always smart and school came easily to you and you always performed well in school, you probably didn’t have to learn how to take very much criticism in a school context. And it’s almost like a muscle. Sometimes I think that people who didn’t do as well in school have a big advantage in that they did learn to take criticism, and feedback became more of a normal thing, and they were able to develop this muscle of, “Okay, here’s where I could improve and now I’m going to go back and work on that and incorporate that feedback and persist at making this better.” Whereas if you never had to do that, you have this undeveloped muscle when it comes to incorporating feedback into your work and continuing to try without getting discouraged. And so many people who were top students find themselves struggling with this when they have to make the adjustment to the work world. Because work is completely different. At work it doesn’t matter how good you are at your job, you’re still going to be told, “Do this a different way,” or “Work on doing this better.” It’s just part of the job and it happens to everyone, no matter how good they are at what they do. But if you’re not used to it, it can feel very personal, and it sounds like that is part of what’s happening here.

Guest: Because my current job actually involves wider scopes, they involve different industries, and also because the scope of the job is a little bit more international, because the clients that we have come from several other countries, the standard is much higher. That’s why the criticism and the “not good enough” comes in, and I need to keep working to improve whatever I do.

Alison: I think the thing to remember is, the way that people get better and better at their jobs is by getting input and some of that input will be critical. But when you imagine yourself 10 years in the future, you probably imagine yourself being advanced in your career and a lot better at it than you are now. And the way that you get from here to there is that you get a lot of feedback along the way. And so if you can look at it that way, feedback is actually a really good thing. It’s what will help you get better in your career. And maybe if you can switch to seeing it through that lens, it might be easier to handle.

I think the other thing to remember, too, is when going back to the issue of snapping at your boss or potentially at a client someday, you want to remember that you’re being paid not just to do your job, but also to make it reasonably pleasant for the people around you – or at least to not make it less pleasant. That doesn’t mean that you cannot raise legitimate complaints or concerns. It’s really just about how you do it. You want to do it calmly. You don’t want to sound adversarial. You don’t want to sound frustrated. And I think a lot of the time when people end up snapping or handling conflict in a way that isn’t constructive, it’s because they aren’t exactly sure what the alternative would look like. If you don’t have another model in your head for how to handle those situations, you’re going to feel cornered and it’s more likely that you’ll snap and sound frustrated. I wonder, do you feel like you have another model in your head for how those situations could have gone? When you look back at them, do you see different ways that you could have handled it?

Guest: At the moment? Not really, but if I were to replay the thing over again, I would probably just not say anything for the next half an hour at least before I respond. I mean the job, I’ll do it, but before voicing out any objections maybe I’ll sit down and count to a thousand or something, because if I do… (laughs)

Alison: Yeah, if you feel like you’re responding in the heat of the moment and that’s what’s making it more emotional than it otherwise would be, it’s completely okay to take a walk or go get a drink of water and you can say to your boss, “I want to process this for a minute. Let me think about this and then I’m going to come right back to you in 20 minutes,” or whatever it is. It’s very okay to ask to do that. It’s also okay to just in the moment to say, “Okay,” and then go off and think about it and if you decide, “Oh, I really have to go back and talk to her about this,” you can still go back. The door has not closed on your ability to do that.

I think some of this too, is remembering the power dynamics that are in play. I feel ridiculous saying this. I hate recommending that people lean more into power dynamics because I think they often cause a lot of problems and most people would benefit from being less concerned with power dynamics. But in your case, it’s not a bad idea to just make sure that you’re really clear in your head about the distribution of power in this situation, meaning your boss is paying you to be there. She’s the one who evaluates your performance and decides what kind of raise you might get. She controls a lot of things about your day to day quality of life at work, so you want that relationship to be a good one and you want your boss to find it easy to work with you.

And I want to be really clear: being aware of the power dynamics does not mean that you give up all your power, or that you need to stay in a situation that makes you miserable, or that you need to tolerate abuse, or anything like that. You have your own power too, but it plays out differently. You have the power to raise concerns and speak up about all sorts of things. You just need to do it in a professional, calm way. And you have the power to decide that you’re not interested in working under the conditions being offered to you. So, I don’t want to imply that the power dynamics mean that you just have to take whatever is doled out because you don’t. But I do think that being more aware of where your role is, and the overall structure of your employer, can help make it more intuitive that snapping at your boss isn’t going to get you the outcome that you want from that interaction and from your career in general. Does that make sense?

Guest: Yeah. Plus, we’re kind of in a culture where it’s even more important. My boss is not – I wouldn’t say she’s very traditional or conservative, in fact she’s relatively open compared to the other bosses that I worked with previously, they were more concerned about saving face and things like that – but even so, the dynamics in place here, because we get along well when we’re normal, I tend to forget that she’s actually my boss. I mean, I know she’s my boss at the back of my head, but because we talk openly, I don’t remember that this is my boss, and there’s a distance or a certain protocol that I need to keep in mind when I talk to her or when I discuss work.

Alison: Yeah, I think that when you have a relationship with your boss that is often very comfortable and pretty informal and where you do get along well most of the time, it can be easy to forget that there are still some boundaries in place. And I think the times that it is most important to remember those are times when you’re feeling some conflict or some tension. And so, you might just have in the back of your head as a flag to yourself when you don’t like something she’s doing or when you’re feeling resistant to something, that that is a moment to just be aware of the boundaries.

There’s something else I’m wondering about as we’re talking. I know that you had mentioned in your letter to me originally that therapy is not really an option for you right now, but I wanted to note for the record that this is the kind of thing that therapy can be really helpful with. And I’m not talking about just the occasional conflict with your boss – I’m talking here about the broader pattern that you’ve said that you’ve noticed is at play. Sometimes that is stemming from a much more deeply rooted place – like if you grew up in a family where you didn’t see conflict modeled in a healthy way, or that made you feel powerless to advocate for yourself, sometimes that can leave people really unsure about how to handle conflict professionally and productively as an adult. And I know you said you’re in a part of the world where therapy isn’t cheap and isn’t covered by insurance and it’s not something that you can afford right now, but I want to mention it as something for you to have in your head in case it does become more accessible to you at some point – and also for people listening who might be able to identify with part of what you’re talking about. But even if you can’t do formal therapy right now, it might help to think through those sorts of issues about where this might be coming from and how conflict played out in your family and what lessons you might have learned as a kid that are contributing to it now. It helps to have a therapist to do that with, but it’s also work that you can do on your own.

Guest: Yeah, it’d be awesome if there were more options here. It’s more, if I do decide to fork out that amount of money for it, then people ask me “Oh, why are you doing this? It’s not like you have a legit problem that you need to solve. This is just something that you suck it up and deal with.”

Alison: Well, I think if it’s hard to suck it up, that that is a reason to get help with it. But again, it helps to have a therapist, but you don’t have to have a therapist to work on it. You can do a lot of that work on your own, just thinking, “Okay, here’s a behavior in my life that I don’t think is helpful to me, but it’s not as easy as me just flipping a switch and stopping it. So, let me think about where that might come from. Was there a time in my life when this behavior was helpful, and maybe that’s when I learned it?” You know, digging into where it might’ve come from. That’s stuff that you can do on your own. If therapy isn’t an option, don’t let that make you feel like you still can’t dig into that stuff, because you can.

Guest: Yeah, I don’t want to take it as an excuse. If I could work it out now, that would be great actually.

Alison: I am very pro therapy and I’m very pro doing it on your own too. If you’re motivated to do it, a lot of good can come from that.

Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. I hope this was helpful.

Guest: Yeah, it was.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.