A few months ago I watched my mother lose it - with her computer. She and my father were due to travel the following day and she needed to print off her airline tickets she'd bought from an on-line booking. Despite entering all the correct information, couldn't access her account and after trying repeatedly, she started to yell and howl. As she cursed, she started to catastrophize. She couldn't believe things were happening - this type of this always happened but only to her. Her stuff simply never worked out.
It was exhausting, and not just for her.
Emotions are there for a reason and it's clear they've played an essential role in survival and adaption of the human race. For example they help us know how effective we are in achieving our goals and whether we need to do things differently. They help tell people around us about our internal states and how we might approach each other: if you cry it shows you want support and help. If you yell, ditto.
Just like my mom.
And she's not alone. We've all been there, frustrated by things going wrong, by events not turning out as we expected, our expectations and hopes dashed. It's particularly bad when it comes to computers because we experience so little control, and control is a core part of happiness at work and play. People we can influence: machines we can't.
But when we're primed for stuff not working out, and when we automatically expect things to go wrong, we make things much tougher than they need to be. So what can you do to manage negative emotion?
Here are three top tactics which are especially helpful when you're at work:
1. Remember that you've only got so much self-control.
Self-control is a limited resource. You have less as the day wears on, and less when you are in situation which has previously triggered anger. You can make sure you don't erode it unnecessarily by counting to 20 before you react. Then you won't be hijacked by your brain, and more specifically your amygdala, over-processing what is in fact a likely to be a relatively innocuous situation.
2. Cultivate mindfulness
Mindfulness is nonjudgmental, present-centered attention you give to your thoughts and emotions. When you are being mindful, you experience, moment by moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings and sensations. You then use that awareness to then intentionally face difficulties or discomfort. Some people talk about it as a 'meta-cognitive process': all that means is thinking about what you think and feel. The first step to mindfulness is to tune into your internal state and once you have done that to view thoughts and feelings as simply passing events.
You can then progress your mindfulness practice to include:
Why bother? Because mindfulness helps you reduce vulnerability to negative emotion, helps formulate problems, increases attention in the present, reduces stress, helps people overcome depression, regulate emotion, increase perspective-taking, and enables you to manage daily difficulties and hassles in a calmer more considered manner.
Best of all it's a practical way to stop rumination: that's the constant negative chewing over of things that you think have gone wrong, that you dislike, that bug or annoy you.
3. Remember the Pygmalion/Golem effect
The Pygmalion effect generally suggests that if you have positive expectations about someone, they'll perform well. The Golem effect does the exact opposite: negative expectations result in negative performance. Take a look at Jane Elliott's seminal video if you want to see how this in action. You start with the adults she worked with when they were kids and go backwards in time. It's amazing, moving and extraordinary footage.
These three tactics will ensure you can keep calm and carry on. Because when you lose it, it can be both embarrassing and exhausting for everyone involved. You'll all feel the negative effects for at least a few hours afterwards, and sometimes for much longer. It's far better to strive to stay on an even keel, which of course is why we say, don't get mad, get even.