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18. No Feelings Please, We're At Work

I read a book a little while back, called Passionate Medicine. Five doctors and two vets told the stories of their working lives, lives which had started in the orthodox surroundings of medical and veterinary school, but had since diverted down less traditional paths, albeit still looking after their fellow humans or animals. All idealists, going into their chosen professions with the expectation of doing some good in the world, they had been initially shocked and later demoralized by the sheer brutality of clinical life. Several described their first experiences of the anatomy room, an extraordinary rite of passage whereby eighteen and nineteen year olds are sent into a laboratory to cut up somebody's father or aunt or brother, with not a word of counsel either before or afterwards. The unspoken message is that any sensibilities you might possess should be left at the door; there is no place for them in here, and by implication, in this profession. Feelings are not very acceptable in most professions and workplaces. This week's tip is about feelings and what we do with them when they're not welcome. "Feelings are everywhere - be gentle." J Masai There are many instances in working lives in which feelings are thoroughly inconvenient, if not dangerous. Presumably army recruits have to leave their feelings aside when killing supposed enemies, city traders control their nerves and consciences when they gamble with large amounts of other people's money, and firemen deny their fears in order to rush into burning buildings. So what happens to feelings which are either not welcome to others, or unpleasant or inconvenient to ourselves? On the whole we suppress them. I'm on holiday at the moment, in the Lake District, and in the cottage next door there's a family with three young children, two lively boys of around four and six, and a little girl of about two. Witnessing these children play in the garden is an education in feelings management. They laugh hilariously one minute, shout excitedly at each other the next. One little boy, perhaps angry with his little sister, throws a stone at her when his parents aren't looking. She cries immediately. He then cheats when he's counting in hide and seek and his elder brother stamps his foot in protest. Moments later they're all playing together again. Life is so simple as a small child - you feel something, you express it and you get over it. But sooner or later you find that some feelings are not acceptable. Your parents don't like it when you shout angrily, so you find other ways of dealing with your anger (like throwing stones when they're not looking). Boys discover that humiliating things happen at school if they cry and quickly learn not to. Exuberance is just a little frowned upon among adults, so you learn to curb that. Excitement is, well, a bit childish isn't it? Little by little we learn to feel less. And there is no part of life where muted feelings are more useful than at work. Imagine bursting into tears at work, trembling with fear, shouting at a colleague, even expressing affection for someone - all of these can lead to shakings of heads and whispered concerns and quite possibly the sack. The problem with suppressing feelings There are three main problems with suppressing feelings. The first is that we lose the purpose of feelings which is to give us important information about what we are experiencing. So if you drum out the feelings of young army recruits, you shouldn't be surprised if their behaviour in military situations spills over into other parts of their lives. If you set up a set of circumstances whereby young men have to conquer their fear and sense of responsibility when trading with other people's money, do not be surprised if they have trouble in telling the difference between right and wrong in less pressurized situations. If you expect medical students to slice up dead people without batting an eyelid, don't expect them to be the soul of compassion when it comes to caring for their patients. If you're not allowed your own feelings it's hard to be sympathetic towards other people's. The second problem is that suppressed feelings don't disappear, they fester and they run our lives in devious and damaging ways. The third problem is that the methods we use to suppress our feelings are non-specific. In other words, they don't just suppress the feelings that we don't want, they reduce our capacity to feel generally. So while suppression helps us to reduce our feelings of anger, fear, and sadness in the moment, it also reduces our capacity to feel positive emotions such as love and joy and excitement and compassion. The result? Every time you suppress a feeling you become a little less of who you are. The good news is that you don't have to suppress your feelings in order to keep your job. When we were young and had feelings we had no choice but to express them, and expressing them got us into trouble. As adults, however, we are able to have feelings without expressing them. Honouring our feelings in a kindly way is a first step towards reclaiming ourselves. Try this: 1. Think of a negative feeling that you experience on a regular basis. Try to name the feeling. It may be irritation, anxiety, stress, impatience, despondency, sadness, hurt, disappointment etc. 2. Think of the last time that you had that feeling. What was the trigger? Did someone say something to you, or do something, did you see something on television, or perhaps it was a thought that came into your mind, or a worry, or an image? 3. What did you do with that feeling? Did you express it, feel it, or suppress it? If you suppressed it, how did you do that? Did you tell yourself to get a grip, start to rationalise your way out of feeling, or perhaps you distracted yourself from the situation? 4. Allow yourself that feeling now, as fully as you can, and with a kindly attitude. What do you think that feeling was trying to do for you? Was it telling you that someone had hurt you? Was it designed to protect you in some way? Was it telling you that you needed something or someone? If you had acted on it what would you have done? 5. This week take notice of your feelings, what triggers them and how you respond to them, and experiment with letting yourself have your feelings but without expressing them. Notice what happens.