Normalizing Mental Health Requires Normalizing Emotions

Normalizing Mental Health Requires Normalizing Emotions

Do you find yourself apologizing for having emotions?

Think about the number of times something has moved you to tears – out of joy, sorrow, or surprise – and you’ve said to the people around you, “I’m sorry.”

Why are you sorry? In our current culture, we have stigmatized our emotions and glorified flat affect, which comes across as indifference, as the proper response to the world around us.

If we’re going to have a genuine conversation about emotions, we have to stop apologizing for our emotions.

It’s time to dive into a conversation about normalizing mental health. In order to do so, we first have to have a conversation about normalizing our emotions– the good, the bad, and the ugly– because our propensity to apologize for reacting appropriately to stressful and exciting situations alike stunts our emotional growth, not to mention any chance of mental health.

When I think about this tendency we have to apologize for expressions of emotion, two questions arise:

  • What is it about showing emotions that people feel they need to say sorry?
  • Why do we let people get away with apologizing?

Have we numbed compassion and vulnerability?

Imagine you’re the manager of a long-term care home. The following two scenarios represent potential responses from your employees about a patient’s passing.

Scenario 1

You’re walking down the hallway when a nurse emerges from one of the resident’s rooms, one who’s been struggling for the past three weeks.

“Bob Smith has died,” the nurse informs you. “We’ll need to arrange removal of the body and a thorough cleaning so another resident can be admitted. We need the bed.”

Scenario 2

You’re walking down the hallway when a nurse emerges from Bob Smith’s room with tears in his eyes. With a voice that is choked up and tinged with emotion, he says:

“Bob has passed away. We should contact his family and let the staff know…they’ve all become very attached to him. How would you like to proceed?”

If you had to choose one of these two nurses, who do you want to work for you?

Do you want a nurse, paramedic, manager, or teacher who is utterly indifferent to human suffering and loss? If not, you have to understand that your tolerance for emotional expression in the workplace directly influences the way your employees will react in situations like this one. 

Do you give your staff space and respect to grieve, experience frustration, or address feelings that many times words simply cannot express?

Or, do you train your staff to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ and conceal their vulnerabilities?

If we’re going to foster conversations about normalizing mental health – in a way that gives people space and resources to understand their feelings and manage them – we’re going to have to change the way we view emotions.

Companies talk about mental health, but those conversations rarely get traction. When we praise stoic, robotic responses to distressing or upsetting situations within our workplace, we create a toxic work environment where our employees feel the need to shut down in order to keep their jobs. 

This creates a workplace culture that is both tense and passive. When your employees feel the need to constantly monitor their emotional state, they use mental and emotional energy that could otherwise be put towards their projects. Additionally, feeling the need to constantly underreact to situations eventually trains your team to dismiss or even ignore intense situations. 

Normal reactions to abnormal events

In many workplaces, there’s an expectation to go about business as usual even in the darkest, most upsetting situations. That’s what we’re talking about, and I can cite so many examples…

  • A paramedic when they are dealing with the sudden death of a young child, or their neighbor.
  • Police or firefighters who go into situations that the vast majority of us would run away from.
  • Workplaces where a beloved employee was diagnosed only to suddenly die from the disease.

The list could go on forever with all the different situations that trigger normal reactions from normal people to abnormal events.

And yet, instead of normalizing healthy, normal reactions to painful situations, we tend to suppress these reactions…or worse, react in a normal way and then apologize for it or get criticized for it.

That cycle has to cease.

One of the methods for stopping this cycle is cognitive reframing – a version of cognitive therapy that addresses these common traps, or distortions:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing situations in absolute terms.
  2. Blaming: Attributing complex problems to a single cause.
  3. Catastrophizing: Always imagining the worst thing that can happen in any situation.
  4. Discounting the positive: Ignoring or discounting the good things that happen to you.
  5. Mental filters: Focusing only on the negatives and never on the positives.
  6. “Should” statements: Always feeling like you’ve failed to live up to expectations of what you “should” do in a situation.

Once we recognize these distortions in our thinking about emotions, cognitive reframing allows us to change the way we think about things. In the context of emotional expression in the workplace, this means finding ways to change how you perceive emotional disclosure. 

We’ll discuss how to do this in the next section of this post. 

Ending the cycle of numbing emotions

Normalizing Mental Health Requires Normalizing Emotions

In another article, I’ve addressed the idea of “Krisis” (and no, that isn’t a typo!). In summary, this article explains how having an emotional reaction to a situation typically makes that situation into a memory. 

When we don’t know how to confront, process, and feel our negative emotions, we often integrate them into our memory of whatever events elicited them. This causes us to remember events differently from the way they actually happened, which can be detrimental in the long run.

Let’s address two simple ways you can stop the cycle of numbing your emotions or making those around you feel as though they have to conceal their real feelings.

1. Watch in your own home

How many times do the people in your home apologize for being emotional? What is it that they are emotional about? If it’s something that matters to them, should it matter to us?

I’ll answer that for you: yes. 

Even if the struggles of a family member do not make sense to you, you should still be understanding of the things they care about. 

Whether this pertains to a distressing situation or a passion they are excited to share with you, pay attention to how the members of your family not only express how they feel, but how they expect you to respond to their feelings. Be quick to validate and empathize with the emotional responses of your family. 

2. Watch in your workplace

Extend these observations to your office. The tragic irony is that many times – when we express interest – people will actually ask about our motives. How sad is that?

It is so easy to lecture, fix or diagnose a person with unhelpful comments like,

Come on. You shouldn’t feel that way-  you’re okay.

You just need to find a way to deal with it and get over it!

Have you tried A, B, or C to fix it? 

Especially in the workplace, we tend to respond to emotional expressions with solutions instead of with compassion. Instead of immediately providing unsolicited advice when your coworkers have a problem, try asking your colleagues: “What could I do to be a support for you?”

Just to be clear, this will immediately separate those of us with a backbone and those of us without. Some of us might hold the antiquated belief that vulnerability equates to weakness. 

I’d like to challenge that notion and propose that it takes quite a bit of courage to ask others about their feelings, as well as to openly share your own feelings. 

You don’t need a fresh coat of paint

All too often, people find the cracks in your emotional walls uncomfortable. To try and help, they offer to slap on a fresh coat of paint.

What you really need, though, is a good sanding. How would it feel if, when confronted with your problems, the people around you offered you the time and space to get down to the root of your concerns ? 

Whether you’re dealing with joy or grief, we must give people opportunities to explore their mental health – cracks and all. We have to sand our hardened and cracked surfaces down to their original structure, look at how the walls were built, find the sources of weakness, shore them up, and then rebuild.

How many are addressing the crisis reactions within our workplaces? Especially in a post-pandemic cultural landscape, we can see what happens when we ignore or dismiss emotional responses to distressing or painful situations. 

I don’t know how stigmatizing normal reactions or not accepting them as normal ones moves this discussion in a positive, progressive way.

Would you like guidance as you explore emotions in a genuine way? Contact us, and we’ll help you start authentic conversations about loss, grief, and joy… and we’ll help you create an environment of trust.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you:

Finishing Well Requires Self-examination And a Will To Matter
Psychological First Aid
Run towards the roar

The Fortlog Advantage

Organizations across North America have been benefiting from FORTLOG’s Interpersonal Crisis Management, Coaching & Consulting services for over 30 years, counting on John to help shepherd them through their most challenging storms. Today, a growing number of workplaces benefit from John’s proven strategies, systems and speeches that focus on integrating core-value practices “not just policies and procedures''.

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