The Magic of Negative Emotion

“Sometimes happiness is a blessing, but, generally, it is a conquest…” – Paul Coelho

We are all striving for happiness. Heck, I spent a whole year doing (what seemed like) nothing but that. But happiness is a temporary, emotional state and has become such a cliché, I’m not even sure what it means anymore.

Furthermore, positive psychology is often misunderstood to be the science of happiness. It’s actually the science of well-being, which refers to an overall life success across the many domains of our lives, not just in terms of a temporary state of positive emotion like happiness. Yes, the broad range of positive emotion is included in well-being, but it’s only a part.

Well-being also respects and values the importance of negative emotion. Just as Coelho suggests, negative emotion such as anxiety, stress, anger, and discouragement are magic moments that can fuel us to make much needed change or to chase our dreams:

“…Each day’s magic moment helps us to change and sends us off in search of our dreams.” – Coelho, cont’d

Many people seem to equate happiness with the time that they can kick back, retire and drink margaritas all day, as if their life can only begin when they hit 65.  Talk about the ultimate in delayed gratification.

The ideal retirement?

The ideal retirement?

Perhaps if our day jobs are that soul-sucking, then that philosophy makes a lot of sense. But for most of us, 65 is a long way off and we may not even make it that far.

Perhaps a more useful approach would be to channel that soul-sucking emotion into something else. What will give your work meaning and satisfaction? What dreams are you postponing or burying? What can you do today to move closer to that dream? Don’t accept that negative emotion – channel those magic moments in a way that feeds your soul and spirit.

Sitting on a beach drinking exotic cocktails may be relaxing but after a while, the soul and spirit will long for more. That “happiness” gets old and is replaced with boredom or the desire for something more satisfying. So really, we’re once again left with the paradox of needing negative emotion to fuel our search for our dreams in a way that energizes us and makes us feel alive in our authentic way. Don’t wait for Senior Day on that beach in Cancun to learn that lesson when you have so much life to be living right now.

But what is that life given our soul-sucking jobs?  Joseph Campbell advises us that it’s not happiness or meaning we’re searching for, but rather the joy of feeling alive:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

What makes you feel most energized and alive? Let that be your guide to finding your authentic “happiness”.

Evolving the Misfit Into A Hero

"Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri)"

“Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri)”

Every office has one. You know, that person that just doesn’t fit in. They always seem to have their head in the clouds, or they’re off on their own. Folks have pretty much given up trying to understand where they’re coming from.   They march to their own drummer and no one seems to know how to get them in line. To make matters worse, that poor misfit consequently is often the subject of jokes and snide comments. Maybe occasionally you’ve even participated in that gossip.

I have observed a number of these misfits over the years. In one setting, they may be unproductive and/or misunderstood and/or difficult to get along with; an enigma. But funny thing is if you take that Fish Out of Water (FOW) and put them in, well, water, then they can really sparkle.

Organizational culture is a strong but unseen force that we old-timers tend to take for granted. This is how things are, except they are not that way everywhere. New employees may have a tough time transitioning to a new organization, especially if it has a strong culture and orientation and onboarding are minimal. Even with a strong orientation, some just may never feel at home in an organization if the priorities, values, and tendencies are afar from their own. For example, I will probably never feel at home at a financial institution since money is the last thing I want to think about.

Tendencies are also important in a culture. The Gallup organizations defines our strengths are our natural patterns of thought, feeling or behavior. Like-minded people tend to have similar strengths. Therefore, having an office with many like-minded individuals tends to result in smooth interpersonal dynamics. Using the Meyers-Briggs personality as an example, an office full of introverts will make the sole extravert feel out of place, and visa versa. Introverts gain energy from being alone; extraverts gain energy from interacting with others. One is not better than the other. They’re just different.

While personality homogeneity may tend to create a smooth cultural dynamic, the potential downside is group-think and over-relying on a narrow range of skills. In contrast, a successful team accesses a wide range of strengths and uses them effectively. For instance, the office may need an office advocate. That FOW extrovert may be a good choice for this social role since they will be energized by meetings with others.   The extrovert will also be saving the rest of the team from doing a task that is effortful for them.

Now who’s the office hero?

In sum, the FOW actually represents an opportunity to make your team stronger and round out the team skill set.   Else, the FOW just quits in disgust, leaving the others in their group-think mode. Managers have a responsibility to help the FOW find the tasks and roles that best suit their skills and tendencies, and to value the unique role they play in the group setting the example by role modeling.

Remember, we’re all genius at something. Focusing on the shortcomings and struggles of another is not only unfair and unkind, but also unproductive. Challenge yourself to discover the genius and glory of the person you don’t understand. Seeing them in a new light may also help you to see yourself differently. You’re a gazelle, have you ever felt like you were suddenly under water?

It may also be true that the FOW may need to find a pond, and the gazelle a dry stretch of land.  But in the meantime, we’re a delicate ecosystem that is full of God’s creatures that are all interdependent. Help that FOW find a little water, and you may find that she can evolve and grow lungs.

Avoid A Common Interview Mistake

You shine at your job. Now it’s time for you to move to the next stage and you’re interviewing. The new position is the next logical extension of your past job, so you’re confident in your chances to get an offer. You interview well – after all, you’re confident and accomplished.

But the interview didn’t feel like it went as well as you hoped. What went wrong?

One misconception that can cause interview problems is that your record of accomplishments alone is enough during an interview. Employers are more interested in what you will be able to do for them than what you’ve already done for someone else. The two are related, but not the same. For example, you’ve gotten spectacular results in your previous organization, which is how you got the interview in the first place. Though the past is important, interviews are also about looking into the future. What can you do for the new organization? How will you get along with others there? What will it be like to work with you? What skills and knowledge will you bring to the table? How will you use them in the new organization? How you communicate these messages is just as, or may be even more important, than what you say.

This interview thought trap may manifest as an assumption that the strategies and approaches that worked in one company will automatically translate to a new organization: The “it worked at company A, it’ll work at company B” philosophy. Just as your cover letter is unlikely to get you an interview by just changing the name, your interview should also be tailored to the organization and the interviewers, right?

Over-relying on past strategies during an interview may make you look like a one-trick pony. A more successful approach would be to spend some time thinking about the new organization and whether your previous strategies make sense in the new environment. If so, explain why you think that strategy will work in this organization. If not, what would you do instead? What’s similar and different between the organizations? How would those differences impact your approach?

This approach works especially well when you’ve done your homework in advance. Read about the company. Talk to others who have worked in or with the company. Ask questions during the interview. Use that information in your discussion and answers to show that you’re interested in the company, you’re taking their needs into account, and that you’re paying attention and integrating what you’ve learned into your strategy. Directly address their needs; build upon their strengths. In other words, be open to the reality of the new organization when formulating or supplying your answers.

In the end, if you can’t imagine yourself in a new environment, then they’re unlikely to imagine it either. Paint a positive picture of your potential new role for yourself and them, and you may just find yourself living that reality.

Others’ Hidden Reality

Someone recently told me that you never know if someone is going into, in the middle of, or exiting a storm or personal catastrophe. In other words, that person who is rude, short, or inconsiderate with you may have some significant sh** going on in their lives.

Granted, personal catastrophe is completely subjective and variable. I know people who go from one storm to the next, seemingly without a break, and others who seem to have never seen a stormy day in their lives. Others’ catastrophes are not for us to judge. What’s easy for me may be hard for someone else, and visa versa. And most of the time, there’s no way to tell what’s going on internally after casual interaction with an obnoxious or annoying person.

Though it’s natural to take the slights by others personally and respond with outrage or resentment, it’s not a formula for psychological well-being. In his book, the Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Miguel Ruiz says that in order to have a life filled with love and happiness, we should never take slights personally.

Personal experience tells me this is often easier said than done.  My first inclination is to get mad and judgmental in response to a rude or inconsiderate person. However, imagining the possible storms past, present or future the other may be experiencing helps me to replace judgment with compassion.

For example, I recently learned about a mean woman who was used as a scapegoat as a child. No wonder she’s bitter; her world view since she was a child was based on the belief that life is unfair and harsh. Can you really blame her for being bitter? Should I take it personally if she’s mean to me? Instead, perhaps I can find compassion for the poor girl within who sees the world as a harsh and unloving place.

Sometimes the VIA forgiveness strength ( is discussed in terms of being a strength that is used episodically. I don’t think it is. I believe we can find forgiveness for all our daily and ongoing human flaws, small and large.   That forgiveness begins with myself and gives me the courage to look inward at my own shortcomings and trespasses. Like that scapegoat child, we carry our wounds forward and they influence us in ironically cruel and inexplicable ways as we continue to suffer their impact through our relationships and into adulthood. Forgiveness may allow us to examine and forgive those wounds in ourselves and others and find ways to accept and heal them.

Depositing Into the Relationship Bank

Sometimes I feel powerless to change or improve a relationship because of my tendency to assume that the other should change. However, every relationship takes at least two people, and therefore I have control over at least 50% of it. Therefore, regardless of whether the relationship is strong or needs improvement, I always have a choice as to whether to be proactive or passive in the dynamic.

Studies show that relationship resilience depends on how much goodwill and positive emotion has preceded a setback. In other words, I can strengthen a relationship by building positive emotion proactively. According to marriage researcher John Gottman, a successful couple has at least 5 good events/feelings to offset every 1 bad event/feeling.   Willard Harley, author of He Wins, She Wins describes this balance as a Love Bank, whose balance, whether positive or negative, determines whether one pursues a relationship or avoids it. Though less commonly described in terms of the workplace, the Love Bank can apply to colleagues and whether we decide to work with them or work to avoid them.

We may contribute to the creation of a bad relationship when we lack self-awareness of our role in the problem or are closed to our partner’s view of reality. Instead of trying to understand the perspective and viewpoint of the other, we often begin by blaming and needing to be right, then justifying our behavior. As mentioned above, my tendency is to assume the other needs to change rather than examining my own behavior, a habit that I’ve learned to consciously challenge.

Harley sheds light on this interplay by explaining that we tend to cycle between a giver and taker mentality in relationships. Being in the taker cycle may be natural but it is also potentially destructive over time. Blaming the other for being in a taker mentality helps us to avoid our own taker behavior. An honest appraisal of one’s own role in relationship dysfunction takes courage but can make all the difference in moving the relationship forward constructively.

Becoming more aware of such habits and tendencies can be difficult, especially if we are, on some level, trying to avoid the painful admission of our culpability. Regardless of where we are on the giver/taker cycle, every one of us could do a little better in terms of spreading positive energy and emotion to others. How can I cultivate my own positive emotion? How can I more effectively spread that to others? What can I do to help others be successful or feel more appreciated? What can I do to deepen my relationship and build trust and respect? How can I better the world, just a tiny bit, today?

When Response Does Not Match Intentions

I hate getting caught in that Known to Others/Blind to Self part of Johari’s window. As someone who prides herself on her self awareness, growing wisdom, and improving emotional self-management, it really sucks to get caught there again.

But, then again, this is the human condition and none of us are immune to it. And just because I’ve made a lot of progress in the last 15 years, doesn’t mean that I’ve completed the work. After all, it’s all relative: going from 10% to 25% self-awareness is a huge improvement but still reflects a long way to go.

My lesson this month had to do with my schema. Remember, schema are the assumptions and beliefs (often a deep and unconscious fear) through which we filter our view of the world. When someone pushes our hot buttons – get us really pissed or upset – usually it means they’ve triggered our schema and confirmed our deepest and worse fear. I’ve gotten really good at managing that part of my schema. My pissed off phase is so much shorter and milder than in the past.

The part of my schema reaction that I am still terrible at accounting for is that low level simmer that flies just below my radar. When I haven’t adequately acknowledged or dealt with a hot button issue, I feel a tightness in my chest and the feelings reflecting my underlying sadness, anger, or resentment seep out in almost everything I do.

In addition to the tightness in my chest, I can tell I have unresolved emotions because the tension tends to run higher than expected in my interpersonal interactions. If I’m feeling disproportionately annoyed by small things, others react to me with the same impatience that I’m trying to hide.

In short, I’m receiving what I’m putting out. If I don’t like what I’m receiving, I need to revise what I’m transmitting, especially if I think I’m being an angel. Yes my intentions may be good, but that’s no excuse for telegraphing my unresolved crap.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to learn to understand those Known to Others/Unknown to Self elements of myself. I know those elements will be ever-present and continually represent an opportunity to improve and grow. Indeed, I’m feeling much better now having uncovered some unprocessed emotion, and others are responding to me once again in ways that match my intentions. Yes, looking in can be scary and is usually humbling, but it so beats the alternative.

Self-Awareness and Johari's Window

Self-Awareness and Johari’s Window

Managing the Problem-Solver

Problem-solvers are awesome to have around, aren’t they? They fix problems, whether relational, social, financial, structural, infrastructural or procedural. Problem fixing is an important and valuable skill and many people are rewarded at work for this ability.

Problem-solvers may also be really good at prospectively identifying problems and their solutions. These folks are incredible to have on project planning teams as they help to ensure the success of the project.

Clifton StrengthsFinders call this strength Restorative. A useful strength, for sure. Like all strengths, Restorative can also create difficulties when not used wisely.

Folks with Restorative strength may struggle with staying positive while identifying problems.   If overly focused on problems while ignoring the opportunities, the problem-solver may be perceived as negative or a nay-sayer. A successful and ambitious project benefits from both dreamers and problem-solvers; one without the other becomes either completely unrealistic or unable to move forward. Problem-solvers should aim to allow the group to maintain their energy towards working towards the shared vision but work to mitigate the obstacles that can submarine an otherwise good project.

That problem-solving talent can also backfire when aimed at people. Restorative folk often will focus on what someone is doing wrong or their personal flaws rather than what they are doing right or their strengths. If the problem-solver has poor self-awareness, then that criticism could have impair the development or maintenance of trust and intimacy in relationships.

Balancing positivity and problem spotting in projects and others can be difficult. What’s even more difficult is excessive problem spotting in oneself. That inward critique may be endless and relentless and make the outward criticism seem tame in comparison.

The good news about this strength is that, though it’s easy to fall into the down-side of the strength, the strength can also be used to find a solution. I mean, who better to solve the problem than someone with the Restorative strength? Apply said-talent to said-poor balance issues. Ask yourself, how can I identify and solve problems while being supportive, affirming and positive? How can I apply that remedy to myself? What is the right balance of affirming, celebrating, dreaming versus fixing and repairing? How do I integrate this into my focus, perspective and actions each day? What impact do I have when I over-focus on fixing? What other strengths can I use to offset my Restorative tendency that is more positive and generative?

We don’t have to overly rely on a couple of strengths. We can make full use of the things that we do naturally. Empathy, positivity, harmony, organizing, bringing out the best in others or a project, relationship-building, and creativity strengths all potentially could be used to find the optimum balance for this valuable but often challenging strength.

Self-(un)fulfilling Reality, Part II

Scientists use control groups in experiments since the simple act of observing or measuring can have an impact on the experimental outcome. Our tendency to influence our environment also occurs in our interactions with others at work or at home.

However, we are often completely unaware of our influence on an interpersonal dynamic. For example, I may observe that a colleague or friend is very defensive; makes me wish they would just get their act together and not be so insecure. What’s blind to me is my role in making them feel defensive. That person may be simultaneously wishing that I would quit being so critical.

What? Me? I’m not critical!

Just because I think this other person needs to get their act together, start doing their job, quit going around talking to everyone about how it’s not their fault, doesn’t mean I’m critical!

It’s probably easy for you to see this dynamic because you’re not in the middle of it. Three observations are noteworthy. First, just because I may not have said anything critical to my poor victim, doesn’t mean that my body language, tone, or actions don’t broadcast my feelings. Second, the trait I’m complaining about (defensiveness) is the exact same behavior I’m exhibiting. This is called projection. Projection means that I hate and criticize a trait in someone else because I hate it in myself.

Finally, my subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages and projection means that I am probably influencing the outcome and dynamic of this relationship without my knowledge. Me? I’m completely innocent, right? By viewing the other as the defensive one, I am making her defensive through the criticism that I am fooling myself into believing that I am hiding from her. In other words, I am creating my own reality through my expectation of others.

We are told that children rise to the level of our expectations. This has actually been demonstrated in scientific studies. If a teacher believes an average child is gifted, then that child will outperform other students.  Others rise to (or fall) to the level of our expectations.

I believe the same dynamic holds true for adults. If you’re a manager and you believe that an employee is incompetent, lazy, careless or immature, how will you treat them? Are they likely to be engaged or given opportunities to develop or excel? What behavior will result?

Beware your expectations. You may be creating the behavior you’re expecting and being a hypocrite in the process.

Now consider flipping your critical expectations to the positive. Instead of finding what’s wrong or lacking in others, find what is admirable or excellent. What behavior are you inviting now, in yourself and others?

Now, doesn’t that feel so much better?

Giving Without Burnout

The old adage, “it’s better to give than receive” is really true. Givers are not only more successful than takers, but givers also experience more positive emotion than those on the receiving end.

There are limits to giving; givers that give indiscriminately risk burnout. Instead, givers should give in a way that benefits and feels good to them so that they can keep on giving. For example, effective givers communicate their needs and ask for help and buy-in from others to help them to continue to give successfully.

Good giving is also authentic. What are you passionate about? What type of tasks and roles do you enjoy and allow you to excel? What type of impact are you yearning to make on the world? Give in a way that feeds your soul.

Giving should feel energizing, meaningful, and constructive. If you’re giving in a manner that is sapping your soul or creating a lot of negative emotion, then it’s likely unsustainable, unhealthy or not useful. For example, if you’re giving to someone who is a perpetual taker, then your efforts are likely to have little impact on the recipient’s growth or neediness level regardless of your level of personal sacrifice. Your efforts and energy just will continue to disappear into a black hole with no apparent impact.

Instead, consider your time and effort as a precious commodity, even though they don’t show up on a balance sheet. Be as (or more) judicious with your time and energy as you are with your other resources. Plan how you can use them in ways that benefit both you and others. If you’re not getting a good return on your investment, try a different approach or perspective.

For example, for the perpetual taker/complainer, give them a limited time to vent, then affirm their feelings (“wow, it sounds like it’s been a really rough time for you”). Then switch the direction of the conversation to focus on how they will create a solution. Keep redirecting the conversation to their solution instead of trying to fix the problem for them or allowing them to continue to complain. In doing so, you might help them to stay in a generative mindset and find their own solutions. In addition, they may eventually see that you will no longer solve their problems for them. That’s a nice win-win, isn’t it?

In addition, change your perspective if you’re feeling guilty about continuing to invest in what feels like a black hole. Preserving the dysfunctional status quo is not a good gift for either party. By continuing to invest in a situation that is not improving, you are withholding resources from others that could actually benefit and grow from your investment. Instead, consider giving to someone or something that has a need that is limited in time or scope and/or where the solution can result in an impactful change for the recipient. Wouldn’t that feel so much better and more constructive?

Finally, consider the idea that a gift that makes you feel resentful is not really a gift. It actually may harm the relationship in the long run.  Such a gift could also be hurting the recipient if you are enabling bad behavior or helping them to avoid a problem or a time-bomb that needs their attention. In other words, look to the long-term consequences of your gift and ask yourself whether it is having the intended or desired benefit to you and the recipient.

In conclusion, finding new strategies and perspectives can make giving a joyous experience again. When giving is pleasurable and energizing, then that’s an effort that is sustainable, beneficial and generative. When it is not, then it’s time to make a change in either action or perspective. After all, you wouldn’t want to deprive yourself of one of life’s greatest joys, would you?

Meaning at Work

Getting surprised while doing a training session never seems like a good thing. When I train, I like to anticipate what the range of reactions will be so that I am prepared to handle them.

However, on Friday I was leading a session on job crafting – an exercise that helps you edit your job to be more satisfying, fulfilling, and productive – when I got a surprise reaction from this group of 50 or so female leaders.

In hindsight, maybe it’s related to the fact that I had just strayed from the traditional exercise.   Duh.

We had just finished identifying their strengths, passions, values and job tasks. Then I asked them to consider their personal mission and the purpose of their work.   Then to my surprise – everyone burst out laughing. Not in a that-was-really-funny-Susanna way, but in an are-you-kidding-me? kind of way.

I then explained to them that finding and building meaning at work can enhance worker satisfaction and motivation. Think about it: if all your life you wanted to be a teacher, and you have a job teaching people how to sell a video game that you believe to be bad for children, likely you will not enjoy your job. Once I explained this concept, they thankfully seemed to settle into the exercise without that element of incredulity.

But why the initial reaction? Is the notion of meaning and purpose at work so out of reach, at least upon initial reaction, for some people? Do most of us really just go to our job for a paycheck and little else?

Research on callings tell us that approximately 1/3 of the adult population considers their job simply a means to a paycheck. These participants self-selected for this seminar, so perhaps they are disproportionately represented in this category as opposed to the 1/3 of the population who are pursuing their calling through their work.

Are you in that means-to-paycheck group? Can you draw a connection between what you do at work each day and your life’s mission (what you long to contribute to humanity)? If so, perhaps you feel relatively good about how you spend most of your day. If not, why not? Maybe your answer will surprise you.