Mastering Your Emotions in the Age of COVID-19

Often emotion sits in the background of our consciousness, present but not fully acknowledged. With the rise of the novel coronavirus, the experience of fear and other emotions is suddenly becoming all too conscious for many of us. How many of these do you recognize in yourself, your friends, family, or colleagues?

  • Fear: of shortages of food and supplies, of isolation and cabin fever, of panic and chaos, of lack of childcare, of lost wages and financial insecurity, of the unknown, of sickness or death.
  • Guilt or Shame: from not being better prepared, from losing your cool, from not washing your hands enough, from potentially infecting others, from not being there for elderly relatives or other at-risk groups.
  • Sadness or Anger: at all the changed or cancelled plans, at others’ lack of concern or care, at others’ panic, at the lack of testing and other preparedness measures, at the poor governmental response, at the problematic US healthcare system, at the reality of massive suffering, at the coming loss of many lives.
  • Relief: that people are finally taking serious preventative measures, that you have childcare figured out, that you’re fully stocked on food and supplies, that you’re young and healthy, that your lifestyle already minimizes your risk of infection.

Suffice to say there are plenty of good reasons to be feeling strong emotions at this moment in history. As an executive coach, a big part of my practice is helping others process their emotions—and often the first challenge is bringing those emotions from the background to the foreground, from the unconscious to the conscious. So now that emotions are firmly in foreground thanks to COVID-19, you have a unique opportunity to learn how to handle them in a healthy way.

  1. Name your emotions to process them consciously
  2. Check the facts before acting on your emotions
  3. Share your emotions to build trust and connection

Name Your Emotions to Process Them Consciously

Without conscious articulation and processing, emotions tend to manifest themselves in unpredictable ways. If it’s a mild emotion that might be fine: slight nervousness manifesting as a momentary bad mood. Or excitement manifesting as talkativeness! But with the strong (and mostly negative) emotions brought on by our new reality, these unpredictable manifestations can be really harmful. Imagine:

  • Person A’s fear of illness manifesting as denial, leading to lax hand-washing and continued socializing despite the recommendations.
  • Person B’s sadness at tragedy manifesting as rage at their politicians—just when their family needs some steady, reliable calm the most.
  • Person C’s shame from cancelling their events manifesting as passive-aggressive behavior towards their coworkers.

Note from these examples that action and inaction can be equally unconscious! Whether you’re ignoring your emotions or letting them guide your decisions 100%, either way you’re not being fully conscious of how you express them.

When you ask yourself what you’re feeling and name it—e.g. “I’m afraid!”—you’ve just moved your emotions into the conscious realm. Whether the emotion is good or bad, big or small, these feelings are what they are. And they will pass, eventually.

Check the Facts Before Acting on Your Emotions

While your emotions are important, they’re also often irrational. Your emotional mind is not particularly concerned with checking whether it’s right or wrong! So once you’re conscious of an emotion it’s worth checking with your rational mind: does your emotion match the facts?

Often the mismatch is in degree: sure, it’s reasonable to be fearful in the face of this mysterious new virus, but how fearful? There’s a chance of sickness for all of us, but most of us will just experience flu-like symptoms and recover. What about all the fears of cancelled events, childcare issues, and cabin fever? They seem pretty small compared to the fear of death, however remote. Checking the facts helps you articulate what you’re thinking and feeling while recognizing that it doesn’t always match the facts out in the world. Integrating the two offers a far more accurate picture of your world, both internal and external.

Armed with this new clarity on your troubles, it can be tempting to try to immediately fix them. Sometimes action can make you feel better, but instantly eliminating negative feelings isn’t a realistic goal. Usually it’s patience and acceptance that helps feelings fade. COVID-19 offers a useful example: for most of us, feeling no fear would be just as irrational as going into full panic mode. So rather than fighting against fear, anger, or sadness, our task is to accept them and be patient. Feelings are what they are, and they’ll only linger longer if you fight them. Accepting what you can’t change empowers you to focus on what you can.

Share Your Emotions to Build Trust and Connection

Everyone has emotions, and they’re a fundamental part of our experience as human beings. Yet despite this quality that connects all of us, many people get bashful when it comes to sharing their own. “It’s unprofessional!” the story goes. “People will judge me! It will just create more stress and drama!” Yet in practice, it’s often hiding your emotions — not sharing them — that produces those results. If anything creates unprofessional behavior, judgement, stress, and drama, it’s letting big emotions like fear and shame get expressed unconsciously!

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to be an open book: draw the boundaries that feel right to you. But even sharing a little of your internal world (“I’m nervous about next week!”) can be a powerful tool to build trust and help others understand you better. So it’s worth choosing the precise words you use wisely. A good place to start is taking full responsibility for your emotions, often by rephrasing them as an “I statement.” Compare the impact of this statement:

A: “It’s an outrage management hasn’t shut down the office yet!”

B: How dare they question my decision! They clearly have no conception of all the thinking and research that went into this call.

versus this statement:

A: “I don’t feel comfortable going into the office, I’m worried about the risk of infection for all of us.”

B: Hmmm, people are worried, how can I assuage their fears? Maybe it is time to close the office after all.

You can’t know for sure the impact of closing or not closing one office, but you can know for sure that you’re worried about it. And being vulnerable is THE way to build trust with others, so it turns a potential trust breaking moment into a trust building moment. I statements help you stick to the facts—so you come across as vulnerable, not judgmental.

These tools are especially useful for our current crisis, but they’re also a general toolkit for handling emotions in a healthy and useful way. Someday, hopefully soon, our emotions will start retreating into the background once again. Yet their constant influence on our thoughts, words, and actions will remain. So take this opportunity to practice naming, checking the facts, and sharing your emotions. Our emotions offer a powerful source of information about ourselves we can’t afford to ignore.

Many thanks to the great bodies of work on emotion I’ve cribbed ideas from here, including DBT, NVC, and CLG.

Are you a startup CEO, founder, or executive looking to work more with emotion? Feel free to reach out, I’m an executive coach and tech veteran specializing in finding permanent solutions to the pain of startup leadership. Learn more and contact me at kberger.com.

Executive coach and tech veteran specializing in finding permanent solutions to the pain of startup leadership.

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