fifteen tons, and what do you get
February 23, 2010 9:56 AM   Subscribe

How do I keep my cool at work, and keep it from affecting my cool at home?

I'm in a situation at work right now that sucks big time. I feel like I'm totally being dicked over without cause, both by the system and by individuals, though I recognize that I might be losing perspective at this point. I'm pretty much sick to my fucking stomach about the whole thing, which makes it really hard to communicate effectively and calmly about it. Do you have tricks for staying professional and cool in emotionally charged situations? This kind of thing never happens to me - I take a lot of pride in how level-headed I am in a crazy deadline-driven industry - and it's making me nuts.

Part II of question: How do you keep this kind of thing from leaking over into your home life, or at least minimize the collateral damage it causes? I'm terrible that way; either I completely ignore it and get all crazy and brittle and tense, or walk around moaning and feeling sorry for myself. How do you stay even-keeled about work, away from work?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I worked at a company for six years. In the fifth year, the president, to whom I reported directly and who was my mentor, was fired in about as humiliating a way as possible, and I didn't see it coming. We were told that a re-organization was going to happen from the parent company, but nothing was heard for six weeks, so I had lots of time and motivation to imagine the worst happening to me.

In retrospect, that's what got me through it: imagining the worst. I imagined getting fired by showing up one day and finding my cubicle packed up in a box for me. I imagined needing to move in with my parents and looking for a job elsewhere. I imagined all the things I could do to be ready for that worst outcome, and starting doing them: I paid off my credit cards and started saving money. I updated my résumé. I started thinking about what sort of job I'd like next. I planned how to move.

By working through all that, I felt prepared for the worst, which took a lot of the dread out of it and helped me to go to work with a fatalist, live in the moment mindset. I kept doing my job as I thought best and stopped obsessing about getting fired. I felt ready for anything. I had no problem keeping my cool at work.
posted by fatbird at 10:08 AM on February 23, 2010

Since you haven't given out too many specific details, I guess I have two big questions - have you ever felt like this at a job before? And are there personal issues in your life that you aren't addressing? It's good that you can recognize that you might have lose perspective about the situation, but doing your best to evaluate the source of anger/dissatisfaction is oftentimes the only way to keep your cool.

Misdirected anger/frustration can be a tricky issue to recognize, and many jobs -- by virtue of the fact that most people have pretty negative associations in general with the word "job" -- are easy targets on which to subconsciously unload that anger. Hell, it can be difficult to even realize when something is "wrong" in your life at all, without job stress/confusion entering into the picture.

What I'd first suggest (since it does sound like you're pretty unhappy) is to do your best to think about your life in general, with an eye toward your current unhappiness. Try to be dispassionate, and evaluate things like your family, friends, romance, location and aspirations. Is there a much broader source of your mental state than your current job? A few sessions with a therapist might not be a bad idea, but introspection is certainly possible by yourself, too.

You could very well be doing the opposite of what you think is happening: you might be taking stress or anger from some other avenue in your life, and dropping in the lap of your coworkers/organization without even realizing it. (Or, of course, it could be a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B, especially since you described your job as "deadline-driven" and therefore probably pretty stressful even under the best of circumstances.

But, assuming that it IS just a job thing: exercise, sleep and meditation/reading. Are you getting 8 hours of sleep each night? It is so easy to forget the little things, but I personally know that, when I'm running at least a few miles every day, I'm almost impervious to stress. Decompress each day with something fun, relaxing, distracting and engaging. (Don't watch TV or use the internet to decompress.)

Still not working? Therapy and seeking to change your job environment (bringing your stresses up to your boss in the most objective and non-defensive way possible) are reasonable next steps.

Of course, sometimes you just need a new job. Good luck!
posted by Damn That Television at 10:26 AM on February 23, 2010

It is simple to describe, and can be simple to do achieve.

You've got to learn perspective. If that sounds patronising, I apologise, and admit that sometimes I lose perspective, and certainly have in the past found it hard to disengage from work.

But, put simply - if your work life sucks, "the man" has a chance of winning. If your work life is making your home life suck, then "the man" has won. The most successful executives I know have been virtually sociopathic in being able to distinguish between work and home. It helps not to do things like check your blackberry or login to work when you leave. It also helps to take a deep breath when you leave the building and spend 30 seconds focusing on the things you're going to do outside work that you enjoy.

In terms of keeping your cool: there is a simple mantra. In most workplaces, the moment you become emotional rather than rational you've lost the argument. Period. Again, the most successful executives I know have been almost sociopathic in their ability to remember that. You need to keep telling yourself that: if you get emotional, you lose. It doesn't matter that you're right. The quickest way to lose the high ground is to use emotional rather than rational arguments. If you're like most people and hate losing an argument, it's a great incentive to be more moderate and to pick your moment to stick the knife in.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:30 AM on February 23, 2010 [11 favorites]

In answer to part II - one good piece of advice I was given was to go to the gym (or similar) after work. The idea is it places a kind of barrier between work and home - and besides exercise is good for frustration, stress etc.
posted by rhymer at 10:36 AM on February 23, 2010

Answer to part two: Pick a landmark on your way home. Allow yourself to think and stew about work until you get to that landmark. Then switch it off - it will all be there when you get back to work next day, so no point in spending the evening thinking about it. You may have to adjust the landmark a few times until find one that works. Having your workplace wreck your evening will not move you toward a solution.

Answer to part one: Event ->Think -> Feel -> Do. The situation (event) happens, you interpret it a certain way (think) which makes you feel a certain way (angry, frustrated, resentful) then you react (do). If you can work on how you interpret the situation, you will change how you feel, and then how you react. For example instead of thinking "They're out to get me, they're hanging me out to dry, etc" (not sure what your situation is) you could try "These people are idiots, they are not who I want to spend my working days with, they are showing their true colours, this is very enlightening for me." Then your reaction might be to feel less a powerless victim, and more empowered to do whatever you need to do.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:09 AM on February 23, 2010

2nding rhymer; you can also use your commute as a work/home barrier. Use that time to think about/be pissed about/mentally argue about your work problems, and then to calm yourself and put yourself in your "home" mindset. Particular music may help, or a podcast, or something.

Another technique I've seen is to use a worry chair ... whenever you start to worry, you have to go sit in the chair, and then just worry the worry all the way through. That keeps your bed from becoming a place where you reflexively start to worry and then keep yourself up all night (ditto the dinner table, your kid's playroom, etc.), and for many people, the ability to actually HAVE the worry and worry it through is helpful, since we spend a lot of time trying to shunt those thoughts aside instead of actually having them.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:11 AM on February 23, 2010

I remember a time when I was in a seriously messed up work situation. It was bad. I couldn't stop talking about it or thinking about it outside of work, and I suspect that my desire to talk about the situation incessantly was a drag for my friends.

At one point, a friend said to me, "just remember, your life is bigger than that job." It was a small comment, but it gave me huge perspective. After that I decided I would refuse to allow the stupid job situation to destroy me or my life.
I have since moved on. That stupid situation is well behind me. The day will come when yours will be behind you, too.
posted by cleverevans at 11:57 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thinking about your job when you're at home is giving your employer free overtime. Sounds like that's not something you want to do.
posted by Etrigan at 12:06 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a couple of songs on my iPod that instantly bring me to a different time/place and just make me feel like "myself" if that makes any sense. They're kinda silly and embarrassing, songs from my childhood mostly, but when I'm going through stressful times at work, I play those songs on my way in and on my way home. Also, taking a more scenic route either to/from work helps my frame of mind.

I also try to remember that no situation is permanent. What cleverevans says above about your life being bigger than your job is so true. I think of jobs I had and hated years ago and how much I fretted over those situations and they were just a blip on the screen, really. People come and go, jobs come and go, whatever is happening now surely won't be happening forever.
posted by cottonswab at 12:08 PM on February 23, 2010

Also, and I don't mean to sound sanctimonious, but when I get stressed about work I try to think about all the people who are unemployed, homeless, cold, hungry, etc. (and I have been one of them, many times!) and remind myself what a luxury it is to have "work stress."
posted by cottonswab at 12:11 PM on February 23, 2010

I think to myself, "Is anyone going to remember this in a year?" This includes myself, people in the company, the world at large, and implies remembering negatively. The answer, in 99% of the situations, is no way. So why am I getting so worked up about it?
posted by smoke at 6:59 PM on February 23, 2010

By working through all that, I felt prepared for the worst, which took a lot of the dread out of it and helped me to go to work with a fatalist, live in the moment mindset

Once when I was pretty unhappy in my job, I got a second job in the evenings. I got the second job for a whole bunch of other reasons, too, so it wasn't a constant reminder of "I could quit at any time," but it did reassure me to know I could walk away if necessary. It also made the day job no longer my full identity, and it accelerated my route toward other life goals. I've noticed the same sort of relaxed attitude from people who go to grad school in the evenings, once their professional identity and their professional future stops being quite so dependent on one particular set of jerks.

For Part II: dance and improv are also great ways to totally shake yourself from one head space into another.
posted by salvia at 7:45 PM on February 23, 2010

Take a big step back for one moment. Think about why it is you go into work every morning. The biggest reason I show up to work is so that I can support my family. "Support my family" is a very broad term. Yes, it is the food in our stomachs and roof over our heads. However, it also means having the kind of job where I can leave at the end of the day, cook dinner, put my daughter to bed, and participate in family life because my family needs that kind of support too. Your goals for showing up to work may vary.

So, when it comes time to that sort of destructive behaviour, ask yourself, is this helping you meet your goals. The answer typically is no, and that in engaging in such behaviour you have lost perspective of your goals. Be rigourous in applying this test. It is learned behaviour to optimize for long term goals.

If it is impossible to reach your goals in this position due to stress, start looking for a new job. This puts yourself in charge of your own future, which is very empowering.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:07 PM on February 23, 2010

Seconding salvia's advice. I work with two programmers who write software on the side, and they are by far the most relaxed people in the office (to a fault, sometimes). One writes for-profit software, but the other writes open source software, so it's not just the security of a second income. It's also the personal commitment to a long-term project that keeps them from becoming too immersed in their day-job problems.

I'm about to start my own long-term online project with the same goal. I think the key is to do something with a certain level of accountability and/or visibility, so you feel motivated to do it (and to therefore yank yourself out of the work headspace).
posted by transporter accident amy at 7:04 AM on February 24, 2010

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