How to stop emotional reactions at work
February 6, 2020 2:55 AM   Subscribe

How do I let go of a sense of ownership over work that I am paid to produce? Too often, I find myself overly frustrated and angered when people criticise work I have done. No one benefits from my getting angry. It's just bad for me. It would be better if I didn't care, but how can I learn to care less?

Please note: I am actively job-hunting.

This is another question prompted by my boss, who in addition to his many other difficult qualities also doesn't read things properly when you send them to him. He skim-reads, sends back saying things like "this is just filler" or "why didn't you include x, y and z?" when x, y and z are literally right there in that very paragraph, or "take out a, b and c" even though that information is important. Then I amend the document to his satisfaction, and then HIS boss comes in and says, "Why haven't you included a, b and c?" when I only took out a, b and c because MY boss told me so. Cue the same process over and over until everyone is happy.

What I feel is that I'm bending over backwards to ensure that everything I produce meets all my stakeholders' specifications and I end up making no one happy until the document has gone through many, many iterations. It's horrible for my self-esteem and I also spend too much emotional energy feeling angry and anxious.

Anyway it's obvious that ranting, even to myself, is just not helpful. It would be so much better for my peace of mind if I just resigned myself to the fact that everything I do will come back to me with a billion edits, and I shouldn't feel any sense of ownership over things that I work hard on (and I work very, VERY hard; I feel like I work harder than I ever have before in any other job).

In previous work-places I always received very good feedback about my work and I erroneously let that define my sense of who I am as a person. I shouldn't tie my sense of self-worth to how people react to my work because these people are never going to react to my work the way I want them to. Maybe once in a blue moon I get some positive feedback - the rest of the time it's just criticism. I have actual tears in my eyes writing this and I know I shouldn't have these kind of emotional reactions to work. How do I turn them off?
posted by unicorn chaser to Work & Money (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Good luck with the job search! I agree that managing your reaction to this long-term (you are NOT your output) has to be the goal but in the meantime the key issue seems to be your boss. Could you schedule a 15-minute meeting instead to talk through the piece and get their changes in person, then you can push back straight away about important information it needs to contain and highlight where things are that they want in it?
posted by london explorer girl at 3:43 AM on February 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Two things that I would mention:

Firstly, it sounds like your direct boss doesn't have your back, which is probably contributing to a feeling of insecurity. Your boss's job is to get the best work out of you, and if he isn't doing that, he ought to be taking responsibility for it - eg "Hey My-Boss, thanks for the feedback, I suggested that unicorn chaser took out a b and c so that's my bad call. I'll ask them to add those back in, they already have that ready".

If you don't get this, you're constantly vulnerable. No wonder you feel bad.

Secondly, I find that I become very much more protective of what I perceive as my intellectual property when I am worried about my position, and the security of my job. In what is sometimes referred to as a "climate of scarcity", one feels like one has to guard one's job, and constantly demonstrate one's value. And if you feel like your work is being devalued by other people interfering with it, that feels bad and again makes one feel vulnerable.

In short, definitely get a new job (and a better boss!) but for now, please just let yourself feel these things, know that they are a reasonable reaction to an "unsafe" environment (in the sense of your lack of support and empowerment), and tell yourself - not for long.
posted by greenish at 3:46 AM on February 6, 2020 [17 favorites]

The way I handle emotional reactions at work is to pause and think about what I am feeling and whether an emotional response is useful, and how Ideal Me(TM) would feel about it and handle it.

Ideal Me responds positively to positive input, and dispassionately to negative input. There's a few clear problems with the process you're involved in here, and your boss and their boss are failing by not trying to solve it.

One way I might handle this if you have the latitude to do so: Have a talk with your boss and point out that you've noticed this process is inefficient. Suggest a change in workflow - send to your boss in comment, not edit, mode. Send the doc with your bosses suggestions / edits left as comments / suggested changes so that their boss can see the work so far.

One thing I've also done with Type A reviewers is to be really rigid about structure in materials so that obvious questions are answered first, then next most obvious, etc. Making liberal use of bullets and headers for people who skim instead of read. You may be doing that already.

Mainly this takes time and practice. When you feel yourself getting frustrated, angry, teary, or any feeling that you're not enjoying - pause. Try to step outside that feeling and ask "is this how I want to be feeling? Should I be feeling this way?"

Remind yourself that this isn't about you, it's a lousy process. You are not set up for success, and that's not your fault. This is Just Work(TM) and it's all about the paycheck. Would you care about these people's opinions in any other circumstance? Do they care about yours? Aside from doing what you need to do to keep the job as long as necessary until you find a better one, try to just let it roll off you like water off a duck's back.
posted by jzb at 4:20 AM on February 6, 2020 [8 favorites]

It’s not personal, separate yourself from the product. (Think of it as a product.) Let go of it, other people’s input is also forming it. Consider it a group effort.

Some of the criticism may be valid. Some of it’s down to personal taste. Aim to do the job required, for the readers’ sake, even if it means taking a bit of an ego hit.

Sounds like your boss might be someone into (eg) bullet points. Learn to target your writing towards him. (Google “plain language writing”, it’s a thing. Write it so anyone’s grandfather could read it, make it easy for eg someone whose first language isn’t English, that’s the idea.) Insert the details your boss’ boss wants, maybe use a lot of separate paragraphs.

(Again, think of it as shuffling ideas around - it’s a game, the aim of which is to communicate the max amount of content in the most minimal way, so that most English speakers get it. It’s a puzzle to solve, a task, not a reflection of your value.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:26 AM on February 6, 2020 [5 favorites]

I suffered burnout in a similar situation and advise getting out. BUT I also developed a way to look at work where my job wasn’t just “X skills” but “I am paid to do X skills and to help Boss A and Boss B dance their crazy-ass dance.”

I actually had a crazy-ass dance playlist that I would retreat into with headphones.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:28 AM on February 6, 2020 [8 favorites]

Meditation helps me with this sort of thing. It doesn't make the difficult feelings go away, but it helps me get a little space from them. I can have the feeling and at the same time think "hmm, I'm having a really strong feeling here." That makes it easier to tolerate the feeling and de-escalate. Even a little meditation can go a long way.

I like the idea of tracking changes.

And it's good that you're looking for a new job. Maybe you can gamify the situation a bit, make a bet with a good friend as to how many annoying changes you'll get and how many will be reversed and the winner buys cupcakes or something. Or award yourself points that play into your job search.
posted by bunderful at 5:09 AM on February 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do you have any kind of workflow program where everyone can see the status of an item, and what changes were made? For example, the workflow program I use at work has a comments section, where one will commonly see:

Person A: Please add other type of asset
Person B: Other type of asset added to page
Person C: Please change Wording ABC to Wording XYZ
Person B: Wording ABC changed to Wording XYZ
Person D: Please remove other type of asset, turns out we don’t need it
Person B: Other type of asset removed from page

It’s still the same song and dance, but since it’s documented, everyone can see where the requests originate, and it isn’t a case of “Person B forgot to include stuff”, which IMO makes a big difference.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:21 AM on February 6, 2020 [13 favorites]

Please know that your sense of pride in your work is very recognizable to me. I get upset a little bit too when people send me feedback that makes it clear they didn't actually read what I sent!

At the worst place I turned it into a game to deal with it, when I sent something to the person who always had some ridiculous criticism I would bet which thing she would find a reason to send one of her infuriating 'help me understand' emails about.

I am glad you are looking for a new job, because if it's making you cry then it seems like it is more than just being attached to the work you create.
posted by winna at 5:30 AM on February 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think that some people/organizations believe that if they do not suggest alterations to a document during their review they aren’t doing their job. I think it’s called “bike shedding.” I try to remember that these changes are more about them and their desire to contribute (however misguided) than me and my work.
posted by CMcG at 6:07 AM on February 6, 2020 [11 favorites]

A job is just the exchange of skills for money. Remind yourself that you're not getting paid for effort at this job. Repeat as necessary: A job is just the exchange of skills for money.
posted by juniperesque at 6:26 AM on February 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hello! This has been a huge part of my job/s for going on twenty years. I'm also a somewhat anxious person, so getting this under control has been a critical part of my journey as a professional.

You are focusing on the feelings, but it's important to consider the systems and culture that produces those feelings.

I find often that it's not so much the criticism, per se, but the ambiguity around what the response will be that gets you. It can combine to produce a feeling that you're not good at your job, and a feeling of competency is vital for workplace satisfaction and also mental health.

So what can you do? You need to develop an approvals process that reduces rework and opportunities for meddling, and then you get buy in and sign off from bosses to do it.

Your sell is that you want to reduce rework, move towards more standardised templates and styles, save them time, and produce a more predictable workflow and regular output.

You then map it out, with agreed turnaround times, it might look like:

1. Receive brief (you can even introduce a template here to ensure you get the information you need).
2. No more than 48 hours later, rough draft (ideally of this is repeatable work you are using a standardised template you are altering to suit, bespoke rather than made to measure of you take my drift.
3. No more than 24 hours later line 1 manager reviews
4. No more than 24 hours later, revision 1 is submitted
5. Same business day, line 1 manager provides second review.
6. No more than 24 hours later revision 2 goes to second line manager
7. No more than 48 hours later, second line manager submits revisions
8. No more than 24 hours later, final version goes to second line manager for sign off.

There are a few things to note here:

- the timeline is arbitrary, and so are revisions. They are very context dependent. Build your own to suit the work.

- the sell is you are giving your managers predictability and transparency, they know when to expect something and what level it will be at.

- it is critical that the process is one way. It can only move forward, never backwards. This stops the endless feedback loops and tinkerers like your line one know that they only get a couple of bites of the cherry.

- the other critical thing to get commitment on is that no response by deadline = approval. Once the process starts, it doesn't stop until final sign off. This is why it's so important to get manager buy in. This will be a journey for them, so you will have to gently remind, maybe add a bonus revision or extension in the first few times.

- feedback and revision should be done in person, in 15 minute meeting depending on size of document. This also reduces back and forth. In particularly intransigent cases like this one, I actually get line one and two manager in a meeting room together so they can hash out their differences and reach consensus together, so I only get one set of revisions. I highly recommend doing this. Don't make their disagreements your problem. You are responsible for setting these meetings up.

So for you, I would modify this to include two maybe three rounds of revision with both managers instead of a more hierarchical progression. And if you don't get sign off from one in time or they can't attend the meeting, the train keeps on moving.

That process will give you much more certainty and productionise this, making it feel more impersonal.

Finally, I have been writing for money in one form or another for a couple of decades now. I trust myself and you should trust your own self. Some people are meddlers and that is who they are and they do it to everyone, the quality of your work is immaterial.

Some people think they know more about writing and grammar etc than you do - and some are right about this in their context (a bitter pill to swallow sometimes!), and some are dead wrong.

But it doesn't matter; at the end of the day they are the client and your job isn't producing good writing, it's making the client happy. And if they are happy eating a bucket of hot shit, you fill that bucket up with a steaming pile and a smile on your face.

At the start of my career I sometimes got resentful when I saw people I felt were inferior writers getting ahead of me. I now understand that writing itself is only maybe 30% of it, the rest is stakeholder management, it's relational, it's process, predictability , reliability etc. You nail that, create a process that delivers those things for you, instead of having to do it ad hoc every time, and you will shine.

You got this. Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 6:43 AM on February 6, 2020 [16 favorites]

Combining some of the advice above... I've had the best results with this over the years when using comment mode and having multiple people review the same draft (and see each other's suggestions) BEFORE edits actually begin. This works really well in Google Docs. You can pitch it to the team as a way to save time and streamline the editing process while ensuring you're getting everyone's feedback. I had a situation similar to yours where two managers often had contradictory feedback. When we moved to Google Docs comment mode, I could watch them bicker in the comments until they came to agreement about what to include or a certain turn of phrase.

CMcG has it (and I love the term "bike shedding"!) - some people just need to prove that they're contributing, however misguided they may be. Don't let them get to you.
posted by writermcwriterson at 7:07 AM on February 6, 2020

I've found this article on cultivating equanimity useful recently, particularly this line from Ajahn Chah:
If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.
For some reason, the idea that letting go of things that are eating me is something I can choose to do as a favour to myself is helpful. I don't have to cling tight to them. Also the idea that it's not a binary - I don't have to choose between obssessing wildly about something, and somehow achieving the kind of total personality transplant that would enable me drop it all together. Even if I can just loosen my mental grip a little, or for a moment, I'll feel a little more peace about it.
posted by penguin pie at 7:32 AM on February 6, 2020 [6 favorites]

it's not a binary - I don't have to choose between obssessing wildly about something, and somehow achieving the kind of total personality transplant that would enable me drop it all together

I was coming in to say this: going from "I care too much" to "well, I just don't care AT ALL" is, in many situations, also a maladaptive coping mechanism. (Not all of them. E.g., not if you're detaching from an abusive relationship.) It feels very satisfying, but it's also a form of sulking. (Ask me how I know!!!) You can understand that some of the process has absurd aspects while still thinking the goal is important and the work worthwhile.

It also may help you to realize that for about 80% of business writing, especially for internal consumption, there is no such thing as excellent writing. There really isn't. You are churning out ugly, hopefully functional prose that no one would ever read for pleasure and that will probably be obsolete in a year. So it makes little sense to focus on questions of, e.g., style, unless you can clearly link it to some function the text needs to perform. Try to care about the criticism that actually does seem to have some point in making the text function better and accept that part of the process is that each senior person wants to change a comma to feel like they're SMRT. When you can see it as an ego game amongst grown folks about something that in the end really doesn't matter--it may be easier for you to laugh it off.
posted by praemunire at 9:31 AM on February 6, 2020

What cotton dress sock said.

It sounds like you were in different work environments before, but those environments were all similar.

This is an opportunity to focus on the question about what it takes to do your job. You need to learn your audience, and understand it, especially when they are very much different than yourself.

smoke provided some ideas on a process, which should be helpful - though need to adapt it for yourself.

This problem solving on how to deal with different personalities, different ways people review things, and so forth. It's up to *you* to put the information in a format that, based on knowing the reviewer, will get the response *you* want.

you want it to say x, y and z? Don't sell it by selling why you think it needs to be in there. Present it in a way that you know *they* will naturally say "Oh, yes, that's what I would expect."

You know he skims things.. so paragraphs are out. cotton mentioned bullets. Revise your process based on your circumstances. This will be important anywhere you go in your career.

If you're looking to leave because you don't feel appreciated or have a different of how you view the world with your boss, then that's not a good reason, really. You're just running from a challenge that, if you can solve, will make you that much more savvy in dealing with different people, perspectives, and personalities in the future.
posted by rich at 9:37 AM on February 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think a few things are helpful here:
1. Agreeing on the goals of the product before starting on the product itself. That will help everybody evaluate whether or not "a, b, and c" are necessary.
2. Managing the process more. Lots of good tips in here, especially by Smoke, some of which I will be using in my own workflow which, yeah, also struggles with this issue. Another way I've found helpful is telling people what kind of review I need, and separating things into "need to have" versus "nice to have." Also having firm boundaries around "edits" that just ask a lot of unresolvable questions: these are inappropriate.
3. Advocating for the product. Making a case for what you believe should be in there and why. That's why #1 helps, too - it gives you a firmer foundation to point at and say "this accomplishes this; this does not and is a digression."
4. Having everybody understand that this tug-of-war is part of making a better product and not a poor reflection on anybody involved.
posted by entropone at 9:39 AM on February 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

One thing I've found helpful in limiting "but what about x, y, z" critiques is to clearly delineate the expectations of a product/document/etc. before starting. Would it be possible to send your supervisor (or whomever is assigning your work) a follow-up email to any assignment basically clarifying what you understand the request to be, the product you plan on providing (with specifics), and any other potential hurdles - all before you start?

Ultimately, this is all about micromanaging your supervisor (and your own) expectations. And be prepared to accept the reality that your supervisor expects they need to make edits, and you should expect that even if you give them exactly what they ask for, they will still have some input.

Good luck on finding a more fitting work environment - this sounds very tiresome and I'd be out of there as fast as I could.
posted by _DB_ at 10:04 AM on February 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

- Can you send Boss 1 a point-form outline that's easier for him to read so he can skim it more effectively?
Then flesh it out and send that version to Boss 2.

Also, personally I would congenially disobey any notes from Boss 1 that you think are stupid. If he tells you to cut ABC, but you think ABC are important, just move them somewhere else in the document, and present them in a different way, as CBA. If he can't find XYZ, he's just telling you (poorly) that you buried the lede or presented them too subtly. Take his note as a poorly-phrased directive to just make that part clearer.

And use lots of line breaks, so each paragraph starts with an important thing. More skimmable for Boss 1- but also more readable for all.

My old boss was good at noticing that something wasn't working, but her proposed solutions were always terrible. I would rewrite all the things she flagged, but I rarely took her suggestions literally. "Oh I see what you mean, thanks. I'll take another look at that part."
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:14 AM on February 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

One thought as you go on your job search: it's precarious and a bit scary, but have you thought about freelance copywriting? I'm in my seventh year of working for myself, and taking ownership over the quality of my work is an asset to my clients—and to me.

I stand behind what I write, and have the opportunity to tell clients why I made the choices I did, as the professional they're paying. A surprising number of times, they heed to my reasoning. I also make sure to listen to their reasoning, in return, and sometimes they're right.

It's just different with bosses and their employees, in my experience.

Also: smoke's response was excellent!
posted by gold bridges at 11:18 AM on February 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound like you're pushing back on changes. Maybe send an email saying, "Please see paragraphs 3-4 on page 7 where I addressed x, y and z. Is more/something different needed here?"

Instead of just making the changes your boss requests, point out why a, b and c are included if he asks for their removal, i.e., "Per the brief, on page 2 it states that we need to provide a, b and c. Aren't these key components that need to be included or should we address them differently?"

Make the manager clarify his decisions and keep the email chain, especially as the doc goes thru the review process. If your manager is halfway decent, you should be able to voice your frustration while also seeking to improve the process. It's OK (in most jobs) to say, "I'm finding this process frustrating. Here's how I think we should improve it."

Also, sometimes it helps to have a actual review meeting. Per the process smoke described above, a 30-minute meeting to discuss revisions can be more constructive than doing it via email. Submit draft for line 1 manager and schedule a 30-minute draft review meeting for following day. Do that for each next level review.
posted by shoesietart at 1:12 PM on February 6, 2020

posted by pleasehelp82 at 1:20 PM on February 6, 2020

Maybe send an email saying, "Please see paragraphs 3-4 on page 7 where I addressed x, y and z. Is more/something different needed here?"

I would be very circumspect about doing this, unless you have an excellent relationship with a good trust foundation, it needs to be handled very delicately or can come across as churlish, defensive, and create an impression you don't want to do your job.

I find it's okay to try and retain stuff, harder to avoid changes. Always explain why you want to keep /remove something in terms of your audience. And definitely don't push back more than once or twice per document in the current situation.
posted by smoke at 2:50 PM on February 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

unicorn chaser, I can sympathize, having dealt with similar frustrations at a previous job. Many of the commenters above have suggested strategies for developing workflow practises which better work in your favor. But in case your superiors aren't receptive to such changes, or if frustrations arise nonetheless, you may find yourself returning to your original question, "How can I learn to care less?"

I also grappled with this question. Like penguin pie brought up, meditation is a powerful tool, but it takes a discipline of steel to develop real equanimity. I asked a meditation teacher I know why everyone isn't meditating their way to peace of mind, and he replied that it's because people typically don't stick it out past the first few months, in which meditation isn't really working yet. I needed a quicker fix to get through my workweek in one piece.

For me, that was dance. As often as possible, after I left the office, I put my brain up on a shelf and gave the reins to rest of my body. In the studio, I expressed myself exactly how I wanted, and under no authority but my own. I didn't care about what was happening at work because I wasn't thinking about work at all. I'd come away feeling airy and peaceful and free to enjoy the rest of my evening (rather than ruminate). This practise kept me sane until I was able to find a healthier work environment.

So my suggestion would be to find an activity you can practise on a regular basis that offloads the stress that your situation is creating. It could be meditation, if you've got the patience for it. It could be dance or another sport. The important thing is to commit to doing something that disconnects the hamster wheel, if only temporarily, and gives you a lot of joy. It's not a total solution, but for me, it was a way to consistently remind myself that there was a bigger and more wonderful world for me outside of the office.

Good luck!!!
posted by H. P. Hovercraft at 8:33 AM on February 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

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