I’ve always been a pretty emotional person. I cry easily, and when I get sad or frustrated, it goes deep. On the flip side, I also feel joy acutely. So in my personal life, I think of it as a net benefit: I would never sacrifice the highs to avoid the lows. I’m empathetic by nature, and that makes me a better editor and writer, and means that reading and consuming art is a rollercoaster of feeling—on the whole, it’s a pretty good way to live.

This year has tested that perspective though, because it’s started to spill into my professional life in ways that haven’t always felt great. I’ve come to realize that I feel a great deal of tension between my emotional and rational selves.

The Emotional Vs. The Rational

In the summer, I was laid off from a job that I loved. On a rational level, it made sense. There were many indicators of instability, and my place within the organization wasn’t clear. My anxiety with the uncertainty was apparent to everyone. Even before I got the official news, rationally, I could see that it was coming. It was a business decision that made a lot of sense.

Emotionally though? It felt like I’d been dumped. And not dumped by a loser in an “I’ll be better off” kind of way—dumped in an “I really thought I’d mapped out a life path and now I don’t know who I am/what to do” kind of way. It sucked.

In the days and weeks that followed, it seemed like all of my conversations, with my partner, with my friends, and with my now-former colleagues, came down to the same argument. My rational self understood completely and knew that I’d been treated with kindness and respect, and that I’d gained invaluable professional experience. My emotional self wanted to throw a tantrum (and some dishes) though. Why couldn’t I, just this once, tune out my emotional self, and listen only to the calm, collected, rational voice that was trying to tell me I’d be just fine? (Which turned out to be correct).

The Emotional + The Rational

In talking to others who had been through something similar, it became clear that I was not alone in struggling with these two perspectives. Many people shared that after losing a job they had to go through a grieving process. That they had used their rational brain to move forward—update the resume, schedule interviews, frame their experiences, negotiate job offers. And, they had to care for their emotional self through the process. For me, that involved lots of dog-related Twitter content, solo trips to matinees at the movie theatre, and buying myself little treats after sending out a certain number of applications.

…Instead of thinking either/or, I learned to think “yes, and.”

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Before this year, I had assumed that the personal and professional were totally separate, with the rational brain governing all things business, and the emotional brain taking charge of the personal. I had made the mistake of thinking that the two things were mutually exclusive, and not working together. It was an interesting, and ultimately productive, mindset shift: instead of thinking either/or, I learned to think “yes, and.”

Unless you’re a robot, you also have an emotional side—and you are most certainly working with people who can be, at the same time, both emotional and rational. At work, there is often pressure to at least appear completely rational. And yet, most people make big decisions—where to live, what job to take, what partner to choose—emotionally, and then rely on logic to justify the decision.

Finding Professional Balance

professional balanceSo, if this true for others and not just me, what can we do about it? How can this perspective inform more positive work experiences?

As individuals, we can learn to seek balance. We can learn to say “emotionally, I’m totally committed to this path, but rationally, it’s good practice to keep my resume updated.” We can strive to be more self-aware, and learn not to make big decisions in moments when we’re feeling cranky or sad. We can make rational pro and con lists about big decisions, and include a few lines devoted to emotional responses.

For leaders, the challenge becomes about allowing people to be their whole selves at work. To ask for both the detailed analysis and for the gut feeling. To prioritize emotional well-being, and give people room to do the things they need to care for themselves. To model vulnerability and authenticity, while pursuing results and improved metrics. To talk about the difference between either/or and yes, and.

“And” Instead of “Or”

We’re a complex species, and yet we love to simplify. It’s hard to accept that more than one thing can be true at once. As I continue (fortunately, knock wood) to make my way around the sun, I often find myself surprised to uncover yet another way I’ve been programmed to oversimplify the world I inhabit. Of course, I can be both rational and emotional, and not flip a switch between one or the other. Where did I pick up that notion in the first place?

Either way, I hope that you can learn from my experience, and embrace thinking about the multiple facets of your self (and colleagues, and family, and friends) as cumulative layers that make you more fully human, not discrete entities that you need to choose between. People aren’t either this or that: they are this, and that, and the other thing, and another thing, and on and on.

Featured Photo by Christophe Hautier on Unsplash
Photo by tam wai on Unsplash
Navigating the boundary between our emotion and rational selves can be tricky. Finding the right balance of the two will serve us professionally.

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