You forgot to set your alarm, so you’re running late. You completely missed a deadline, so your boss gives you an earful when you finally arrive. A hundred emails come in before lunchtime. And by the end of the day, you feel like the world is crashing down around you. How do you handle this?
I’ve had days eerily similar to this, and how I dealt with it was simple: push down any semblance of authentic human emotion, try to think happy thoughts and plaster on a smile until the end of the day. It’s a fairly common tactic. But faking happiness until you feel it is surprisingly bad advice. Studies have shown that suppressing negative emotions can lead to more distress later on.
So, how should you deal with an awful day at work if you shouldn't fake it 'til you make it?
Rather than avoiding what you feel, lean into it. Keeping emotions at bay is hard work that causes additional stress.
One study used this theory as a framework to see if suppressing pain made the perception of pain lower or higher. Researchers exposed 219 volunteers to an uncomfortable cold pressor procedure, then assessed tolerance time, distress, and perceived pain intensity from each participant. The participants were divided into three groups based on how they were able to cope: suppression, acceptance, or spontaneous coping. The suppression group showed the highest overall pain and distress ratings, while the acceptance group had the lowest ratings.
Accepting negative feelings also leads to better overall psychological health. One study surveyed 1,000 subjects about mindfulness, life satisfaction, depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and the number of stressful events they’d experienced. Researchers found that those who accepted the negative feelings were more psychologically healthy. In fact, acceptance works so well as a coping mechanism, even people with more stressors were more psychologically healthy than less stressed people when they accepted their stress.
Another study demonstrated that higher levels of mindfulness, which includes acknowledging negative feelings rather than suppressing them, leads to better psychological health overall. Adolescents completed surveys that measured daily stress, dysphoric affect, and state rumination. Multilevel modeling analyses revealed that those who practiced facets of mindfulness showed lower levels of dysphoric mood. Those less mindful were more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress.
Negative emotions can also impact our actions for the better. I mean, confronting the panic brought on by your alarm clock not going off can teach you to double check it before bed moving forward. Accepting how upset you feel after an altercation with a coworker will remind you to compromise more in the future.
While positive thinking certainly has its place, all of the emphasis placed on just ‘shaking it off’ or ‘getting over it’ can do more harm than good. So the next time you end up with a true case of the Mondays, don’t beat yourself up for feeling like garbage. Acknowledge that sometimes things are garbage, and there’s nothing wrong with you for noticing.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.