Sad, Mad, Anxious? How to Work Through Your ‘Big Feelings’


ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

So I have a confession for the past month. I have felt like I haven’t been the best performer at work. And why is that? Well, I am really sad and really, really angry about some of things we’re hearing about in the news: mass shootings of schoolchildren, continued inaction on common sense gun laws, the evidence on political leaders’ attempts to overturn an election; and most recently judicial decisions that to roll back our civil liberties.

Of course, I’m also anxious on a personal level about my own kids’ future and at a macro level about the state of the world, from war in Europe, to the ongoing pandemic, to escalating effects of  climate change. And then, you know, just to bring it full circle, I’m also sad and worried and a little angry about the fact that, because I’m distracted by all these things, I’m not doing as well as I could at work.

But I’m hoping I’m not alone. You know, I think that maybe some of you out there listening feel the same way. I’ve certainly talked to colleagues and friends who do. We’re experiencing what our guests today call big feelings and they are here today to talk to us about what happens when they intrude on or arise our work lives. And most importantly, they’re going to give us some advice on how to manage our emotions more effectively.

Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy are co-authors of the book, Big Feelings: How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay. Liz, Mollie, welcome.

LIZ FOSSLIEN: Yeah, we’re really excited to be here.

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: Thanks for having us.

ALISON BEARD: So you heard my list just now. You can see that I’m struggling with a lot of big feelings. When we’re feeling things so strongly, I would love to say, all right, let me put that aside and let me distract myself with work. But as I said, I’ve had a really hard time doing that. So why is it so hard?

LIZ FOSSLIEN: Yeah. There’s not a clear line between work and home. This is a common misconception, and especially now, many of us are still working remotely. The truth is we can never really compartmentalize completely. So I saw a tweet recently where someone said, “I’m trying to compartmentalize, but I feel like I’ve run out of compartments.” It truly is every day, it feels like there’s some horrible catastrophe. And if it’s, I think many of us thought like, oh, when COVID is over, and then now there’s war, and now there are shootings. And it’s such a frenetic pace that it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed.

And so that puts us already into a heightened emotional state, which then also means we’re bringing that to work. And it becomes much more likely that we have these outsize feelings, even in moments that might have previously seemed not such a big deal or not so bad. It’s just like, we’re already at this heightened place. And so we then might overreact or lean into a feeling. So it’s really important to just acknowledge what we’re all going through right now in order to I think give each other a little grace as well.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Because I think sometimes these really tough feelings they come from outside work, but they also come from within work. You can be angry about a decision your boss has made or very anxious about an assignment that you’re struggling to do, even despairing about your failure to advance. Do you deal with those things in a separate way or are there sort of universal strategies for dealing with these emotions no matter where they’re coming from?

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: One of the myths that we talk about in the book is that we think that anger is usually triggered by a specific event. That’s sort of like what our culture tells us. But oftentimes we have a lot of sparks along the way, whether that’s from work or things going on in the world or our personal lives, and then eventually they explode into something larger. So when we face chronic stress or trauma, as many of us have been facing for the last couple years, our brain literally rewires the rage circuits. When we’re in an unhealthy environment or under a lot of pressure, we develop an extremely short fuse. That sustained level of stress and fear depletes our emotional resources, making it much more likely that we’re going to get mad even at small things. So yeah, it’s probably not one or the other.

ALISON BEARD: We have seen a lot of changes in the workplace surrounding authenticity and mental health. Why do you think that feelings are so hard to talk about at work still?

LIZ FOSSLIEN: Yeah. I think it comes from this false dichotomy that you have emotions on one end of a spectrum and then rationality on the other. Many of us, myself and Mollie, definitely included, have been raised to think of leaders as cool and calm and collected under any circumstances. And the truth is as humans living in a chaotic world, you’re going to have emotions regardless of where you are. If you’re in the shower, if you’re walking around the block, if you’re at work. Sometimes those emotions are going to happen because of things going on at work. And so the reason I think that emotions have such a bad reputation in the workplace is because we’ve tried to keep them out. And so what that means is we never talk about issues when they’re small because we don’t have the vocabulary or the phrasing to do so.

And so we let these small interactions that kind of get on our nerves fester and fester until suddenly it’s six months later and we’re crying in a meeting or we’re just lashing out at someone. And that’s then what we tag as emotions at work. And truly again, it’s because we never just talked about it when it wasn’t that big of a deal. And so I think it’s this traditional notion that emotions don’t belong in the workplace that then leads us to have these explosive displays. It would’ve been much more productive had we just said like, hey, I’m having a bad day today. It has nothing to do with you. If I seem a little off, please don’t take it personally.

ALISON BEARD: And when work is causing some of these negative emotions, how do you know when you should mention it? Surely there’s some things that you can just let go before you bring them up, right?

LIZ FOSSLIEN: Yeah. I think a lot of it is sitting with the emotion and really identifying the need behind it. So if I’m sitting in a meeting and suddenly all of my normally lovely coworkers are highly irritating to me, I might think, okay, I just didn’t sleep well last night or the headlines are incredibly disturbing and that’s just manifesting as irritation or frustration for me. And so the need there is actually, I don’t need to confront someone or have a difficult conversation. I might just need to take a couple hours to myself to talk about what’s going on with a trusted colleague or a friend outside of work. However, if someone is interrupting me in a meeting, then I might feel also frustrated with them, but the need is different.

The need is that I probably do need to pull them aside or get on a quick call with them and say, when you kept interrupting me in the meeting, I didn’t feel included or it made me feel like you didn’t care what I had to say. And then start a productive conversation that way. So it’s about not immediately leaning into your emotional reaction, but taking a second to say, here’s what I’m feeling, getting really granular about what that is, and then identifying what might be driving that emotion and what’s the best next step forward to address that need.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So I want to drill down into a few of the emotions or mental states that you talk about in the book: anger, anxiety, and despair. Let’s start with anger. So what is the first step in recognizing when you’re actually angry? It might seem obvious to some. I definitely am a hothead, so I know when I’m angry. But I think for others it might manifest in ways that they don’t immediately recognize.

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: Yes, often it can. And I think part of that is that we have been told by society that anger is not an appropriate emotion to express. This is also a very gendered thing. And so many people are raised to not listen to their anger. So I think it’s good that you know when you’re angry. That’s a good thing. I think one of the things that you can do is really try to pinpoint exactly what the anger triggers are. So that might be an event at work. Maybe you’re passed over for a promotion. Or conditions like you haven’t eaten in a while, for me. And often if you’re having a hard time coming up with a list, you can ask someone who lives with you or loves you. They will definitely know. And Liz can share about this. When she asked her husband, he said, “When you feel like you’re being misrepresented and when someone chews gum next to you.”

LIZ FOSSLIEN: The gum chewing, it drives me bananas.

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: Exactly. So the common triggers are feeling like you aren’t being heard, feeling like decisions are being made unfairly, being told to calm down when someone interrupts you, when someone does something without your permission, when you’re about to do something and someone tells you to do it. And that can be helpful once you’ve identified those things to just help you take that pause. So we’ve all heard trying to lengthen the time between the trigger and the response. And once you know, oh, this trigger’s happening to me, I’ve identified that causes me anger. That can help you pause a little bit before then sharing what’s going on.

ALISON BEARD: How do you know how long that pause needs to be?

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: One of the things we say is we need to talk about our emotions without getting emotional. And that can be a different length of time, depending on what’s going on. It might mean leaving the room and calming down, taking a few deep breaths for 10 minutes. It might mean sleeping on it. We’re a big proponent of like, yes, you should go to bed angry because that might help you not say things that you regret. So it really just depends. But I think you have to ask yourself, am I ready to talk about this without yelling or raising my voice? Or for some people crying is a sign of anger, but when you are crying, it’s probably not the best time to try to explain what was going on.

ALISON BEARD: It seems to me that there’s sort of lots of different types of anger. There’s anger at the state of the world. There’s anger at a specific person that you feel has wronged you. There’s also anger toward yourself. So in a situation where it’s not, you need to talk directly to the person who has made you upset. How do you deal with that sort of either internal anger or more macro level anger?

LIZ FOSSLIEN: Yeah. So one way is to try to channel your anger energy strategically. So there’s many examples of anger actually leading to creativity, because when you’re frustrated with something, it’s an indication that there’s been a violation, that something in the world is wrong. It’s an alarm bell for you. So one example is Pixar Executive, Brad Bird actually intentionally recruited frustrated animators to work on a new film because he believed they were most likely to change things for the better. And one of these groups of angry animators essentially came up with The Incredibles, which was a movie that broke box office records and then went onto be a franchise. So one example of how trying to understand what is it that’s upsetting me and what steps can I take, I think often it’s really, I mean, I don’t want to say as simple, but it just means advocating for yourself or for someone else.

So movements often come out of anger, the me too movement. I think that was… There were many emotions involved in that despair, probably a lot of anxiety. And it was finally really anger for many people that tipped the scale of like, I want to say something. So that might be protesting, marching. It might be having the courage to have a conversation with your team to finally start to introduce emotions into one-on-ones. If you’re a manager saying like, I am so frustrated with the news and I just want to see if there’s anything I can do to support you. I just want to let you know that my door is always open. I won’t have all the answers, but it’s really important to me that you feel like you can come to me if you need something. So whatever it might be, I think it’s trying to take some of that energy and figure out some kind of productive next step.

ALISON BEARD: I have to say that when I’m angry, rather than confront a person or sort of immediately figure out a way I can change the situation, I like to vent. Is that a good strategy or a bad strategy?

LIZ FOSSLIEN: Yeah. This is a great question. So venting turns into more of a problem when it becomes chronic and you’re never focusing on what you can do to fix a situation. So if you find yourself day in and day out rehashing the same things without ever moving to this place of, okay, I’ve gotten it off my chest. What can I do next to either remove myself from the situation, change things, have a conversation, whatever that might look like? That’s when it really starts to become self-destructive as opposed to self-reflective. We also often get the question where people say, someone’s been coming to me and venting a lot. And at first, it was fine because it is cathartic to find someone who really gets it and can kind of just acknowledge what you’re feeling and you feel a little less. You just feel validated in your frustration.

That’s a nice moment. But then again, when it becomes too much, that’s when you want to dial it back a little. So when someone’s coming to you and overly venting or taking too much time on that, one thing you can say is, what can I help you do to move forward? Or I would love to support you in feeling better. How can we fix this? So again, it’s this trying to shift the conversation from simply rehashing and ruminating to how can we work together? How can I help you fix the situation or at least get to a better place emotionally?

ALISON BEARD: Let’s turn to anxiety, which you discuss in your chapter on uncertainty because it usually stems from that. What are some coping strategies if I’m either anxious about things outside of work or anxious about things very much related to my job, a speech I have to give, a project I’m behind on, a promotion I might or might not get.

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: One of the things that we feel like helps but doesn’t always help is something called anxious fixing. And when we’re in the middle of dealing with anxiety, we say, okay, I’m going to make a list and I’m going to check things off my list and I’m going to keep myself really busy. And that can feel like it’s making a difference, but in actuality, it’s distracting us from actually recognizing and working through the anxiety. So stopping anxious fixing and saying, okay. And again, we all have our own things. It’s like, okay, I’m puttering around the house. I’m vacuuming every corner of the house. There’s probably some anxiety that’s going on.

ALISON BEARD: I legit organize the shoes in my mud room this morning.

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: Yes. It’s like, great. It’s Monday morning. This is what I need to be doing. This will be helpful. The other thing is understanding that our anxiety about a situation doesn’t always accurately reflect the true risk. And there’s a really great research study that looks at giving people electric shocks. I don’t know why all research studies have to do with electric shock in psychology. But researchers told one group of people that they had like a 99% chance of receiving a painful electric shock. It was still safe, but painful. And they told the other group that they had a 1% chance of receiving the shock. And the two groups were willing to pay about the same to avoid getting the shock. So the likelihood of getting hurt didn’t affect their anxiety about getting hurt. And in some ways, if we just know that it’s going to happen, it’s like, okay, there’s 100% chance you’re going to get the shock. We’re like, okay, well, I’ll be ready for that.

Beyond just stopping and sitting with it, one of the mantras that we love is I am a person who is learning blank. And that just reminds us, I don’t have to have all the answers right now. We’re all working through unprecedented times. And so let’s stop beating ourselves up for feeling anxious or not knowing what’s going to come next. So instead of saying, I don’t know how to manage people. I can’t do this. You might say, I’m learning how to be a great manager in a hybrid work environment. Or you might say, I’m such a bad parent during COVID. And you might say, I’m learning how to care for an infant and transition into taking care of an infant during COVID. And that helps us adopt a growth mindset.

ALISON BEARD: If you, as an individual are struggling with anxiety about something, how do you talk about it with your manager, without seeming less competent to the people who you really want to impress, colleagues, managers?

LIZ FOSSLIEN: I think it comes down to coming to your manager with a clear ask. So instead of saying, I’m so anxious about the future, I don’t get what’s happening. Can you help me? That’s really open ended and is not going to show that you’ve thought through what you need to feel more comfortable. So a better way of approaching the same conversation is to come and say, I’ve looked at the next month and kind of assessed my capacity and everything I have going on. Here’s a list of all my projects in order of priority. Can you double check this to make sure that I’m working on the right things?

Or this has come up in the flow of my work and I’m not quite sure how to take the next step. And then ask a specific question that shows again, you’ve thought of many options, but you love their input. And so it’s really teeing them up with something specific and actionable that they can respond to because that will A, again, show that you’ve done the work, that you’ve really put in this, I’ve thought through these scenarios. I understand the need that I have. And here is a very clear ask that will make the manager feel good because they’re easily able to help you.

ALISON BEARD: And what about when anxiety from your personal life is distracting you from work? How do you have that conversation?

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: Yeah. I think that’s something that we all feel like is not appropriate to share all the time. It’s like, well, I should be able to be dealing with this outside of work and my boss isn’t going to care about this. But in most cases, it’s helpful for your boss to know what’s going on so that they can either help you again, prioritize as Liz said, or make other suggestions for maybe you need to take a mental health day, maybe you need to delegate some more of your work. I think that many bosses actually feel honored to know and say, thank you for sharing that with me. They may already have some sense that you are dealing with these things. I think we’re better. We’re not as good at hiding our anxiety as we think.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I do think coworkers are so important in this area too. I’ve had people come to me to tell me about things that they’re struggling with. And I think sometimes just knowing that someone else knows and then can either have your back or even pass on the information to others in a way that doesn’t break any confidentiality, but just because I think sometimes it’s hard to advocate for yourself. But to have someone else sort of say like, hey, heads up, so and so it’s having a hard time this week on a couple things. So I’m going to pitch in on this particular assignment. And I’ve certainly benefited from having coworkers do that for me as well.

LIZ FOSSLIEN: Yeah. I love there’s two quick things I want to call out in what you said that really resonated with me. And the first is the sense of relief when you do tell someone. So about a year and a half ago, my father-in-law was losing his tenure battle with cancer. And the last few weeks of that are just grueling. And it was so hard to talk about and I really felt like I can do it all. I was in this very frenzied, anxious state. I basically just started crying in a one-on-one, so I had to share what was going on with someone. And the immense burden that was lifted. And they responded with such kindness and did exactly what you said, which is the second piece of this. If someone shares something with you, don’t divulge all the details, but you can act as an emotional advocate for them in the workplace.

And just say like, hey, especially if you’re their manager, Liz has a lot going on right now. Can we take something off her plate? Just want to flag that to you. Especially if someone else comes and says like, Liz seems very anxious, what’s going on? This is one of the things about emotions at work is these sometimes small moments of vulnerability that help us get more comfortable with it and build the muscle. And again, hopefully you are in an environment where you’re getting positive feedback, where it’s being received in a kind and compassionate way.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So that definitely is a nice transition to despair.

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: Sure. So despair is, it’s not a word that we use frequently. It’s actually, it wasn’t even clinically defined until 2020. And there’s now seven indicators of the emotion. So feeling hopeless, having low self-esteem, feeling unloved, worrying frequently, loneliness, helplessness, and feeling sorry for oneself. And some of those do overlap with the diagnostic criteria for major depression or generalized anxiety disorder. If I had to put them on a spectrum, I think sadness is on one end, which is really hard. And we talk about this. I’m not trying to say that these are not hard. These are all hard. But sadness would be on one end of it. I would put depression somewhere in the middle. Depression can be really difficult. It can be chronic. It can be extremely hard to work through. But in terms of intensity, despair would be on the other side of depression. It often starts with depression and then it snowballs into a much deeper pit. We like to say pit of despair that often does require professional help to get out of.

ALISON BEARD: And Mollie, you’ve had personal experience with this, right?

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: I did, yeah. So in the fall of 2019, I had just moved from New York to Los Angeles. I was feeling really lonely. I was in a job where I was working remotely. This was before COVID. And I felt really isolated. I was dealing with chronic pain that I’m going on for a while. And I had lost all hope that it was going to get better. And I was dealing with some issues related to infertility. And it just got to the point where I didn’t really want to keep living. And I didn’t necessarily want to take action on that. But just life was so hard that I thought, why do I want to keep doing this? And those thoughts were extremely scary to me. They were very distracting. And it was hard to just say, oh, I need to focus on something else.

And when you’re in that moment, you feel like your brain is broken and this you’re like, this is how I’m going to feel forever. How could I have these thoughts and then work backwards from them? How do I get out of this? And that’s where I think working with professionals, so therapists, psychiatrists who can share that these feelings are more common than society is willing to admit and that many people do recover from them. And I went on medication. I was at one point meeting with a therapist twice a week and eventually was able to work through it. It took many months, but it was difficult. And I can’t say that I was really open about that at work. I think it was only after that period that I was able to be more open about it.

ALISON BEARD: So is the advice in this case to take time off and get that professional help that you need? Or is there anything that you can do on your own or with the help of non-professionals?

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: I think it really depends on the person. I was actually talking to a friend about this the other day. I actually was in a job and then I took two weeks off and then I started a new job. And she said, “How are you able to do that?” But what I said was for me, I felt so disconnected from being in the job that I was in. Like I said, I was the only person working remotely. And I just was like no one would even know if I was here on a certain day or not. And so I recognize, and this is again, therapy and those who love you in your life can be helpful. And they said, I really think that you need to be around people again. And so that meant finding another job.

And it was really difficult to find another job when I was in that state, but having to rally for being in service of a group of other people helped. But in the worst of it, I wasn’t really doing a lot of work. And in those moments I really just had to say, how do I get through now? So chunking the days. Can I get through the next half hour? Can I get through the next hour? And then starting to set really small daily intentions. So when you’re falling into despair, it feels like you’re losing all control and you’re in free fall. And we use this metaphor in the book, all you have to do is throw a single climbing pick into the wall every day.

And it’s not going to stop the fall, but it will slow it. So for me, this might be something like going to the drugstore. And part of my mind was like, okay, so you went to the drugstore today. That’s your accomplishment in comparison with what you used to be able to do in a day, that’s nothing. Who are you kidding? But over the course of weeks and months, those small actions started adding up and let me start to get out of it.

ALISON BEARD: We’ve talked a lot about sort of what we can do to help ourselves when we’re feeling these big feelings. We’ve talked a little bit about sort of what coworkers and bosses can do. Is there anything that sort of organizations can do at a larger scale to make sure that A, people are comfortable talking about these feelings at work to equip them with some of these strategies for dealing with them. What do you advise sort of C-suite executives, particularly HR leaders about how to get better at helping employees?

LIZ FOSSLIEN: Yeah. I think one thing it is manager and leadership training. So training them on how do you have these conversations at work? How do you create space for someone to come to you, but then also allow individuals to have their own reactions, right? It’s not productive in a meeting to say this headline came out. I want everyone to go around in a circle and say what they’re feeling. That can be really intense for people. So it’s more, I want a flag that I’m feeling very frustrated, very upset. If you need anything, you can always come to me. And then also pointing them towards resources. So this comes down to the company putting its money where its mouth is. So what policies do you have in place that managers can point employees towards to say, here’s how you take a mental health day if you really need it. It’s totally fine to move a couple meetings.

And we’re going to make that a cultural norm. I think if the CEO says that they can put out like an I pledge to list or an it’s okay to list that just has again, it’s okay to have a bad day. It’s okay to be overwhelmed by the news. I think these top down making it explicit what the organization will support you in doing can be immensely powerful. And one quick personal story I’ll share. This is the one on one where I started crying. It was I think my father-in-law had just had a stroke and I was at his house helping take care of him. And I was running around just so busy all day. I get on this one on one with my manager. And she started every meeting with, how are you? How are things going?

And I just started sobbing. It was the first time that day, probably that week, I had a chance to process anything and I could not keep it together. And so she said, I want you to turn off your camera, turn off your microphone, get off this call. You are not working for the rest of the day. Shoot me an email when you’re ready to figure out how we can reallocate some of your work. And if you need to take bereavement leave, here’s the policy. And I will handle the paperwork as much as I can. And she could only do that because she knew that our CEO would have her back every single time.

ALISON BEARD: Well, thank you, Liz and Mollie. It’s been very helpful to talk through some of my very big feelings that I’ve been having and hear some advice on how to deal with them. The book’s great. And I really appreciated the conversation.

LIZ FOSSLIEN: Thanks for having us.

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: Thank you so much for having us.

ALISON BEARD: That was Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, coauthors of the book, Big Feelings: How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay. If you like this episode, we have more podcasts to help you manage yourself, your team and your organization. Find them at or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. And Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.


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