A Letter to Emotional Workers
In Honor of Mental Health Month
I graduated from the Diversity Management Executive Leadership Program at Georgetown in February of 2020. My biggest lesson from the program was that diversity, equity, and inclusion work is emotional work.
As a practitioner, I knew this intuitively, but I never named it, which meant that I did little to rebound and recover after long days and difficult conversations.
On the last day of my program, our facilitators shared postcards with us and invited us to write a letter to our future selves with reminders and messages from the program. I focused my letter on emotional work, knowing that it was — and is — the core of my practice, and also something I might take for granted.
Yesterday, my postcard from the past arrived.
As I read my short note, I was struck by the fact that the ideas resonated with me even more during COVID-19. And that so many that I work with, care about, and hear from might need the same reminders.
I am surrounded by people who are pushing their limits to listen to, understand, and care for those physically, financially, and emotionally affected by our global pandemic and economic crash. In addition to calling them patient-facing healthcare workers, therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, consultants, coaches, HR team members, People leaders, managers, and a list of dozens of other titles, we must also name them emotional workers.
Emotional workers are people who read and respond to the emotional lives, experiences, and struggles of others as a core part of their work.
At least, that’s my definition. And, for all of you emotional workers out there, I want to share the private message I wrote myself before I knew what the future would look like.
Voices get louder when people don’t feel heard, yours included. Understand that feedback is often more a reflection of the giver than the receiver. Remember that you are the tool, and you choose what kind of tool, how to shape and tend to it, and how to use it with others. It’s you — how you bring all that you are to a given situation that makes all the difference. Trust your own sense of clarity.
I want to break down the parts of this postcard, not just for you, but for me.
- Voices get louder when people don’t feel heard, yours included. If I consider the greatest gift I can give another person attention, I owe it to myself to give myself that gift, too. In what ways am I getting louder? In what areas? What is driving this for me?
- Understand that feedback is often more a reflection of the giver than the receiver. In my work, people are experiencing denial, anger, fear, depression, and anxiety, and they often say and do things that hurt me. I owe it to myself and others to focus more on the why behind these comments and actions. This act is both a gentle and radical form of boundary-setting.
- Remember that you are the tool. With emotional work, what you bring is yourself. Take as much time for healing, renewal, and rest as honing and sharpening. Be intentional with how you use your energy.
- Trust your own sense of clarity. Emotions are contagious, and when you do emotional work, you may find you become more porous and permeable. Tune into yourself and how you feel regularly. Check back in with your values, beliefs, and orientation towards the world. Embrace your internal sense of direction.
Emotional work can be brutal, draining, exhausting, and heavy. It also helps others come to a sense of acceptance, equanimity, calm, release, and joy. It is a genuine service that draws from scarce resources. For all of you out there doing this work, this is a reminder — from an imperfect practitioner — to take care of yourselves.
And, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, lost, or stuck, conjure these words from Rumi.
“Listen to the sounds of the waves within you.”
May is Mental Health Month, which brings awareness to mental health issues, focuses on reducing the stigma of mental illness, and promotes tools to cultivate mental resiliency. To celebrate and honor Mental Health Month, I am publishing blogs like this one, as well as providing resources and toolkits through my newsletter and LinkedIn. Follow me for new resources weekly.