Emotional Ergonomics: There’s No Should. You Feel How You Feel.

a drawing of a cluttered desk. A stick figure person is bent over a laptop at an uncomfortable angle. The ergonomics are terrible.
Image by Kars Alfrink / CC BY

A core principle in the field of ergonomics is that a workstation should be designed with the user’s comfort in mind. The tools are laid out to serve the body. When we contort our bodies in an effort to match up with poorly aligned tools, productivity suffers. And repetitive strain injuries can follow.

When I worked for a large hospital system, I had to meet with an ergonomics consultant who examined my workspace. And I had to take an online module every 6 months to demonstrate that I understood: If you’re hurting or strained, rearrange your office. Or get new equipment that adapts to you better.

It’s old news, especially if you’ve ever worked an office job. We know better than to cram ourselves into a physical setup that won’t work. To box ourselves in.

So why do we do it emotionally?

“I Shouldn’t Feel This Way”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard other people say, “I shouldn’t feel this way.”

In the past, it was practically my catchphrase. Like one of those old talking toys that cycle through a list of lines when you pull the string:

  • “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “You know what I mean?”
  • “That probably sounds weird.”

But the secret is: There’s no should.

You feel how you feel.

If you’re anything like me,  you want it to make sense and be “reasonable,” but there aren’t universal standards for this stuff. We’re flying through a modern world with stone age brains. Sometimes they act a little wacky.

You get to want and need whatever you want. Now, that doesn’t mean that you’ll always get those things or that other people are obligated to give them to you.

But it also doesn’t mean that anyone should judge you for feeling the way you do. Not other people. And certainly not you.

And it doesn’t mean that you need to cram your emotions into a space that’s uncomfortably small and just expect them to fit.

Better Emotional Ergonomics

Try letting your emotions be free range. Let them have a recess to go out and play. Now this doesn’t mean hulking out and destroying half the office. But instead, try a bit of mindfulness.

As you’re feeling, note what the feeling is, without passing judgement. A famous analogy in mindfulness teaching is that it’s like sitting on the side of a road and watching cars drive by. You note each one as they pass. But you don’t get in any of the cars. You simply observe them.

Try this with your feelings. Observe them and just let them drive past.

And over time, if you find that you’re consistently unhappy or perturbed about something, dig into why that is. Is there something you could change about the situation that would make it less unpleasant for you?

I know a person who beat herself up over and over again about how much she missed her long-distance partner, only to later find that all it took to feel better was a regular weekly check-in over Skype. She’d been hesitant to even ask, afraid that her partner would look down on her for needing that contact or refuse her and say it would be too difficult to schedule. But this was not the case at all. In fact, with a little flexibility on her end, they were able to maintain this (even if the Skype appointment needed to move to a different day every once in a while).

Whenever possible, find a way to make your environment optimally fit the emotional task. And when you want to work on challenging your feelings, don’t try to un-feel them. Acknowledge them first. And then test them against the reality they’re responding to.

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