How to Balance the Personal and Professional

We’ve all experienced disappointment in the workplace in some way, shape or form. A close colleague quits unexpectedly or someone gives us feedback that’s a little too hard to hear. While most of the time we’re expected to shrug it off, those disappointments can affect us deeply. After all, we’re not robots. As professional as we try to be, we can’t just shut off our feelings all the time. We might even have to shed a few tears in the bathroom before pulling ourselves together and repeating the age-old advice, “Don’t take it personally, it’s just work.” 

Some claim “don’t take it personally” is more harmful than helpful. While not taking things personally at work is supposed to help us better protect ourselves in challenging professional contexts, there are benefits to making work and leadership more personal. After all, work is where we spend the majority of our time. It’s difficult not to take the bulk of our lives personally. Consider the connection between engaged employees and performance. Engaged employees tend to take work personally to a certain level, making them more likely to perform better. In contrast, disengaged employees are indifferent about their work, which weakens performance.

However, there’s also a fine balance. It’s important to be engaged and take work seriously, but taking everything personally– even the little things like being left out of a project email or not being invited to a meeting – can also wreak havoc on your career. When you conclude that every situation or attitude towards you is happening because of you, it’s easy to become engulfed in self-inflicted doubt, anger and grief.

So how do we navigate blurred lines between taking it personally and professionally? The answer is to be human, stay engaged, take your work seriously, but don’t do it to the point where it becomes impossible to work through your feelings. To maintain this balance, try these tips:

  1. Put yourself in time out before reacting. Your colleague says something that triggers you. Your gut reaction might be to say something nasty, cry or write an email. But when emotions are running high at work, the best thing you can do for yourself is take a moment and breathe. Whether it’s a day off, or even a few minutes locked in the bathroom stall, process your feelings first before reacting.
  2. Ask yourself what the situation really means to you. Evaluate the situation. What does an annoying co-worker, a promotion given to someone else or a bad review really mean to you? Take time to process what’s most important and what you want to focus your energy on. If it’s not something that will matter the next day or even the next year, it’s not worth draining your emotional energy.
  3. Acknowledge the other person’s point of view. Maybe you feel like a boss keeps questioning your competence despite all your hard work or a coworker seems to question your motives. Rather than viewing them as personal attacks, try to understand where they’re coming from and find any truth in their statements. Then, verbally recognize it.

For example, when someone asks you “Why did you do ABC instead of XYZ?” Calmly reply, “I did ABC for these reasons (state them). But in hindsight, I see why XYZ would be a good alternative and I’ll try to do that in the future.” Remember, you’re not necessarily agreeing with them, just acknowledging. With deliberate practice, you can separate the perceived attack from you and take lead in the conversation rather than letting the conversation drive your emotions.

  1. Talk it out. If you’ve already done steps 1-3 and still feel troubled about the issue, talk to a trusted colleague. This may help you gain clarity on whether your personal feelings on the issue are right or whether it’s time to let go. Remember to demonstrate to the other person that you’ve considered the situation as thoughtfully as possible. Relay your sentiments and your understanding of the other side so the other person can understand your thought process.

This person can either be a listener or an adviser on a course of action. For example, a close supervisor might be your voice of reason to let you know, “So and so behaves like that all the time, it’s probably not worth your while.” Or a mentor could be someone to help you take the next course of action if they see it’s a serious matter to address.

“Don’t take it personally,” might not always be the best advice when we invest so much time and effort in our work. It’s okay to be human, be disappointed and have feelings when things don’t happen the way we expect. However, it is equally important to maintain a healthy balance when encountering those disappointments so that they don’t rule our lives.

This article was originally posted in August, 2017.

This post is part of GovLoop’s millennial blog series, First 5.

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Tammy Seleski

Thank you for this great article. I often re-evaluate how I react and respond to others and how I perceive things. I figure if I check myself first, I’m diffusing any negativity that might make matters worse.