How to Recover When Your Bad Mood Shows Up at Work
Sheila K. Wright
Executive Leadership Coach
I am at dinner with a colleague and she tells me over butternut squash soup that I was cranky the entire month of August and part of September. I am surprised, and a little embarrassed, to hear her say this. I am not surprised to hear I’ve been cranky, I already knew that, I just didn’t know it was so apparent. Then she says something else. She says I’ve been a “responsible” cranky person. She means this as a compliment, and I am relieved to hear that I have not been unbearable or horribly unprofessional, but it gets me thinking about moods and the impact they have on my life:
- Thoughts Create Moods
My thoughts create my moods. As much as I might try to tell myself that my circumstances create my mood, I know it is the thoughts I let hang around that create my mood.
- Moods are Malleable
I am proud of the fact that I can shift my mood into a more productive mood in any given moment by thinking new thoughts. This is a skill I have practiced for years, and I am deeply grateful for the training that taught me I do not have to be subservient to my thoughts and moods. This is also a focal point of the coaching I do with my clients.
- Moods Impact Results
I have a lot of evidence to support my belief that the moods I am in, and the correlated thoughts I am having, translate into direct results in my life. When I have changed my thinking, and, subsequently, my speaking, I have gotten radically different results and opportunities—without fail.
- Awareness of Moods Leads to Choice
Despite all this personal evidence, I still, at times, tolerate disempowering or negative thoughts in some areas of life. I usually notice I am doing this and, at some point, will have the opportunity to make a different choice and create a new mood.
Here is where it gets tricky and what I found myself ruminating on after my dinner. During the months of August and September, I did not stop generating productive moods, I was doing that every day. Before client calls, I generated a mood of ambition and care; when I had a setback in my exercise plan, I generated a mood of acceptance and self-love; when half the roof blew off my house, I generated a mood of gratitude that I have the resources to deal with emergencies. And it worked. In each case, I could see new, clear actions to take after choosing a more productive mood.
I can now see that this is what a “responsible” cranky person looks like. We don’t throw all our training out the window, but beneath all the productive moods there may be lurking a pervasive mood that colors our entire experience of life.
I traced my lurking mood back to an interaction I had in July: I was working with a major client in the month of July and another client had an emergency request. I could not handle their request, but she repeated her request until I said yes and completed the work she wanted me to do. Those are the facts. What I thought about how that went is not quite as straightforward. I was angry. I felt bullied into accepting the request. I started thinking things like, “this is never going to work,” “I have taken on too much,” “they are pushing me into a situation that is going to have me fail at everything I am working on,” and, my favorite fallback, “time to shut it all down and move to Mexico.”
Sometimes, I was aware I was having these thoughts, sometimes I was not. But conscious or unconscious, these thoughts were keeping me trapped in a mood of distrust, resentment, fear, and resistance. I found myself annoyed at any little request from this client. Someone with whom I had previously had strong affinity, occurred almost as an adversary.
And, the longer I let this mood go on, the less power I had. My ability to say no to anything seemed to completely abandon me. I found myself neck-deep in projects I did not want to do, which added more validation to my assessments that this was not going to work. My quality of work was not great, I was forgetting things and breaking agreements, and I could tell that people were getting frustrated, which in-turn increased my stress level.
Okay, let’s stop for a second here. Reading this, it may seem obvious that there were solutions to this problem, conversations to have, requests to make, etc. But, it didn’t seem simple at the time. It didn’t seem like I was just having disempowering thoughts and I could choose something else. It seemed like “this is the way things are here,” and I either had to put up with it or get out. I felt stuck.
So why was I stuck with this situation when other, even seemingly more drastic situations like a roof blowing off didn’t get to me?
What Really Dictates our Mood?
We think our moods are a direct result of something that happened to us in the past or something that is happening now. But that is not the full picture. What causes our stickiest, most pervasive moods is what we predict will happen in our future. In fact, the current event is just a trigger. When something happens, our brain pulls evidence from all kinds of past experiences, combines this evidence with the current event, and uses this evidence to draw a logical conclusion about how the future is going to go.
In my case, when I felt pressured by my client, and said yes to the project, it ended up impacting my sleep and my stress levels to the point where I was struggling to concentrate and my brain got foggy. This brought back memories of a job I had ten years ago, in which I was required to work long hours and I was not able to decline projects. The pressures of that job led to burnout and a long illness. It makes sense, when I stop and look at it, that my brain would correlate the two situations and make a prediction about my future that scared me and led to a very unproductive and protracted mood.
How Can we Cultivate a More Productive Mood?
- Bring awareness to the mood.
- Get responsible for the mood.
- Practice new moods.
Bring Awareness to the Mood
Bringing awareness to the mood means to simply identify or notice the mood we are in and the correlated thoughts. To determine if you are in an unproductive mood, notice anything you are tolerating, that you are unhappy about, or dissatisfied by. See if you can see any area of life where you have given up on something or you have distance with people you care about. Just notice it. Notice if you have started to think about and respond to it like, “that is how it is and there is nothing I can do about it.”
The fact that I was in a mood and that it was caused by my thoughts and fears of the future was not obvious to me. I was convinced I was responding to “how it actually was.” Once I brought awareness to my thoughts and my moods, I could start to get responsible for them.
Be Responsible for the Mood
To be responsible for the mood means to recognize that we are the ones who are perpetuating the thoughts that are creating the mood and to then choose to act to bring resolution for ourselves. In my case, simply seeing that I took what happened in the past and added it to this situation with my client, and that the client did not “do” anything to me, was the start of being responsible. But there is more to be responsible for.
This may not seem rational, but there is usually something juicy we get from staying in a bad mood. Maybe we get to blame others for the way things are going, maybe we can use it to manipulate people or situations, maybe we just get to be right about things. Scientists say that we can even get addicted to the chemicals released in our bodies when we are in a bad mood or in high stress. In my case, my hard-to-detect benefit was I could deny responsibility for the pickle I was in, and justify why my performance in both areas wasn’t up to my standards.
The “Price We Pay”
Commonly, we won’t give up our juicy benefit until we recognize what it is costing us. In my case, it was coming dangerously close to sabotaging my relationship with a client whose partnership means the world to me. Someone who had invested a lot in me and whom I could see myself working with for the rest of my career…before this happened. It was also costing me my vitality. I was tired, and (as mentioned) cranky. I wasn’t enjoying my work or my free time.
Once we recognize we are in a mood that is disempowering us, how do we get out of it? It is actually simple, but it does take practice. After bringing awareness to the mood and being responsible for it, here are the steps to practice:
- Give up any judgements that you have about yourself in this situation or about the mood you are experiencing. Afterall, moods serve a purpose; they only become problematic when we get stuck in them. In my situation, I had to give up the judgement about myself that I was not “good enough” to handle a fast-paced business. I also had to give up that my mood of crankiness and resentment was unprofessional, unwarranted, or unforgivable.
- Consider the message of the mood.
Look at the thoughts that are correlated to your mood. What future possibility are you committed to that has been thwarted? I saw that my mood of crankiness / resentment was a flashing light that I had given up on the possibility of having a balanced life where I got to contribute to others, be respected in my industry, and also have a fun, healthy, and fulfilling lifestyle.
- Choose a new mood to cultivate that supports your commitment. I recommend stating it out loud, for example: “I am giving up being angry about _____, and I choose to be curious about ______.” I created a mood of acceptance: “Yes, that thing happened in July, and I didn’t like it. I am giving up being angry and cranky about it.” I also chose a mood of gratitude: “I’m grateful for the work I get to do, the trust this client has in me, my current state of well-being and health, and also for the generosity of my colleagues in letting me be human and have a couple of ‘cranky’ months.”
- Pay attention to the shift that happens when you consciously choose a new mood. For example, what new opportunities for action occur to you from within this new mood?
- Don’t give up. It can take time to retrain our brains. We may need to consciously choose this new mood many times before it becomes our new default mood.
What Happened Next
Once I did the work to bring awareness, to be responsible, and to create a new mood, I saw new actions to take to resolve the situation that triggered my mood, including:
- Cleaning up my mess: I began finishing all the projects I had started or telling the truth about not being able to do them. This is still in progress.
- Having conversations: I had two key conversations.The first was with the client I felt had pressured me. I took responsibility for my reaction and shared openly about my past professional experiences, why the interaction between us had triggered me, and how I let that impact our relationship. She was incredibly generous and, while there may be some trust to restore over time about my reliability, affinity was instantly restored.The second conversation was with the boss of my client, the CEO of her company. This conversation revealed a huge blind spot of mine: sometimes, I THINK I am saying no, but I am not actually saying no. When she told me that I don’t say no, I was genuinely surprised. I started giving examples of times when I had said no and my no was not accepted. And as I did this, I started to see that I say a lot of other things – wishy washy things about time and interest; I ask questions about how important it is to them, etc. The point is, I don’t just say, “no.” We recalled one instance when I gave a flat-out no and, in that instance, she had accepted my no and we never spoke of that project again. Mind BLOWN.
The Life We End Up With
This particular case of recognizing my thoughts were impacting my mood and then choosing to generate a more productive mood, turned out to be life-altering for me. I have the possibility of a much brighter future than I had sub-consciously been expecting, with more power and freedom than I thought possible. I now see that I can have a satisfying and difference-making career without the fear of burn-out or an imbalanced life. For me, this was an incredible reminder that it is not an accident how my life goes; my life goes as my moods and thoughts go.