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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Help! I'm Too Emotionally Invested in My Job

Dear Fran,

I like my job—most days, anyway. The work is interesting, I generally enjoy being around my co-workers, and I'm paid well enough. Here's my problem: I get way too wrapped up and emotionally invested in my work.

Ever since starting in the professional working world, I've been taught, and told myself, that I should care about my work. And I do. But I realize that when things don't go well at work, it really affects my mood and my happiness.

Sometimes it's stuff beyond my or even the company's control—one of our partners backs out of something, or throws us a curveball, and I wind up feeling personally responsible. Or, worse, if I see my boss and team making decisions I believe will hurt our company, I get really upset and frustrated, since I can't stop it. (I should mention, I don’t think anyone is being malicious here, just incompetent.) 

I know that some decisions aren't mine to make, and sometimes I don't see the bigger picture. But there are also times that I see them making decisions I know are bad for us, and it's so frustrating to care about the direction our company is going when I can't shape it.

I don't know how to care about work, but not care too much. I am struggling to find a balance between wanting a good career, and wanting to be passionate about and engaged in my work. What am I doing wrong?

—Emotionally Invested

Dear Emotionally Invested,

I’m tempted to ask you what’s wrong with being emotionally invested in your work, but I hesitate because your letter leaves many important questions unanswered.

For example, how is your mood and your happiness affected when things don’t go well at work? How unhappy do you become? Do you isolate yourself, obsess, or have trouble sleeping? Are you unable to concentrate on your own work or life outside of your job? If so, talking to a therapist might be helpful. Also, is there a chance that you’re particularly focused on work as a source of your unhappiness, when it could stem from something else altogether? Happiness should not and cannot come from your job alone. And if it does, I would say to make a strong effort to find some activities or relationships other than work.

Next, without fully knowing your situation, it’s hard to weigh in on your notion that your boss and your team make “bad decisions that will hurt the company.” What I will say is that I think we should always try to base our opinions on observable evidence. Be really honest with yourself about this: What evidence do you have that your boss and team make the wrong decisions? Have you continually seen them make decisions that turned out to adversely affect the company? Is this a pattern? If so, I wonder why their bosses keep them on. I also wonder why you don’t speak up if these decisions are made in a group setting by the team.

Here’s an exercise to try: For a few months, write down every decision your colleagues and bosses make that you’re privy to, along with what you would have done, and then record the outcomes when they come to pass.

See what comes of this investigation. Are you able to show hard evidence that someone or one specific team is steering things way off course? Hopefully, this exercise will give you one of two things: Perspective that highlights the possibility that they’re doing something right after all, or facts you can then bring to your manager. I would caution you, however, that if you do bring the situations to your manager, be sure to present it carefully and respectfully.  I don’t think it will be helpful to tell your manager that you would have made better decisions in past situations. Rather, I’d say register your concern about the direction taken before the outcome is known. But either way, the results of your investigation will be helpful to you.

Now, whatever you find, here’s a fact I have a lot of evidence to support: There are some things that happen in this world that are out of our personal control. Even the highest level executives and entrepreneurs have to come to grips with that. Remember this, and when things get tough, consider whether you might be needlessly worrying over these things that you can’t control.

You may find mindfulness techniques, meditation or other calming activities helpful in this. I also suggest you try keeping a mood log, which helps many people identify and clarify their feelings, and also get a handle on their behavior in response to those feelings.

First, decide which feelings you want to record, let’s say happiness, anger, frustration, anxiety. Make note when you feel a high level of any particular emotion. Identify which emotion you feel, rate its intensity, and record answers to the following questions:

  • What was happening, where, who were you with?
  • What went through your mind (thoughts, images)?
  • What were your physical sensations (e.g., heart racing, sweaty palms)?
  • What were you doing just before you felt this way?
  • What did you do after you had the feeling (e.g., your behavior response)?
  • Doing this diligently for two weeks can help you start to understand what specific actions, behaviors, or situations trigger your frustration. Another key question this will help you answer is whether your habitual response to frustration is hurting or helping you. If you become angry or crabby and take that out on colleagues, friends, or significant others, I encourage you to find ways to change that, such as using anger management techniques.

    And finally, I suggest you try one or two positivity exercises every day for a month, such as:

    1. Choose a pleasurable activity to do alone or with someone else (e.g., going to a movie, writing).
    2. List three things you’re grateful for (e.g., pedicures, the kindness of a friend, your adorable dog).
    3. I think these exercises might help you focus on improving your life outside work, which might then improve your overall happiness.

      All my best to you in your career, and your life, and thanks for writing,


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      Photo of upset woman at work courtesy of Shutterstock.