Building Mental Strength at Work
Updated: Jan 6
Life's tough, but how often do we stress over the smallest things that really aren’t worth bringing us down? As you navigate the professional world, you realize just how much of your day is spent thinking about work and relationships with clients and colleagues. Is there value in beating yourself up for saying the wrong thing, making mistakes, or not knowing how to deal with a difficult situation? Probably not as much as we do.
I’m a relatively sensitive girl; I don’t feel the need to hide it anymore because it doesn’t make me less intelligent or able to lead. But I watch people be generally unaffected by things that send me into an emotional spiral and wonder how I can get to that place. Do I want to get to a level of not caring at all, though? That’s not my style because I find value in caring how I’m perceived and how I’m affecting others. There’s got to be somewhere in between that allows us to be human yet not be mentally destroyed by life’s shotgun blasts of criticism, mishaps, and letdowns.
Feedback is essential to growth, but it can be hard to take sometimes! As a young tax professional, I dreaded review comments that come so frequently in my profession because it’s just not easy to be continually told how you’re screwing up. I would never have learned, though, had I never received the information needed to do a better job next time. Subjective review comments on things still bother me, because we need to be able to be individuals, but if you’re going to tell me where my typos and technical errors are – thank you! We all make mistakes and I’m so thankful to be surrounded by a seriously intelligent group at work who can help me not look bad outside our walls.
But if you’re really struggling with taking criticism, the first step may be to understand the motives behind the feedback. Is the person trying to help you or hurt you? It's not often, but not everyone is going to be your best friend and may not have your best interest at heart. In those cases, give yourself a mental pep talk before opening an email or having a conversation with people in this camp if you’re unable to avoid the interaction. There likely will be nuggets of wisdom in their words, but you’re going to have to be willing to sift through their sharp delivery. I don’t recommend fighting fire with fire here; it’s not worth your sanity and dignity. Try to take it with a smile and maybe hug yourself after it’s all over, throw darts, ugly cry it out in the corner for 1 minute – whatever you need to do to stay in a positive mental state after those kinds of interactions.
Unjustified or excessive criticism coming from someone who may not be on your side is easier to brush off than when it’s from someone with whom you have a good rapport. This one kills me because I absolutely hate letting people down, especially those I consider my friends and supporters. Generally, these people will have a valid point to their feedback, though, so it’s important to listen when they speak and have an honest conversation. These are the moments that can propel you forward into a better self, if you can swallow your pride and accept the advice.
Don’t Sweat Small Stuff
Will the fact you mispronounced your client’s name one time matter in the long run? Unless you are repeatedly calling him Shane when you know it’s Shawn, let it go. Should you quit your job because you forgot which IRC section covers partnership basis during a presentation? There will be limited resources in the tax profession if we all quit over something like this. Did your dress get stuck tucked into your pantyhose and you unintentionally mooned someone in the office? Ok, maybe work from home the next day and then laugh it off.
The point is that stuff happens, and we need to be kinder and more forgiving to ourselves. Can you imagine being as cruel to a friend as your mind can be to yourself worrying over something as insignificant as those things? We need to become our own friend; forgive and forget the small stuff. “You is kind, you is smart, you is important!” – The Help
Talk It Out
There's no shame in getting help. Period. Find a good friend, colleague, or therapist to talk it through. Someone who knows you well can help put things into perspective when you may be in the midst of an emotional reaction.
Where this can go South is obsessively talking about the same issues over and over; it’s not healthy for you and probably not for the person you’re talking to either. Recognizing the pattern is a huge first step, though, so if you’re just noticing it don’t feel bad – feel good you see it! Now try your hardest to change the tune. That can mean changing the situation (or your feelings about the situation) or finding a way to accept it if it cannot be changed.
Assume Positive Intent
This one changed me. I was sitting in a manager training class at a former company who had a fantastic corporate culture and the instructor hits us with a suggestion: assume positive intent on the part of the person you are perceiving to hurt you. Our minds love to create all sorts of stories, but reality many times is much different. We are not psychics and certainly do not know what is going on in the private thoughts and lives of every person interacting with us. If we mentally assume there is no ill will being thrown at us and look at the situation’s objective face value instead of creating victim stories, the chances of the relationship staying positive are much greater.
People have bad days; maybe they don’t feel well, something happened at home, their dress is tucked into their pantyhose…try to have compassion first before jumping to conclusions that they’re out to get you. In reality, you're probably overthinking it. But, if they really are intentionally mean – realize it’s not you, it’s them.
“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Maybe toughening up mentally isn’t all about being cold and callous to deflect hard situations but intentionally being soft and compassionate enough to see through the negativity the mind naturally wants to create to protect itself from getting hurt. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone takes criticism or faces adversity at some point; just learn from it and keep going.