science of us

How to Detach Emotionally From Work

Years ago, at an Office Space–type job, I had the thrilling task of organizing a digital system for our documents. It was not a particularly exciting project, nor was it one that required any level of enthusiasm. After spending hours on it, however, I took it personally when my boss decided to change my entire system.

“Honestly? This doesn’t sound like a big deal,” my friend said when I complained about it later. I was indignant. How would he feel, I asked him, if he worked all week only to have someone undo all of it?

“Am I getting paid?” he replied. “Then I don’t think I’d care.”

His indifference contradicted every work instinct I had, but in a way, I admired it. Because while an emotional attachment to work can make you happy, too much of a good thing can have the opposite effect. It’s quite possible to be too emotionally attached to your job.

***

When you’re too attached to your work, it becomes a major part of your identity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, maybe especially if your work is creative. You’re a writer, an editor, a photographer — it’s part of who you are. The danger is in letting it become all of who you are. As one therapist put it over at PsychCentral, “we link our behavior, our performance, our productivity, with our self-worth” when we obsess over work. It sounds ridiculous, but when my boss rejected my new filing system, it almost felt like she was rejecting me, as a person. On a larger scale, this level of emotional investment in your work can make the unfortunate event of a layoff even more harrowing. Losing your job can feel like losing your entire identity.

But being too emotionally attached can have drawbacks even when your job is going well, in that it may make it harder to accept useful feedback or criticism. In her book, The Objective Leader: How to Leverage the Power of Seeing Things As They Are, author and professor Elizabeth R. Thornton makes the case for objectivity, using her own career as an example. Thornton’s business was so bound to her self-worth that when the business started to fail, she was in denial. By the time she could see what was happening, she writes, it had cost her nearly a million dollars. And like Thornton, those of us with a strong desire to succeed may take our jobs so seriously that we have trouble detaching our emotions from reality. To return once more to the silly example of me and my filing system: There’s a good chance my boss changed it for the better, but I couldn’t see that, because I was so attached to my job and the task at hand.

But objective thinking is necessary even when you’re right. By looking at your work as it is, you can make a better case for why your approach makes more sense for the team or the company. After all, you’re not wrapped up in why it’s better for you, so you can make sure it’s better, period. In other words, objectivity helps you perform better as an employee, and research supports this. In a 2014 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers tested how subjects performed a problem-solving task, depending on their emotions. “Participants in negative mood performed worse than participants in positive mood, but both groups were outperformed by the neutral mood reasoners,” the abstract concluded. Indifference may be underrated.

***

Again, some level of emotional attachment to work makes you happy (and likely highly productive) so the solution isn’t to detach from your job completely — it’s simply to recognize when you’re too attached.

For example, if you can’t find anything else to talk about with people aside from work, that’s a clue. “How’s work?” my mom asked once during a visit. For 30 minutes straight, I filled her in on every detail, accomplishment, annoyance, or paranoid suspicion I had related to my career. “How’s everything else?” she then asked. “Good,” I said and shrugged, having no idea what else to talk about.

In her book, Thornton points to several “mental models” she found in researching how mind-sets can influence workers’ performance. A few of these include:

• “I need others to like me and think I’m smart.”
• “I constantly compare myself with others to determine my value.”
• “I have to be perfect in everything I do.”
• “My self-concept is based on how well I can control people and outcomes.”

These models make it difficult to work objectively, and if you feel strongly about any of them, it’s likely your feelings are too wrapped up in what you do for a living.

***

Whether you want to stop complaining so much, establish an identity outside of work, or just approach your job more objectively, there are a few ways to embrace on-the-job indifference and still maintain your productivity.

Try complaining just a little bit less. Though a healthy amount of venting can be beneficial, you have to complain deliberately, with a purpose, and avoid dwelling on the issue. But when you find yourself itching to complain, ask yourself why you’re complaining in the first place, even if it’s just to get something off your chest. Then, consider setting some ground rules for your complaint. For example, my husband and I each budget a three-minute work complaint after work hours for the sole purpose of getting the day’s issues off our chest. Otherwise, we try to only complain about work if we’re seeking a solution to a problem.

Be deliberate about being objective. In her book, Thornton says that once you identify your own lack of objectivity and limiting mental models, you can begin to replace them with the principles of objectivity. For example, she writes, remember that there will “always be situations we don’t like” — but in order to productively deal with day-to-day problems, you first have to acknowledge that they exist.

Another gem from her book: Keep in mind that you can’t control the results of your actions. Accept the possibility that even if you’ve tried your best at something, outside forces can still contribute to your failure.

Remember that you are more than your job. In psychology, there’s a concept called self-complexity. It suggests there are many facets to your identity, and research shows that exploring them can help you cope better with experiences like failure, stress, or depression. It’s important to embrace and derive value from other roles in your life, including your relationships and your hobbies. Schedule time to reach out and have a drink with an old friend (seriously, actually put it in your calendar), make time to learn more about photography, or finally pick up that second language you’ve been meaning to learn. The ability to detach emotionally from your work can make you better at both living and what you do for a living.

How to Emotionally Detach From Work