The Art of Caring Too Much

Image source: Nik Shuliahin.

by Kurt Krumme

posted on 03-07-2018

We’ve all met nice, seemingly friendly people who for some reason, go mildly insane once they’re behind the wheel of a car. You might have even been that person on occasion. Blowing past a cyclist who was slowing you down, honking and maybe shouting a few obscenities out the window. Emotions are funny that way and at work they can be just as amplified, and for equally strange reasons.

If you’ve ever had a confrontation at work, you can probably identify with the intense feelings that can come on. Maybe you don’t lose your temper right away, but you find yourself stewing about it later or throwing up your hands in resignation. The following tough-love tips are intended to help you become an emotional Goldilocks — never too hot, never too cold.

You are the problem

Well kind of, but you’re also the solution. This isn’t about blame, it’s about empowerment. Understanding that you define your feelings and responses to situations can be freeing. The maxim “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, makes an important point: People can only upset you if you let them. Understanding that you have some control over your situation and how you respond to it can be a powerful realization.

Don’t say you don’t care, ‘cuz ya do

In an intense discussion it can be tempting to disengage with something along the lines of “Fine, we can do it your way. I don’t care.” Friends, anyone who says they don’t care about something after talking about it for more than three minutes is obviously lying and worse, they’re not giving their coworkers much in the way of options for dealing with their dissatisfaction because the door has been slammed shut.

If you feel an “I don’t care” welling up inside you, release the frustration by admitting that your viewpoints are so far apart that the current discussion may not yield a solution. You might need a third party to weigh in, or perhaps both ideas can be tried at the same time. Maybe the issue isn’t critical and it’s better to let the other person have their way on it to preserve some political capital for something down the road. If the other person is more senior than you, consider accepting that you’ve made your viewpoint clear and need to trust their decision. All of these are better options than the workplace equivalent of taking your toys and going home. You do care and that’s a good thing, so don’t betray that dedication by claiming you don’t.

Critique is not the same as criticism

When you’re evaluating someone’s work or ideas, the first reaction for some people, like maybe the person writing this article, is to find things that are wrong with it. Finding mistakes, oversights, and implausible assumptions are critical to succeeding, but it’s only half of the equation. Evaluating work isn’t just about finding what’s wrong with it, it’s about figuring out what’s working and building on it. You’re working with professionals so it’s not very often that you see work that’s entirely without merit.

If you need to quickly spot and catalogue the problems with something, go nuts and just do it in your head. Get it out of the way so you can put your brain to work looking for things that are working well or have potential. What are you seeing that’s getting you interested and spurring your thoughts towards suggestions that could support and improve it? Fixating on whose idea something is, or what’s wrong with it are the least productive options and will get you the least appreciation and reward – simple as that.

Perspective is everything

This might be the most important concept to master if you’re…overly passionate on a regular basis. There are some jobs that are undeniably critical and where mistakes cost lives and ruin families. If you’re not a surgeon, commanding officer, or air traffic controller then this probably doesn’t apply to you as much, but there’s a lot of grey-area between “life and death” and “meaningless”. Keeping perspective by remembering where you are and what’s actually at stake can help shape your emotional responses to difficult situations.

Final Thoughts

These are things you’ve probably heard a million times but they’re worth considering and taking to heart:

Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle Theodore said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” That’s all anyone can ask from you, and all you can reasonably ask from yourself. A team that works well together will almost always produce better results than a team with more talented individuals that are constantly squabbling. If all else fails, just remember that if you can’t get out of it, get into it. Good luck!

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