The very idea of ‘professionalism’ which demands that we separate ourselves from our emotions and personal concerns at work was invented in order to make mass production possible.
To produce systematically, repeatedly and at large scale required people to behave as predictably as possible. And so we equated a machine-like, rule-based way of being with ‘work’, and did our best to fit ourselves and others into it.
We’re still doing this, insisting that we leave our lives and our emotions out, even in many organisations whose premise and purpose is nothing like the industrial-revolution production machines whose needs gave it birth.
There are many difficulties in this, of course, and much suffering. But what I want to draw attention to here is how much trouble it causes us in learning from what we’ve done and developing our capacity to respond differently in the future.
Because learning and reflection – particularly the kinds that support us in questioning our premises, undoing our rigidity and seeing what we’re blind to – always involve emotions.
In order to question ourselves we have to be able to feel and face and talk about our hopes and dreams, our longing and wishes (which sometimes have us doing the same thing again and again even when it’s patently not helping), our shame and our fear (which keep us from admitting we ever did anything wrong, or seeing what we did that was right), our anger (when something we care for is violated), and our joy (at our successes, at the successes of those who matter to us).
We have to be able to give our own inner-critical voices some ventilation and expose them to the insights of others (lest they hold us in small tight circles, or puff us up and have us fight off anything that might be troubling). And we have to be able to find and feel those emotions that show us when we’re doing something that matters to us, that has integrity, and that we care about.
And perhaps most importantly we have to be able to talk about our wish not to feel certain things – mostly shame, fear, embarrassment, uncertainty – and how it leads us to take actions that we dress up as ‘reasonable’ but which can be manifestly unhelpful.
In a world where we can’t talk about emotions, it’s difficult to learn about and from any of these.
And that gets us into no end of trouble.