Work emails feeding your anxiety? Here’s how to manage your negative thoughts

Work emails feeding your anxiety? Here’s how to manage your negative thoughts

When you read your office emails, do you ever catch yourself thinking that your boss secretly hates you? That coworkers think you’re an idiot? Or that your manager is actively looking for someone to replace you?

We can fall into distorted thinking in virtually any situation, but work emails make especially fertile ground for negative thought spirals.

It can go something like this: You open a two-sentence email from your boss with no greeting or reassuring exclamation points and the next thing you know you’re telling yourself that they think your total imbecile and you’re probably one mistake away from getting the ax.

These types of negative thought spirals can sometimes last hours, days, or even longer. They can feed feelings of anxiety and panic, interfere with your sleep, negatively affect your relationships, and lead you to make rash decisions.

And worse yet, all of this only amplifies and reinforces your negative thoughts.

It’s a vicious feedback loop.

Fortunately, there are effective ways to manage negative thoughts when reading your office emails. Read on to learn strategies you can use to limit negative thinking when trying to interpret what your work emails “really” mean.    

Recognize the limitations of written communication

Work emails can be like digital duck rabbits. Tilt your head one way and you might see a rushed reply from a busy coworker. Tilt it the other way and it’s an intentionally rude response from a toxic superior who hates your guts and, naturally, is determined to make your life miserable.

What’s going on here? What is it about our work emails that they can so easily send our negative thoughts spiraling in this way?

One reason is that written communication lends itself to many interpretations. Emails, much like text messages, lack virtually all the interpretive clues we rely on when we talk with people face-to-face or even o the phone. With email, there’s no facial expressions, tone of voice, volume level, body language, eye movements, or so many of the other countless signals we draw on to interpret our in-person interactions with others.

Reminding yourself of the limitations inherent to communicating via email is one effective strategy for guarding against faulty conclusions. If nothing else, staying aware of how emails lend themselves to multiple interpretations will help you question otherwise automatic conclusions.

Know your negative self-schemas

We all hold cognitive schemas that assist us in taking in and organizing new information. Our schemas, which are kind of like our interpretive guides, also influence how we perceive the information we take in. Part of having schemas is that we’re more likely to notice and emphasize information that supports our personal schemas. Conversely, we easily overlook or even distort information that doesn’t fit neatly within our specific schemas.

Needless to say, our cognitive schemas influence the way we read our work emails, often leading us to misinterpret them. If I hold the self-schema, for example, that I am unlikable to others, I am more likely to “find” evidence in my office emails that others don’t like me. Even when my boss compliments me, I may dismiss her compliment to maintain my self-schema, leaving it undisturbed.  

But how do you identify your negative self-schema? This usually requires the support of another person, someone who can help us see ourselves from a more objective perspective. Working with a professional counselor can be especially helpful for this task. A skilled therapist can help you not only gain a deeper awareness of your negative self-schema, but modify the schemas that promote your cognitive distortions in the first place.        

Question simple interpretations of email phrases

You’ve probably read somewhere about what certain email phrases “actually” mean. I’ll admit, I get a good chuckle out of these. I also cringe in embarrassment when I read about how others interpret phrases I occasionally use in my work emails, like “Moving forward” to mean “Stop wasting my time and just let it go already.” Or “As discussed” to mean “I don’t want to have this conversation again, so I’m creating a written record just in case.”

While I’m certainly not immune to unintended passive aggression, I can say with complete certainty that I’ve used “Moving forward” and “As discussed” in my work emails simply to say, well…“Moving forward” and “As we discussed.”

Workplace power dynamics are certainly a real thing and email phrases often do come across as passive aggressive. And no doubt, in some cases, a phrase like “Friendly reminder” is meant to be translated as “You’ve had more than enough time – where’s what I asked for?” But ask yourself, does it always have to mean this? Being open to the possibility that a commonplace office email phrase is simply that and only that is yet another way to manage faulty thinking patterns when working through your inbox.

Put your negative thoughts on trial

The conclusions we draw when reading a work email have a way of seeming undisputable at first glance. And they’ll certainly stay that way if we refuse to take a second look.

A helpful exercise in fact-checking a negative thought is to put the thought “on trial.” If my conclusion that my boss must not like me because his email from Friday didn’t include a “Thank you” were put on trial, would it hold up?

Sure, the jury would probably find your boss’s failure to write “Thanks” unprofessional, but would they take this to mean, beyond a reasonable doubt, that your boss dislikes you? Not a chance.

Think about all the other scenarios that are just as plausible, probably more:  

  • Your boss responds to countless emails every day and was prioritizing succinctness over politeness
  • Your boss is older than computers and never learned proper email etiquette
  • Your boss is one of those rare people who truly doesn’t care what others think of them and, for this reason, doesn’t give two shits about email etiquette
  • Your boss’s written communication skills are substandard and it makes them come off as rude and abrasive sometimes
  • Your boss was having a shitty day and wasn’t in the mood to say “Thanks”
  • Your boss is a jerk to everyone; their jerkiness has nothing to do with you
  • Your boss simply forgot to include a “thanks”

While some of these scenarios are still not great, none of them support the notion that your boss dislikes you.

The next time an office email sends you into a negative thought spiral, try putting the thought on trial. I suspect you might find it lacks the necessary supporting evidence.

Check with the sender

While certainly not the most popular strategy on this list, talking with the person who sent you the email that sent your thoughts spiraling is probably the most effective.

This strategy works best when employed in person or, at the very least, via video call. Also, be sure to avoid accusing the sender of intending whatever your negative thought may be. Rather than asking “Do you intend for your emails to sound angry?” try saying something like, “When I receive subject-line-only emails, I worry that the person who sent it may be upset with me. Would you be willing to tell me if I’ve done something to anger you?”

Communicating with someone this directly can often feel risky, especially at work. However, it may be a risk worth taking if your negative thoughts are racing out of control.

Moving forward, just a friendly reminder: as we discussed, you now have some proven strategies for interrupting your negative thought spirals before they start.      

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