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Dealing with The Trough: When Work Sucks

By Katherine Craig

Ottawa Human Resource Professionals Association, Up-Date Magazine, March 2014

When we get our first 'grown up' job we veer between fascination and dread. Movies about young titans in the corporate world dance in our heads like the Sugar Plum Fairy. We think, "That could be me! With hard work, cunning and some luck I could be making a fortune in no time!"

What doesn't play in that vision is "The Trough", those times when work leaves us feeling like we're drowning. I didn't call it The Trough until a few months ago. A colleague sent me a poem by Judy Brown that resonated with me, drawing on the imagery of struggling to stay afloat on a stormy ocean, seemingly stuck in the trough of the waves, unable to see the shore.

This is something that's rarely discussed outside the coaching environment. At work we are consumed by the development of things like high performance teams, building skills to manage one's boss and staying cheery. These are great topics, however their pursuit can lead to the expectation that they are the sum of our professional lives and, as a result, we primarily focus our attention externally. There is a time and a place to acknowledge The Troughs and focus on whatís going on inside us. For some, the internal focus is a difficult place to navigate.

Many of my clients opt to get feedback through a confidential EQi™ leadership assessment. The basis of the EQi™ is that there is a set of measurable emotional characteristics that good/great leaders possess that make for healthy leadership - a person everyone wants to follow - resulting in corporate profit.

I really like this assessment, as it can take the coaching to a place that often remains quiet: how we feel about our job and ourselves. I can hear readers saying now, "Jeepers, that's no mystery! I tell my pal/wife/boss how I feel about my job all the time!" That may be so, as there are some people who process their thoughts out loud. However, I am talking about questions like, "What if I'm just not good enough?" or, "I've been in a slump for a long time, what if it just isn't going to get better?" These are the deeper questions we all ponder at one time or another. The young person who dreamed of having Mark Zuckerberg's success seems far, far away.

We don't tend to share these intimate thoughts with others, as they feel like a secret that makes us vulnerable. What if someone thinks we are weak? What if we plant ideas that infer we're not capable? The confidential nature of coaching ensures that the disclosures remain under lock and key. For those who haven't had the will or opportunity to access coaching, the thoughts remain buried and we carry on discussing everything but these self-doubts, which haunt us at 2:00am.

The true nature of The Trough
The EQi™ has a measure called "reality testing". It measures your ability to see things as they really are and recognize when your emotions are causing bias. Dealing with The Trough requires you to "lean in" to reality. When we're in The Trough it feels like the dip has been going on forever, that it will never end. This is not true! The certainty we have is that nothing remains the same. That is the true reality.

To keep within the ocean analogy, emotions can act like the ocean tide that can pull you out to sea. Even if you've never been pulled into a strong current, most have read about how to deal with it: you don't fight against it, or you will panic and might drown. Instead, you keep calm and swim with the current, gradually making your way towards the shore. It will take a while, but you will have a good chance of making it to terra firma.

Are you in a Trough? Itís time to make a plan for getting yourself back to dry land. First, try answering these questions:

  • Do you tend to "catastrophize"? Could this be one of those times?
  • When exactly did you start to feel like this? ("Forever" is not a real answer, be specific.)
  • Do these feelings/situations happen to you often? How often? (Be as precise as possible.)
  • What tells you these feelings aren't normal? Is it possible these are normal feelings and you simply haven't allowed yourself this time of quiet between highs?

This is when it's handy to have a session with a coach, or time alone to sort your thoughts and feelings. At the end of this reflection you might decide it's time to make some changes in your life. Or maybe you decide that you were just in The Trough and, while it felt like forever, it was just your emotions amplifying everything.

Life isn't a Hollywood movie
Our lives are less like Forrest Gump and more like an episode of, well, our lives! Each of us has been given the capacity for a range of emotions and they each play an important role, as the EQi™ research informs us. The key is to understand the emotions and the role they play in our work and leadership. No feelings are "bad" by nature. It's what we do with these feelings that can be detrimental to us personally, or to others.

Be patient with yourself. Often we exercise patience and logic with others that we don't gift to ourselves. Do a reality test on your assumptions: is it logical that you will be happy all the time? If your trough is unusually deep, make a plan and head for the shore. Other than that, rest and gather your energy because the crest of the wave is coming your way and you will wake up refreshed and ready to swim.

The Trough by Judy Brown (2012)

There is a trough in waves,
a low spot
where horizon disappears
and only sky
and water
are our company.
And there we lose our way
we rest, knowing the wave will bring us
to its crest again.
There we may drown
if we let fear
hold us in its grip and shake us
side to side,
and leave us flailing, torn, disoriented.
But if we rest there
in the trough,
in silence,
being in the low part of the wave,
keeping our energy and
noticing the shape of things,
the flow,
then time alone
will bring us to another
where we can see
horizon, see land again,
regain our sense
of where
we are,
and where we need to swim.

Katherine Craig is the founder & CEO of Spearhead Executive Coaching, a dynamic organization dedicated to helping individuals and companies achieve greater success through the delivery of high-performance coaching programs. To comment on her story, send a message to Katherine@spearheadexecutivecoaching.com.