Sassy Psychologist: All Zoomed out? Unmute your emotions

It’s been approximately one year since our lives were turned upside down. Social distancing, wearing masks, disinfecting groceries, and using conferencing apps were so out-of-the-ordinary that we couldn’t fathom enduring the pandemic for longer than a few weeks. And yet here we stand 53 + weeks later - masters at eyeballing distance, wizards at laundering masks, sharpshooters with disinfectant spray, and graduates in conference applications.

In this once unheard-of reality, resiliency has prevailed for many of us. Concepts that once left us breathless and anxious are now part of a new normal for which we have contingency plans, to-do lists, and coping mechanisms. Scheduling Zoom meetings are no sweat, managing breakout rooms can be done in our sleep, and sharing documents to an online audience is carried out without a hitch.

However, while we can now be labeled virtual experts in virtual meetings, it is my hypothesis that too many of us are unaware of how, exactly, these online meetings are affecting our emotions, thought patterns, and general well-being. I’d like to bring to light how certain elements of online meetings can yield unfounded insecurity and negative emotions that in turn, leave us confused. “Why am I feeling this way? The meeting was fine, but I’m left feeling gross.” To rectify this confusion, our minds try to search for explanations. Too often, these explanations are irrational, and we end up drawing false conclusions about ourselves and others (“I’m no longer competent.” or “My colleagues are so insensitive.”).

Let’s walk through that one more time:

Online meetings might leave us feeling bad.

These negative emotions are confusing and anxiety-provoking, especially when the online meeting went decently well.

In an attempt to cope with these emotions (which appear to zero have merit), we reach false conclusions by blaming ourselves or our colleagues to explain the discomfort. (Some of us might even avoid the emotions all together because they are scary and pose a threat to our well-being which is already hanging by a thread).

This article is about placing blame where it is belongs and the peculiar nature of video conferencing is the prime suspect. We must stay in touch with the fact that visual online communication is still new to us and often gives rise to negative emotions. We must feel these emotions and seek compassion and understanding for the difficulties we continue to endure as a result of virtual communications.

Case Example

One of my clients expressed she had been feeling uncomfortable in online meetings with her colleagues. Meetings at work were never her favorite thing but her colleagues were generally kind, insightful, and respectable people trying to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Pre-pandemic meetings were doable and were often a platform for touching base, sharing opinions, and showing support. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, work meetings have left her feeling insecure, judged, and incompetent.

Here’s what she was saying to herself.

“I haven’t participated much - don’t I have anything valuable to say?”

“Everyone looks so unimpressed. Who knew that my colleagues were so cold?”

“I’m scared to say anything. I feel judged.”

“What I just said had no substance.”

In therapy we had to reduce personalization (taking things personally) and jumping to false conclusions about herself and about her colleagues. Essentially, she was so confused and alarmed by the emotions she was experiencing that she jumped to erroneous conclusions about reality which was affecting her mental health.

But why? Why would an otherwise intelligent, compassionate, and open-minded individual, suddenly, reach conclusions best suited for a high school student worried about her book report presentation?

Here’s my opinion.

As children, we sometimes reach flawed conclusions about emotional circumstances because we do not yet understand them. For example, a child who sees their parents fighting for the first time does not understand the complexities of interpersonal interactions. They do not yet comprehend that conflict is an important part of relationships. They do not grasp that the argument has nothing to do with them personally. They do not understand that having conflict does not signify the end of a relationship. Instead, because of their inexperience, they might form faulty conclusions like, “Mommy and daddy don’t like each other. Maybe they don’t like me. Maybe it’s my fault.”

I believe that we are all innocent and inexperienced children in the face of online communications. Having had a whole year to become fluent in the language of quick invites, unmuting audio and potato filters doesn’t safeguard us from the (very normal) negative emotions that emerge as a result of truly new concepts and circumstances like online visual communications. For some, these emotions are so strange and anxiety-provoking that they impulsively reach for quick explanations, exactly as children do. Often times, negative false conclusions are made about ourselves and our co-workers to provide a quick and easy explanation. However, in lieu of blaming the innocent, we should turn our attention to the following list of blame-worthy culprits.

Let’s talk about what’s really making us feel bad during online meetings.

The Psychology of Looking into A Mirror.

Our web camera has the tendency to make us feel like we are looking into a mirror. Classic experiments in social psychology illustrate that mirrors lead to self-awareness which, in turn, trigger acknowledgement of our morals and standards. Therefore, if your pre-pandemic standard in team meetings was to deliver information efficiently and concisely, you may be left feeling upset with your performance in current meetings. Pandemic stressors and the nature of online meetings have thrown a wrench into the way we normally participate, making optimal performance difficult and, sometimes, impossible. If looking into the Zoom “mirror” does, in fact, trigger our ideal standards, we will be left feeling disappointed in ourselves should we have a misstep. Essentially, looking into the “mirror” while making an error or having a slipup may result in harsh and unfounded self-criticism.

Social-Self-In-Motion

On the coattails of the last point, there is, however, a difference between the Zoom "mirror" and your average mirror. These digital meeting mirrors allow us to see ourselves in action. We are not posing with a hand on our hip, or with the camera angle pointing down, or with our neck stretched out to avoid our supposed double-chin. We are looking at the self we become on the fly - our elusive spontaneous interactive self that has no choice but to respond to the world around us in real time. Unless we happen to be reality TV stars, this entity has been largely invisible to us while known intimately by our family, friends, and colleagues. Zoom is giving us an opportunity to see our strengths the way our social circles do, however, we are out of practice in linking our self-in-action to our sense of identity.

People Are STILL Distracted.

While we may have adopted many strategies and back-up plans during the pandemic, situational factors of our current reality still prevail. One of these constants is that our homes are still our offices. Dirty dishes, grocery lists, laundry, and children remain in our periphery and in that of our colleagues. Regardless of our accomplishments with Zoom, or our cleverly designed home offices, or our fresh new co-parenting skills, as long as the pandemic persists, understanding and tolerating distractions must triumph. After a year of dealing with the COVID crisis, we may have lost sight of the fact that in-home distractions still exist and will cause people to look disinterested, unimpressed, and under engaged in online meetings. Distractions are yet another culprit to consider in lieu of taking things personally in online meetings.

Desperate for Human Contact

At this point in the pandemic many people have voiced they are desperate for human contact. Therefore, we might look to our colleagues for a double, triple…quintuple dose of camaraderie and support during online conferences. However, as we’ve been discussing, disappointment is inevitable in online meetings - and disappointment intensifies when desire is desperate. Basically, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. With high hopes and expectations brewing subconsciously in anticipation of an online meeting, you might be left feeling significantly discontent when this meeting leaves you feeling (misguidedly) confused or unsatisfied or insulted.

It Feels Robotic.

In only being able to work with audio senses and limited visual cues, online meetings feel robotic, despite everyone’s honest efforts. Let’s think about this. How do you talk to your Alexa? Without any passion, or expectation, or trust. And how do you react to your Alexa? Without regard, or acknowledgment, or esteem. Unfortunately, these words just might accurately represent the online dynamics occurring between ourselves and our colleagues.

This Is All Happening Outside of Awareness

You may have already considered the variables I’ve listed so far. However, while you may be aware of them intellectually, do not underestimate their ability to sneakily creep up on you, affecting your mood and making you feel bad. Subsequently, you might falsely attribute your mood to a colleague’s comment or a mistake you've made. Now, while it is possible that a co-worker upset you or that you are unhappy with your performance, if you find yourself frequently and uncharacteristically feeling bad and placing unmerited blame on yourself or others, you should revisit many of the items on this list with an open mind.

Others Are Also Feeling This Way

I’ve just listed many elements that could explain your negative emotions in or after online meetings. If this list resonated with you, it could easily ring true with some of your colleagues. "Can you hear me?" which is typically a tech-check in online work meetings, might therefore have a heavier and deeper meaning. Your teammates could also be dealing with negative emotions that lead to confusion and blame. And with your colleagues also feeling upset, you surely have the distorted cherry on top of a very messy sundae - complete with strange facial expressions, off-beat comments, nervous hiccups, and awkward glances, despite everyone’s very best efforts.

What to do?

Express How You Feel. Too many people judge their own emotions harshly, so the chances of people talking about their feelings of insecurity after a meeting are unlikely. All of this is emotional, and the unfortunate truth is that the emotions will go unacknowledged and neglected unless you talk about them. I know this is difficult. It’s not like we have the opportunity to casually catch up with someone in the hallway after a meeting to verify a few things. Individuals feel awkward talking to their colleagues about emotions, especially in the absence of face-to-face interactions. Who knows - perhaps there is limited trust between certain colleagues – after all, they are colleagues, not family. And to that I say, “fine.” However, if there are one or two people you can confide in, PLEASE DO SO. There is therapeutic benefit in expressing your emotions, especially to people who may understand what you are dealing with. If you really cannot speak to colleagues, YOU MUST then seek out a friend, or family member, or therapist with whom to discuss your emotions. You will be very surprised by how a problem grows exponentially bigger in your head until you give yourself the opportunity to talk about it with a trusted loved-one or professional. Choose a compassionate and open-minded beloved and go to town!

Get A Leader’s Acknowledgment. In healthy environments, hopefully team leaders, or coordinators, or bosses are open-minded enough to acknowledge the continued existence of the social complexities involved with online meetings. To individuals in those roles, I suggest leading a 15-minute discussion about Zoom meetings and emotions. Authority figures who, even slightly, acknowledge the negative emotions that still exist in or after online meetings could provide ease and comfort to multiple team members. Just mentioning it could do a world of good.

That Inner Child Needs Tender Love & Care (TLC).

Earlier, I compared our faulty conclusions to that of a child exposed to a confusing and emotional circumstance. We, like that child, also need a little TLC. Whether it be from a loved-one or from our own self-talk, we need to receive compassion in the face of our of negative emotions. Like a child who needs a loving adult to tell them the truth, we must be able to feel our negative emotions, acknowledge our flawed conclusions and replace them with the truth. “No, your presentation wasn’t horrible. You’ve felt horrible often lately in these online meetings and that's because there are complexities around online meetings that make you feel awkward and off your game. We are in a difficult time. It’s okay. You are still the same skillful person. Try again next time if you wish.”

Cover the “Mirror.”

As mentioned in this article, online conferencing has given us the opportunity to look at our self-in-action - we can see ourselves acting and reacting live with our colleagues which can be a great exercise in affirming one's identity. However, if you are not quite there yet, you can try covering the "mirror" as a short-term solution. The ultimate goal will be for you become less and less bothered by your self-in-motion and instead, forge more and more pride during those moments you are directly looking at the talking face that is you. However, for now, to avoid triggering your (potentially) excessive standards, you might consider decreasing self-awareness by covering your Zoom quadrant with a post-it note. I know it sounds a bit weird, but you might find that you can more easily focus on your colleagues and obsess less about yourself when you are unable to look directly into your own face. Whether you think you are bothered by your own image or not, ‘post-it noting’ yourself could be an interesting activity to try. It can provide you with some relief and allow you to muster up enough strength to conquer the next Zoom meeting. Don't forget, this is a temporary short-term solution as you aim to become comfortable and confident looking at your interactive self.

I am convinced that tons of brilliant, skilled, hard-working, and otherwise clued-in individuals are experiencing negative emotions during or after online meetings without acknowledging these emotions, let alone their origins. If we or any of our colleagues experience unexplained discontent after online meetings, it’s time to get the word out that there is more going on underneath the surface. The pandemic’s aftershocks are long lasting and far-reaching. In the name of mental health, don’t let your guard down just yet when in comes to your usage of conferencing apps. We are still new to it all. Compassion, understanding, and tenderness remain important companions as we navigate the world of online visual communications. Check in with yourself. Feel your emotions and let them guide you to the loving truth that you are still that competent, brilliant, and hard-working individual - online meetings be damned.

This photo comes from a troupe called Scream Dance Project (SDP) from Scream Dance Academy in Montreal. SDP is currently working in rehearsals (on Zoom) towards making a new video exploring emotions through dance. For more information about classes, contact scream.montreal@gmail.com or visit academiededansescream.com.

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.

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