Open Mind: Masking emotions at work, over the holidays

By Paula Frappier

I attended a webinar recently about masking our emotions in the workplace and I wondered if the same concept may apply when attending holiday social gatherings. 

When we are asked to put on a smile and be friendly and helpful, while inside we feel anxious or helpless, it can take a toll on our physical and mental health. 

Our central nervous system activates and our heart starts pounding, we get clammy or sweaty, and we may forget our train of thought, act impulsively or say things we don’t mean.

The presenter, Francoise Mathieu, studies the emotional consequences of the work we do and the impact on our capacity to work effectively, manage our home lives well and feel whole and complete. 

She shared the concept of emotional labour, which is what occurs when we feel we need to mask our emotions or regulate our facial expressions to meet the expectations of the workplace. For example, the happy and energetic workers at coffee establishments may not always feel as perky as they seem to be when faced with customers who are demanding, ungrateful and who have not yet had their coffee. The picture presented: “smiling face, clenched teeth”.

I feel that the same concept may apply as we engage in the expectations and social demands of the holiday season. Although I am all for setting boundaries and saying “no” to situations that will have a negative impact, occasionally there are instances where we feel obligated to make an appearance at a function or event. 

This may involve talking with people who don’t share our thoughts and values and may behave in ways that are insulting or damaging to us. We may feel the need to mask our emotions and expressions to “keep the peace,” our goal being to just get through the event.

I believe this to be emotional labour, pretending or faking emotion for the perceived greater good of the company, family or event.  

Mathieu refers to this as “surface acting.” We feel we must remain cordial, smiling and interested, while inside we feel stressed, panicked and want to escape. We try to live up to the social rules or expectations others have of us. This causes us to experience emotional conflict; calm on the outside but actually feeling “flight or fight” responses internally. 

It is difficult to wear this “mask” for a prolonged period of time.  Eventually it can become too much and the risk is that we might lose self-control resulting in changes to our thinking, increased impulsivity, or acting without weighing the consequences.

The internal pent-up agitation can create tension that may take hours to leave us, potentially taking its toll on us and depleting our overall wellness, making us feel numb and disconnected. Emotionally exhausted. 

So what can we do to protect ourselves? 

Finding someone who understands our stressors can be helpful. Evoking the feeling of “we are in this together,” and “we got this” can be supportive and may provide an appropriate, safe place to vent and demonstrate true emotion. Pacing the number of uncomfortable situations can also help. 

Accepting one or two challenging social events while also attending other more relaxed ones allows time to re-establish balance.

It is even more important to be intentional about your wellness over the holiday season. Not all family gatherings or events result in the warm and wonderful feelings that are often promised this time of year. 

So go, and be aware of your own emotional discord. Breathe deeply, acknowledge your feelings and make time to be at peace looking after yourself.

Capturing moments of the season just for you to be quiet, reflective and on your own terms is a good way to re-establish a grounded sense of your mental wellness through the demands and expectations of the season.

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Paula Frappier is an occupational therapist and community education coordinator at Homewood Health Centre.

The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help. For local mental health resources/information, visit or call 1-844-HERE247.