Big Feelings (book Review)
I chose this book, Big Feelings, by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, based on the social media hype and discussion about it. Many will be familiar with the illustrations and comics by this pair of workplace and development consultants. This is their second book (the first was No Hard Feelings from 2019, which looks at effectively expressing and controlling emotions at work - still in my to-read pile). This latest book looks at seven difficult feelings that can emerge at work and in life, and is especially relevant in the time of COVID (when the dominant feeling was languishing). Published in early 2022 and subtitled, "How to be okay with things are not okay", the book promised to be immediately impactful. And to some extent it was, but ultimately fell short of my expectations.
The book sets the stage well for what's to be covered, promising both difficult information and effective strategies, and it mostly delivers on these. The seven "feelings" are: uncertainty, comparison, anger, burnout, perfectionism, despair, and regret. Each chapter looks at one of these, telling a story (usually the experience of one of the authors), busting some myths, and presenting several strategies for dealing what ails you. The language is accessible without being oversimplified, and the accompanying illustrations are powerful representations of the messages. I flagged a lot of bits that I will likely revisit and reuse (ex. regarding uncertainty: "We don't resist change, we resist loss."). I found the chapters on uncertainty and regret interesting from the perspective of planning and decision making, and liked the chapter on comparison, especially the distinction between envy ("I’ll have what she’s having") and jealousy (I want hers).
There were several times that I thought it was either over-generalizing, missing an obvious element, or just wrong. For example, in the chapter on Comparison, the focus is on the potential debilitation that can come from comparing yourself with others. While much of this is good (don't compare your worst performance against someone else's best (i.e. the "highlight reel" of life that people put on social media)), it seems to miss some (to me) obvious other considerations, such as broadening your comparison pool (consider more examples) or, even better, comparing to yourself (compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today). I also questioned how Comparison and Perfectionism (as important as they are to identify and have strategies for) qualified as "feelings". Similarly, Burnout (even as presented) is both a cause and an effect of several of the others (esp. Uncertainty and Despair). As there was often overlap or repeating between these sections (I found myself flipping back a few times thinking, “didn’t I already read that?”), there was a sense of disorganization about the structure and content, with both redundancies and gaps.
At the same time as over-generalizing, there is a clear bias towards women, specifically younger early-career women, which likely reflects the reality of the authors themselves. Almost all the stories and case studies included are about women (in fact, the only stories about men that I recall are about gay men or about the authors’ husbands). I felt this was a huge, missed opportunity, as a challenge these days is that cis-males (my own generalization now) continue to be expected to suck-it-up and be-strong, and their feelings of hurt, abandonment, anxiety, or insecurity are seen as either no big deal (especially in comparison to any other sex or gender) or even, in some instances, deserved based on historical privilege. If the target audience for the book is women, perhaps that could or should be plainer from the start, as men (especially but not limited to cis-males) will find little comfort here. Also, several of the stories and examples are about feelings associated with pregnancy and mothers, which both alienates those for whom those are not issues (i.e. me, but also older women or any non-cis-female in general) and further emphasizes (and suggests as a root cause) an entirely female vulnerability that is neither inclusive nor equitable. The book is also loaded with "quizzes" making several bits feel a bit like a Cosmo magazine ("take this quiz to understand your anger/despair and what to do about it").
I think these difficulties relate to the authors themselves, who get into some pretty deep psychological waters without any apparent training or education in this area (none that are obvious in their bios or online information). Almost all of what they present seems to come from a) the broad but shallow "research", most of which comprises reading other popular psychologists and quoting them extensively, b) some often mentioned but not explained workshops and surveys that they themselves did, including inviting emails from "readers" about the various topics (itself a sampling bias), and c) their own experiences, which by definition are unique and therefore difficult to apply more broadly. Perhaps if the book promised less, "this is what you should do," and more, "these are our experiences and thoughts," it might have been more palatable. Instead, it comes across as patronizing.
The main redeeming elements are the illustrations, which present important and poignant ideas much more clearly and empathetically than most of the writing. And as I said above, there are some bits of the writing that do express ideas clearly and helpfully, just not enough of them to make the rest of it either enjoyable or helpful. Several of the suggested actions can be helpful when helping a friend or colleague who is experiencing one or more of the big feelings, which is likely the best I could have hoped for from the book.
I really wanted to like this book, and in fact mentioned it to several people while I was reading it, excited by the promise of what it would reveal. Sadly, I didn't get there. I will likely read their other book at some point, as perhaps there are some gems in there, too.
Fate: I'll hang onto it for reference to the bits I liked, but I'll likely cease recommending it to others. Books by better writers and more sound advice givers such as Brené Brown, Adam Grant, and Ryan Holiday) are more worthy of consideration.
NB: this is a good example of a book that can be covered just as easily, and likely with more clarity, by reading or listening to a summary on an app such as Blinkist. This gets to the main take-aways without the redundancy, sidebars, or gender bias.
What books or writing have you found to be helpful in navigating through difficult times – one that you would recommend to others, or just one that you found personally helpful.
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.