Dear youth workers, your feelings do matter

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youth workers feelings matter

Tanya stares at the computer screen in front of her. She is feeling stressed about submitting a proposal which is due tonight. Also, she does not feel fully prepared to facilitate a youth group meeting scheduled later today.

With her phone constantly ringing with calls from youth inquiring about today’s meeting, she’s finding it hard to focus on her writing. But there’s another thing troubling Tanya. Her sister is getting married in two weeks and her team leader has not sanctioned her request for leave despite repeated reminders. Her mother keeps texting her about pending tasks related to the wedding.

 A sense of overwhelm descends over Tanya. She begins to think to herself. How am I supposed to do this all by myself? This is too much. 

Have you ever felt like Tanya? How did you deal with your feelings? 

What kind of feelings do you experience during youth work?

Youth work is a fun, exciting and unconventional field of work. This journey of self and social transformation will bring you joy, freedom and love but it will also bring along other emotions that you might not like to feel such as sadness, anger and frustration. 

We usually don’t talk about our feelings at work, which are mostly conveyed through non-verbal signs. You may notice how a fellow teammate or youth group member is feeling by sensing their vibes – evident through their body language and facial expressions. 

The good part about youth work is that it creates spaces for young people to talk about their feelings.  As a youth facilitator, you will regularly find yourself holding space for others – listening to their aspirations, anxieties and challenges. This requires you to not just be physically present but also to invest your emotional energy in the interactions. 

While listening to another person’s dreams and achievements can inspire you, there will be times when you will find yourself feeling overwhelmed, especially when you listen to those who have experienced trauma. There is also a good chance that you are reliving that trauma vicariously without being conscious of how it affects you.

A job where you deal with entire communities requires not just physical and intellectual work but also emotional labour. You are expected to control your emotions when you are dealing with community members, clients and co-workers. However, this kind of emotional labour may feel superficial and exhausting after a point of time. It might inhibit you from expressing your feelings authentically and lead to stress, anxiety and frustration. 

Instead of emotional labour, what youth workers need is to learn about emotional work. This kind of work encourages you to express what you really feel as opposed to expressing only certain emotions that are considered appropriate in the line of duty. We’ll explore the kind of space that allows authentic emotional work later in this article.

What happens when emotions are suppressed during work?

Organisations are largely driven by a cognitive culture that focuses on thought processes – employees are pushed to come up with great ideas and follow plans to achieve goals. The missing piece in such spaces is the existence of an emotional culture, which respects the feelings of members.

There is a lot of prejudice against discussing feelings within an organisation. For example, you openly show that you are upset at work and your colleagues tell you that you are being oversensitive. This may push you back into your shell and stop you from sharing your feelings. This is how many of us tend to suppress our feelings and get on with work.

However, your unaddressed and unprocessed feelings can pile up and they might manifest themselves in low motivation, poor performance, job dissatisfaction, strained relationships with colleagues and even compel you to take drastic decisions like quitting your job. If you bring all this emotional baggage home, it may affect your personal relationships and family life negatively.

Why does reason get prioritised over emotion?

We live in a capitalist and profit-oriented society that places utmost importance on fulfilling our duties no matter how we are feeling. 

In this kind of work culture, you are merely seen as an asset and your value is measured through your productivity. You are conditioned to put your feelings aside and only prioritise what is rational. 

In a goal-driven world where targets, deadlines and expectations burden us, we simply forget the crucial role our feelings play. Organisations can be illiterate when it comes to feelings. Rationality tends to be overvalued and emotions remain undervalued. For example, when you want to quit your job, your boss asks you what is the rationale behind your decision but does not ask you how you are feeling at work.

With our need to rationalise all our beliefs and actions, we negate and invalidate our own and other people’s feelings because we want to be practical. We are told to develop a thick skin. We are taught that sharing “touchy feely’ stuff is embarrassing and a waste of time. 

Yet our feelings influence how we perform and interact with others at work.

Why do your feelings matter in youth work?

The idea that people should not show how they are feeling at work belongs to the past. Such ideas are an impediment to the wellbeing of an organisation and its workers.

While doing youth work, thinking from the head and feeling from the heart are equally important. If you lack a balance between these two aspects, there will be friction because your own needs and those of others will remain unmet. 

We need to rewire our work spaces to develop an emotional culture wherein feelings are seen as a catalyst for new possibilities and learning.

Can you find a balance between feelings and reason?

There may have been instances where you might have felt torn between being rational and emotional. This doesn’t mean that you have to choose one over the other.

Reason and emotion can go hand in hand. While reason helps us make plans, organise ourselves and solve problems, our feelings motivate us. Both need to be valued and treated equally. They can often support each other and guide us in decision-making. To make them work together harmoniously, we need to find a balance between them. This balance between the two is called freason.

How to create a 5th space at work to process your feelings?

An organisation can give off an unfriendly vibe and seem unhealthy if it does not allow room for processing feelings. All youth organisations need to create ways for their youth workers to express themselves in a safe way – free from the fear of being judged and attacked. 

As a youth worker, if you feel that you are lacking the space to address your feelings at work, you can try to solve this problem by co-creating a 5th space. 

A 5th space is an empowering experimental space co-created by young people that lies beyond the usual four spaces they occupy, that is, family, friends, education and leisure. It is not a physical space. 

A 5th space respects your feelings, allows you to do emotional work and practice freason.

In their book The Ocean in a Drop, co-authors Patel, Venkateswaran, Prakash and Shankar explain how a 5th space can be created almost anywhere where there are youth. They write, “We believe 5th spaces are not an exclusive domain to be constructed by development sector organisations for their target groups, they could be co-created in any institution that wants to attract and build a community of young people.” So, whether you’re a part of a startup full of young employees or an informal youth club, you can co-create a 5th space.

A 5th space helps youth workers and young people deal with their feelings because it brings forth the idea of feelings literacy. A healthy 5th space gives its members a chance to express their feelings and encourages them to process them instead of burying them inside.

In their book ComMutiny – Sparking An Inside Out Youth Revolution, authors Mahamaya Navlakha and Arjun Shekhar write, “…the 5th space plays a vital role in promoting feelings literacy. The 5th space is not a philosophy or a movement or an ideology; it’s an experience. It is created by those present and lives and dies in that moment. You can’t order a 5th space to be made, you have to painstakingly get people to feel in a certain way. The only marker for an experience is how it makes one feel when they are in it…it is imperative that the space makes a member feel ownership, love, freedom, growth and hope.”

If your organisation manages to create a 5th space experience where its members feel these five feelings, it is likely that their anger, disappointment and frustration will dissolve eventually and not cause tensions in the long run. They will have renewed levels of energy, commitment and creativity. Their work quality will improve and so will their decision making.

Still curious about the 5th space? Read this article to learn more about it.

Tools and resources can help you manage feelings during youth work

If you want to build feelings literacy in your organisation, you can use a tool called Feelometre in your team meetings. It is a reflection sheet where team members rate five feelings (love, growth, freedom, ownership and hope) associated with the space they are in, the reasons why they feel that way and improvements that can be made to fully realise these feelings.

You can download the Feelometre reflection sheet here.

If you would like to read more about the role feelings play in youth work and the 5th space, you can also read the book ComMutiny – Sparking An Inside Out Youth Revolution. It is a fictionalised handbook which follows the learning journey of Sambhav, a young leader. The book takes a deep dive into his personal and professional challenges as he tries to set up a BPO in a village in India, documenting his mistakes and the lessons he learns along the way.

If you are interested in reading ComMutiny, you can buy it at Amazon and Flipkart.

Want to know more about the book before you buy it? You can read this article


ComMutiny – The Youth Collective is a coalition of 35 (& rising) youth-led and youth-engaging organisations across India working towards promoting empowering spaces for youth leadership. ComMutiny aims to be one of the key youth workers’ associations in India. 

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