I’ve heard that having the ability to control emotions is a sign of great emotional intelligence. This involves consciously deciding how you feel, instead of letting your subconscious fool and control you. While it may be true that I now have a level of emotional intelligence far superior to that of my teenage self, getting here wasn’t easy. Growth is a choice that takes time and constant effort. No one hands you your growth solely for showing up, you have to earn it, and earning it means walking through all the uncomfortable situations’ life throws you into.
My ability to put my feelings on pause comes from a need to survive, and even still, I am far from a master. I believe this handy little trick developed over the years, partially from me suppressing my emotions (unhealthy, yes?), and partially from me realizing that I am in control of what I feel and I can control when and if I decide to do something about it. Breakdown after breakdown led to me say, “I am not in a place where I can deal with this right now.” Ahhh, a revelation, personal growth at its finest. Ultimately, this works by deciding that “now” is not a good time to deal with an issue and filing the unwanted emotion somewhere in the brain and circling back to it later, or forgetting about it completely. Not every problem needs to be dealt with, some problems will go away or work themselves out on their own. Take a quick scan of where you are mentally and physically, and choose to handle the situation in a way that is not damaging to your mental health. It’s okay to take care of yourself and it’s okay to say, “I will deal with this later.” It’s okay to say, “I will get back to you when I can give you my undivided attention.” People will appreciate when you can speak to them about emotional matters in a healthy mindset that is unclouded and filled with good judgment. Sometimes the first emotional response, while good to pay attention to, isn’t the best one, and that is why it’s okay to press pause and come back to the tough stuff later.
Let’s talk about a time when I didn’t pause my emotions, and it led to a complete meltdown at work. Shame, shame, shame. We can’t always control our emotional response and how you instinctively feel is certainly valid. But, our choice, or our control, is in how we react and of course, how we learn from our experiences.
Once upon a time, during a review at work, I had the above mentioned meltdown. The work review had come during a time when I was severely stressed out. I had a lot going on personally but as far as the actual work I was doing, I felt pretty good about it. Before the review, I felt confident. I had finished a big project on my own and was satisfied with my work. Yet, as i soon discovered, my employer thought differently. Even though there were no complaints about my actual work performance, there were complaints about my personality. (I know, right?) The words said were unexpected and made me feel small. The review was less of a review, and more of a critique on me as a person and, well, I got defensive. In that moment I chose to stay and fight, but I shouldn’t have. I stood up for myself to no prevail. Then, feeling weak and helpless, I started to cry. (Because, of course.) I tried to defend myself, but as time went on, I got more worked up, and I was not thinking clearly. I was failing. That moment would have been a perfect opportunity for me to pause my emotions and say, “I need some time to process this. Can we continue this conversation later?” Even if my employer didn’t fully understand at the time, pausing those emotions would have saved both of us the pain and discomfort of me having a meltdown at work. I could have explained later after I had time to process, and I was in a better mental state, that I wasn’t in the mindset for a difficult conversation. That their critiques of me were unexpected and unfair. If I had handled it better, maybe we could have begun to understand each other. At the end of the day my employer would have been on-board with rescheduling, or I would have at least realized that I was not a good fit for their culture.
Crying at work happens. I’ve done it personally and I’ve seen it from others. We are human and, breaking news, we have emotions. Unless you’re a sociopath, you probably have feelings. You have moments where the stress gets too thick and the tears start flowing. I can rant and rave all day about how important it is to let ourselves authenticity feel and show vulnerability, but let’s be real, work is the last place we want to be ugly crying. So, when and if the work cry happens, how do we deal? How in the entire world was I able to muster up the courage to show my face in the office where they had seen me at my worst? Where they had made me feel totally worthless?
I left the office that day, feeling horrible. Not only had I cried in front of every single person I worked with, I had just been attacked, about my personality, about who I am. I did feel worthless, and honestly, bouncing back was difficult. Before I began working at that place I was confident, strong, and to my knowledge an okay person. In three seconds all that was shattered, by the words that two people said to me, by the thoughts of two people. Let’s be clear about something: that is not okay. Nobody gets to decide your worth but you. But, that is easy to say, right? How did I actually come back from that anger and my now low self-confidence?
First, I had to stop beating myself up for all that I wish I would have done or said, I can’t change the past. I wanted to crawl in a hole and die after crying, but I also needed my job, so I had to get over it. I am human, I have emotions, sometimes they sneak out. Second, I had to think about what was said and decide if any of it was actually true. Is my personality truly bad? Or, am I being misunderstood? I know I have flaws, but overall, I think I’m a decent human/employee. Lastly, I had to decide if I was going to let these people have control over my happiness… F no. Sometimes the strongest thing you can do when you are feeling weak is to keep showing up. To keep moving forward, even if it’s uncomfortable. That is what will make you stronger. And while you are doing that, be mindful of your mental state and if necessary, plan your exit strategy. If your intuition says you deserve better, you probably do. I decided that that place wasn’t a good fit for me a long time ago, and after months of being miserable, I am out. In the mean time, it’s okay to pause your emotions. In my moment of weakness, I wish I had. My coworkers did not deserve to see my vulnerability, they didn’t deserve any emotion from me at all, but it happened and I had to deal with it. In the future, I will know that it’s okay for me to back down, to pause and say, “excuse me, I need to use the restroom”. There, I will take a moment to gather myself, check-in and see if I need to deal with this tough conversation another day, or at all.
Take care of yourself and know your limits, but more importantly don’t beat yourself up if you have a setback. I promise you it happens to the best of us. Most of us are human. Sip your coffee and get on with your day.