November 3

Fixing your emotional meltdown at work

I look at that email. An alarm goes off in my head. I start seeing red. I read the email once. Then twice to confirm what I’m reading.

Then I walk off to the next office, where the manager, the one who sent me that email sits. She happens to be talking to the director at this point. I hold up the paper in my hand, waving it at her so that she sees it through the transparent window.

The director motions for her to come out to see me.

What proceeds is a discussion about rules, procedures and policies. There are heated exchanges. Raised voices. I cannot remember exactly what was said, but the manager eventually says,

I’m sorry but I have a discussion that I have to go back to. She leaves me there.

I’m not sure what I can say.

I go back to my desk in the other office. As I sit down, my head is racing. I’m not sure why there was such a big fuss. But in a way, when I touch my heart, I know that something has gone wrong. I would probably get into trouble for this. For insubordination. For questioning a manager.

That morning, I received an email from the manager. It copied everyone in the team – directors, assistant director, supervisor, administrative staff, and said,

I wish to place it on record that John… has failed to submit the form on time for the second time,

giving the same reason as before…

That was enough to trigger me into an emotional meltdown.

Why do you need to prevent an emotional meltdown?

Dealing with the aftermath was not easy. For one, I was subject to a Performance Improvement Plan. That’s basically a get better or get sacked plan. There’s a clear set of criteria that determines what you should do. Feeling disappointed with how I had performed, and how the organisation had put me under such a plan, I disengaged. I stopped contributing to meetings.

I would hate for a PIP to happen to anyone.

There are some who say that a PIP can galvanise people to work harder. That’s a discussion for another day. But for today, let’s be in a place where you can metabolise your emotions effectively, so that you don’t even have to end up in that position.

Emotional meltdowns at work, may not be so common these days because of the lack of physical contact with colleagues at work.

But it still happens. It may even happen more often due to the distanced nature of work today. Mediated by a screen, your colleagues may be more direct, harsh, and insensitive.

They may not be tuned into the non-visual cues that would normally be present in an in-person meeting, such as the flushed cheeks, the slight frown, the anger you may show.

  1. What is an emotional meltdown?
  2. Why does an emotional meltdown happen?
  3. How do you address it?

What is an emotional meltdown?

There are many definitions for emotional meltdowns, but I would define it as:

Losing control of your emotions.

Or people perceiving that you have lost control of your emotions.

There are two aspects to this definition which are important to note. The first is the loss of control internally. You feel that you have lost control.

But the other aspect is when others feel that you have lost control. You may feel calm and composed and that is the normal way of behaving for you. But others may not feel that way. Others may feel that you have lost it.

That’s when feedback may go up to your boss… and you may be in for trouble.

Thus, emotional meltdowns can occur on two planes – internally and externally.

But what does a loss in emotional control, internally and externally, look like? In Bruce Tulgan’s great book ‘Bridging the Soft Skills Gap’, he argues about how today’s workers face a dearth in their soft skills. It is true. Showing a lack in these skills may show people that you have had an emotional meltdown, and that they can’t trust you anymore.

Having an emotional meltdown is simply un-professional. There are no excuses for it. You’re an adult. As unhappy as you are, you can walk out, take a deep breath; rather than going kamikaze, screaming your head off at the other person; but also putting yourself in the position for the sack.

Let’s look at the two different aspects so that we can reduce the possibility of it happening to you.

Let’s start with what happens inside you, and what happens outside you.

What an internal emotional meltdown looks like

What internal emotional meltdowns look like
What internal emotional meltdowns look like

As you can see from the soft skills that Tulgan reminds us above, an internal emotional meltdown involves the breakdown of your

  • positive attitude
  • people skills
  • self evaluation
  • personal responsibility

Why? If you lose your positive attitude and you rip into your colleagues for the substandard work they give you, they may not take it too nicely.

Then there’s the people skills. There are some gestures you may make consciously (or unconsciously) that may lead people to feel that you have lost emotional control. For example, my supervisor once pointed out that when I disagreed with something, I would start frowning. Others would start being quite sensitive to this, as I looked unhappy or angry with them. Being able to be emotionally controlled is about being able to control your verbal and non-verbals.

It’s about being careful with leakage. Often, even when we don’t say anything, our lack of emotional control can leak out in other ways. Another example. I was once unhappy with my supervisor about how she was pointing out my flaws. Angry, but knowing that I had to respect the hierarchy, I said,

Sometimes I feel like an ant.

Step out of line and SMACK!

emotional meltdown at work
Sometimes being an ant under a microscope can push you to a meltdown

I smacked the table. It was another way I was showing a lack of emotional control, even though I was not explicitly expressing it verbally.

Thirdly, if you are unable to evaluate your thoughts and actions internally, others may find you incongruent. When you make the transition from school to work, realise that you need to start making more regular self-evaluations.

Unlike the academic freedom of university, where you could ask stupid questions, answer without much critical thinking, there’s a greater cost in workplaces. You need to think before you speak. People might otherwise think that you’re not emotionally controlled.

It can be great to sound passionate about what you’re saying. But there is a balance. Balance it with numbers, statistics and logical thought so that people trust in the credibility of what you are saying. It also appeals to the different people in the room.

What an external emotional meltdown looks like

Then there’s what happens externally. As you can see from my own story in the workplace, it was a problem with followership.

Tulgan's list of soft skills in the workplace
Tulgan’s list of soft skills in the workplace

Having an external emotional meltdown thus involves the two elements under Tulgan’s arguments about what followership looks like:

  1. Citizenship
  2. Respect for context

I failed to have respect for context , respecting the hierarchy in the organisation, whether or not I agreed with them. Every workplace will have a hierarchy. However much people talk about flat hierarchies, there is bound to be a decision maker. Fighting in front of him may not be the best option.

I failed to have proper citizenship, observing the rules of the workplace I was in.

How do you overcome an emotional meltdown at work?

Now to the part we’ve all been waiting for – the how-tos. How do you overcome an emotional meltdown?

When I look back, I realise there is a three part process of

  1. Prevention
  2. Awareness
  3. Remedy
Preventing, knowing the warning signs, and remedying the aftermath of an emotional meltdown can help you.

1. Prevention

On the day my meltdown happened, there had been lots of things going on around me. I had just come back from leave. Immediately, my plate was swamped with competing demands for my time. I wasn’t sure how to address all of them immediately. Then there was the issue of sleep. All that stress had resulted in me sleeping poorly.

These physical things can result in you finding it difficult to control your emotions when something negative happens.

Knowing your triggers helps in addressing them. Like it or not, you’re going to be triggered in some way at work. That’s why you may not always be happy at work. Someone has rubbed you up the wrong way. Knowing what pushes your buttons and making a conscious effort to have a plan to work through them, avoid them, and cope with them when it happens, helps you to better address your triggers. For example, one major trigger for me is shame.

When I feel publicly humiliated, I shut down. I stop talking to people. I play the silent war.

My plan has to been to work with my therapist. I thought that I could avoid them as I did previously, but it didn’t happen as easily. Thus, coping with them when it happened (rather than thinking if it happened) was a plan I failed to have. That caused my meltdown.

Today, take time to look back at conflicts you’ve had, with family, friends or colleagues.

  • Are there consistent themes/patterns?
  • What often triggers you to respond negatively?
  • What has helped you in the past to address them?

2. Awareness

Often, we focus on the emotional meltdown and what to do after it. Instead, focusing on the leadup can help you to better address the issues.

The bottom part here is an extract of the action plan in my Performance Improvement Plan. I share it because it’s been the most useful part of preventing future meltdowns. Being conscious of the warning signs helps you to take active steps to get headspace. When these warning signs appear, there should be a positive autopilot in your head that leads you to do something positive.

Things I personally find helpful are:

  1. Take 10 deep breaths before I do or say anything
  2. Go for a walk away from the place that’s triggering these warning signs.
  3. Ask if you can ‘get back to them’ later
Warning signs BEFORE emotional meltdowns
Warning signs BEFORE emotional meltdowns

3. Remedy

Can I speak to you for a moment?

I don’t think there’s anything to speak about.

The manager deadpans.

I’m lost for a moment. I know that I want to apologise for what’s happened, because it was my fault. I had made the mistake with the form, and going up to confront her disrespectfully was also not nice of me.

But I persisted.

She eventually relented. I apologised to her for what happened.

Her face softened.

She smiled.

Take time to learn, young man.

When you have an emotional meltdown, sometimes it can feel like the end of the world. And it can be. Especially with the consequences. But it can also be the start of a renewed relationship with your colleagues, with your organisation, and most importantly, with yourself.

Emotional meltdowns force us to think about whether we’ve been spending enough time on ourselves.

Because when we lash out at others, we inadvertently lash out at ourselves. We may have been ignoring our feelings. We are saying to someone,

You don’t really matter. I’m not going to consider your feelings. My feelings are more important.

Your feelings need space. And when you don’t give them space, you end up foisting it onto someone else who happens to in your path that day. It’s like the calm before a tornado. Calm calm…. And then suddenly the tornado strikes.

Take time to consider how you can be kinder to yourself during this time. Work is important, but it’s not all that’s important.


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