The secret sobbing session you had in the office bathroom, the meeting where your hands started to shake, the day you just couldn’t “deal” and had to go home an hour early. It’s easy to believe that, as leaders and employees, we’re the only people who sometimes feel overwhelmed by adulting.
But you’re not alone. In fact, experts say it’s better to not have it all together all of the time, and a “micro-meltdown” – momentarily becoming overwhelmed by our emotions – can even work to our advantage.
“There are a lot of benefits to a micro-meltdown,” says psychologist Madonna Hirning, author of the blog Let Me Flourish. “They can stop people from avoiding difficult feelings, help people to feel more inspired and also, as a leader, make you seem more vulnerable.”
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg outed herself as an office crier during a speech at Harvard Business School (“I try to be myself,” she said). According to experts, emotional meltdowns are more likely to happen at times of transition in a person’s life, and we shouldn’t fear them.
This doesn’t mean an office should resemble a soap opera. “It’s important to strike a balance between expressing your emotions at work whilst also representing yourself well and taking some ownership of the image you wish to project,” says Madonna. “You need to engage in self-care and learn from any micro-meltdowns that do occur. Plus, if the meltdowns are becoming a regular occurrence, that may be a sign that you could benefit from professional help to make some adjustments.”
For now, don’t feel guilty when you emotionally unravel. Here’s how a micro-meltdown can work in your favour.
1. It stops you avoiding difficult feelings
According to the experts, having a micro-meltdown can bring you face-to-face with the very feelings you have been trying to avoid – possibly because you have felt you don’t have time to deal with them, or because they bring up thoughts or emotions that you just don’t want to have or explore.
“In Western culture – particularly in high-pressured workplaces – the aim and the rewards are focused on appearance; happy, glossy feelings wrapped up in achievement and accolades,” says Madonna. “We are bombarded with images in our news feeds of what happy and successful people look like and that becomes our comparison point or measuring stick for how we should be.” The result? We avoid ‘useful’ feelings like sadness or discontentment. “Dark or uncomfortable feelings can lead to questions we may not want to face but need to,” says Madonna. “Instead of putting them on the back burner, it brings these feelings to the top – and we can’t run away.”
2. You connect with what’s important
When we reach meltdown point, we are forced to take notice and assess what is happening in our life. “The unexpected and usually unwelcome loss of control can come as a shock,” says Madonna. “However, post-meltdown is a good time to look at the choices and decisions you have been making and the trajectory that these are placing you on.” Think about the lightness you can feel after a good cry, or the freeness you feel after finally confiding in someone. “You can get the most bang for your buck here if you allow yourself to step back and look objectively at all areas of your life, not just work,” says Madonna. “Assess your level of satisfaction with each and if the degree of time and focus you are placing on each is truly representative of what you most value and how you most want to live.”
3. It releases creative juices
The aftermath of a micro-meltdown can give us a fresh look on life.
“During a meltdown itself you probably won’t be thinking too clearly,” says Madonna. “Your physiology will flood you with stress chemicals that trigger bodily responses such as increased heart rate, sweating and difficulty thinking. However, when the meltdown has subsided and you have re-evaluated the factors, you will likely look at things with a whole new perspective.” This is where the importance of self-cares comes in. Research shows that exercise, meditation and sleep also boost creativity. “By choosing to value yourself and engage in increased self-care activities, such as connecting with loved ones or space to yourself, you are likely to come back to whatever you were working on with a fresh outlook and new vigour,” she adds.
4. You’ll be a better leader
A vulnerable leader is more relatable. “Having a micro-meltdown at work broadcasts to those around us that perhaps we are not the infallible human beings that we try to present as,” says Madonna. “Before you go into damage control, pause for a minute because all is not lost. The advantages of showing this kind of vulnerability is that it makes you more relatable to others.” Some of the world’s greatest leaders are emotionally sensitive – and it makes them more innovative.
“The other unexpected advantage of being vulnerable in front of others is that we are usually more willing to take risks and not play it safe,” says Madonna. “If you are the high-achieving, image-focused type, it is likely that you are fairly governed by fear. If you are willing to be vulnerable and to lose face in front of others, then taking small risks gets easier – even when you’re faced by fear.”
5. It’s a learning opportunity
During your lowest moments, there is a lesson to be learnt. “You can come out of something like this feeling humbled,” says Madonna. “The lesson may be simple – you are not bulletproof and you require nurturing and self-care like everyone else. Or it could be more complex. You have new knowledge about yourself and your limitations and what you need and what matters to you.” Techniques like meditation or free-writing can help to uncover those lessons, or you may choose to confide in a mentor, life coach or seek therapy. “You get to freely choose which direction you take from here,” says Madonna. “Do you learn nothing and stay on the same path or do you take notice of the learning opportunity that has been presented to you to find choices in your life that, until now, you didn’t realise you had?”