If you’re a woman, there’s a high chance you’ve cried at work. Here’s the story of the last time I cried at work. It was a public and humiliating experience that left a bitter taste for years. I’ve re-examined this episode since, however, and discovered that I had completely misread my emotions. Had I known how to use my emotions back then, things would have been very, very different.
A breakdown in front of gunmen
Tears streaming down my cheeks, I screamed at the soldier. He was holding a machine gun. But, by that stage, I didn’t see things properly anymore. I pushed him out of the way and ran to open the gate. I waived to the truck standing there to drive in as fast as he could.
In a few minutes, it was all over.
The truck was gone. I felt my adrenaline level collapse. I could see clearly again. I looked around. I was surrounded by soldiers. They looked completely confused. They couldn’t understand what had just happened.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a few months.
The build up to my breakdown
I had been in New Delhi, India for a few years and had just landed a job at a French event management company that was involved in the Commonwealth Games. I had been hired because I was French and spoke some Hindi. My job was to assist the French expatriates working on the project, most of whom did not even speak a word of English.
I was very grateful for the job. I had been struggling to find work for months. But from the onset, there were many things that didn’t feel right. I had quickly found out that I was being paid much, much less than my male counterparts. I also discovered that I was not expected to have any work/life balance. I was at their disposal any day or time they required. But this did not bother me half as much as the way “locals” were being treated.
The average age of the expatriates in the company was over 50, many of whom had never travelled and most of whom lived in luxury hotels, completely disconnected from life on the ground. As their official helper-translator, I was tasked to accompany them everywhere and liaise with all the locals.
It was a harrowing job. I had to deal with racist jokes and comments. The culmination point was when my then Indian boyfriend - now husband - came one day to pick me up from work. He was treated like a driver.
Bottling up and moving on
Despite the environment, I was eager to do my job well. I was eager to please - something I have always done. The thing about having the “good student” syndrome is that you always want to do really well, regardless of the task at hand. So I put in the hours and the “attitude.” I was always in a good mood and did my best to be as easy to work with as possible.
I told myself that the issues I was struggling with were just part of life. I better suck it up and deal with it. I also knew that most of the expatriates I worked with were not inherently bad people. They were mainly older and had not benefited from the same exposure and education I had.
Frenchmen and a late lunch
The worst part of my job was, unfortunately, a daily occurrence. The company had set up a base inside a very large army compound which made access very complicated. Every day, I had to order lunch for all the employees from a catering company that delivered the food. Every single day the truck delivering the food was held up at one of the many gates on the compound and it took me hours to get it cleared.
The staff got their lunch late every day which got me in trouble (if you want to see a grumpy Frenchman, give him a late lunch). Despite my best efforts, the caterers ignored my plea to send the food earlier to give me more time to get the food through. And to top it off, the staff kept on complaining about how spicy - and uneatable - the food was.
Every day, as we neared lunch time, I could feel the stress build up. Many expatriates had taken to bringing their own lunch, something that I saw as a personal failure. The others would start complaining even before lunch, anticipating that I wouldn’t deliver in time. Every morning I called the caterers early, begging them to send the food as soon as they could. Every day, they promised to have the truck at the gates by 10am. Every day they failed. The truck never turned up before 1pm.
A very public emotional outburst
On just another day, I was sitting in my office with my two phones. I was waiting for the first of many calls from the truck driver saying that the army was not allowing him in.
That day, after the first call, I lost it.
Instead of going through my usual routine which involved calling half a dozen people begging them to get the clearance sorted once again, I walked to the gate where the truck was stopped. As I neared the barricade, tears were streaming down my cheeks. (I have a tendency to cry when I get angry.)
One of the soldiers carrying his machine gun walked towards me. He put his hand out signalling me to stop. I pushed him out of the way. I opened the gate myself. The soldiers were too shocked to do anything. They stood there, watching me. I waved the truck inside.
I looked around at all the soldiers who seemed just as confused as I was. I walked back to the office, without a word.
Experiencing the shame
I remember clearly the confusion and shame that I experienced on my walk back. On the one hand, I felt tremendous relief that a) the soldiers didn’t stop me and b) the staff would, for once, get their lunch on time. But I also felt tremendous embarrassment - shame even - at having completely lost control of myself. I was angry. I should not have let this happen.
I skipped lunch and went straight to the office to calm down. As I walked in, everything was going on as usual. Maybe, just maybe, this incident would go unnoticed.
Shame caught on CCTV
But as I sat in my office trying to calm my nerves down, my boss walked in with what looked like an army chief. I knew I was in trouble.
My boss asked me to follow them into another building. We entered a room full of screens. The army chief asked one of the men sitting in front of the desks to play a video.
You know where this is going. Not good.
Here I was, screaming, waving my hands around in front of the gate - all caught on CCTV. What I had experienced and remembered as a strong push against the soldier was more like a gentle (pathetic?) brush. The funny thing (not funny at the time) was to see that I had clearly struggled to figure out how to open the gate.
What I had experienced as a dramatic, intense moment looked completely ridiculous on screen.
I don’t know what my boss told the chief that day, but I was off the hook. I think they figured that the embarrassment was punishment enough.
I carried the shame for years
This moment was traumatic for a number of reasons. For years, I kept it as a reminder of how important it is to be in control of one’s emotions. It was the proof, if one was needed, that one must not let emotions take over. Otherwise, we do really, really stupid stuff that we regret.
Today, however, I look back on this event in a completely different light.
Looking back with hindsight
Today, I know that, especially for women, crying is often a distress call. I now know that the body’s emotional memory is so strong that even if my mind is telling my body not to cry, the default mode will kick in regardless. It is a cry for help, a sign of distress.
More importantly, today I know my mistake was not to break down in public and fail to control my emotions. My mistake was to have ignored all the warning signs.
Emotional outbursts never come from nowhere, even though they can feel like that. Emotional outbursts are the result of a piling up of emotions that have gone unprocessed, like water level increasing inside a dam until it overflows.
I could not have stopped that outburst even if I had tried harder because, by then, it was too late. I was emotionally disempowered on the day of that outburst. I was emotionally disempowered from the start, in fact. I had been operating in an environment that felt wrong but I never acknowledged my emotions nor voiced my needs.
I didn’t fail on the day I had an outburst. I failed on all the days before that when I didn’t acknowledge what I was feeling and when I didn’t express my needs to the team properly. I was too focused on doing a good job and doing it myself. While I had complained about the situation, I hadn’t done it effectively. As a result, my outburst came as a surprise to my colleagues who, in addition to seeing me as rather inefficient, could agree that I was “emotional.”
Emotional outbursts are the tip of the iceberg
Today I know that focusing on the emotional outburst is to focus on the wrong end of the stick. They are the tip of the iceberg.
Emotions, especially negative ones, are pieces of information that your system sends to itself to keep you safe. They’re a little bit like an alarm. You don’t always have to act on the information, but blatantly ignoring it just means that it will come out again later and much stronger. Just like an iceberg, an emotion might not seem like much when you first look at it. But underneath there is a lot keeping it upright.
The journey towards emotional empowerment
Emotional empowerment starts, well, at the start. Emotional empowerment starts when you learn to process your emotions and learn to use the information they give you in your decision making process. Emotions, used (or ignored) the wrong way often feel like enemies. Used the right way, however, they become useful allies.
If I could give my younger self advice, I would tell her to pay attention to what is going on and to what her emotions are telling her. I would have told her not to abandon herself in her eagerness to please and do well. This would have helped her feel more empowered and it would have helped her colleagues understand better the situation she was in.
Today, I am emotionally empowered. I still cry but I’ve prepared my entourage well enough that they can handle it. They see it as another form of expression.
Today, I still have emotional outbursts. But I don’t feel shame. I see them as the tip of an iceberg that I need to investigate. I see them as information - because that is exactly what they are.
There is tremendous social stigma and shame associated with emotional outbursts in the workplace, especially for women. I know, I’ve been there myself a few times. But focusing on the emotional outburst misses the point. It is a sure way of keeping in place a pattern that involves ignoring your emotions until they explode. Over and over again.
It is much more useful to use the information provided by your emotions BEFORE you reach that stage. And if you still experience an emotional outburst, use that as an insight into what is going on instead of a hammer to hit yourself on the head with.
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