I wasn’t planning on writing anything for mental health week. The topic isn’t one I’d particularly consider to be in my wheelhouse. I’ve had my bouts with periodic depression over the years but thankfully nothing persistent. I’ve probably been to therapy less than half a dozen times in my whole life.
That said, I’ve always been an emotional person. The rollercoaster has leveled out for the most part, particularly in recent years, but sometimes it still takes me for a surprise ride and I lose my cool. Usually it’s because I’m tired and/or hungry, and the end result is that I become a temporarily incapacitated person whose tear-duct flow rates give Niagara Falls a run for its money.
Don’t get me wrong: I 100% believe that crying is healthy. Over the years, I’ve become more attuned to the catharsis that follows a good bawling-sesh. Unfortunately, that silver lining never helped the inevitable public breakdowns feel any less embarrassing.
It happened all the time: Shakespeare recitations when my mind would go inexplicably blank, tests and quizzes when I’d underperform, mandatory public speaking events when I’d get too heartfelt, that one time a teacher enthusiastically and mistakenly accused of me cheating on a Spanish quiz. And let’s not forget the entire process of puberty. Sometimes the process would start with anger, like when my parents were [rightly and rationally] telling me that they wouldn’t cover my college tuition unless I made a 3.0 when many of my peers were already on their second set of $80,000 wheels. The second I started encountering an overload of feels, my brain would cue the waterworks and shut down.
Then, when I was a sophomore in college, I did an internship where I ran my own small home improvement business. There’s actually quite a lot to this story and I’ll probably write an entire piece on it later, but suffice it to say that the stress of going door-to-door, selling to and managing expectations of difficult clients, and meeting sales quotas while still making decent grades in engineering school overwhelmed me. Thankfully, my boss saw that I was the crying type and made it her mission to break me of the habit. Even though we’ve since grown apart, that’s one thing I will always be grateful to her for. She successfully and effectively Jimmy Dugganed me: I grew a lot that year.
Over the next few years, I made up a word to describe the phenomenon that usually kickstarted my tizzies: “flustrated.” It’s a contraction of the words “flustered” and “frustrated.”
The 9 Stages of Flustration
- Chaotic event occurs that you’re unprepared for.
- You fail to come up with a decent response in a reasonable time frame (read: immediately).
- You get embarrassed.
- You get flustered.
- You get frustrated with yourself.
- Then you remember your emotions are playing on your face like it’s a jumbotron and you get even more embarrassed.
- And more flustered.
- And more frustrated.
- You involuntarily find yourself repeating steps 6-9 until you’ve lost your shit.
As I’ve mentioned before, if 2017 was the year that things fell apart, 2018 is really looking like the year that I’m piecing them back together. If I had to pick a metaphor for it, I’d say the Japanese art of kintsugi sums it up nicely (even if that’s a bit exaggerated). Anyway, I was really proud of myself for not losing my composure at my new job… until exactly that happened a couple of weeks ago.
I know exactly why it happened. It was a combination of miscommunication and a trio of very strong, very different personalities clashing together. Consequently, I got overwhelmed. Thankfully, both of my coworkers were extremely cool about my episode (thanks again, guys!), and I think part of it was because I was able to articulate for the first time (to myself and to anyone) that this is how I naturally respond to stress.
Do I always want to respond to stress this way? Of course not. It’s still embarrassing and not everyone I work with will be as understanding as these guys. But knowing that my natural response to stress is to break down and cry is the first step to figuring out how to sidestep that pattern and form newer, healthier, more professional habits of emotional intelligence.
So, for mental health week, I leave you with this question: how do you respond to emotional stress? And how can you improve or redirect that response to get through the stressful situation faster, cleaner, and more easily?
Best of luck and happy self-reflection!