Breaking Point: 10 Steps for Surviving Tough Emotional Moments

August 2021
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Even in the best of times, it can be hard to control our emotions. But we haven’t been living in the best of times. 

Most of us have experienced some level of stress or even trauma as a result of the pandemic, whether from isolation, fear, home-schooling, job loss, illness or the death of friends and loved ones.

It’s natural to be feeling a little “raw” emotionally and unpracticed socially as we reenter the real world. In this environment, emotions can unexpectedly rise to the surface and catch us off guard — even in the most ordinary circumstances, like talking with co-workers or speaking up at meetings.

This is to say nothing of the usual high-stress situations we know are going to pose challenges: interviewing for a job, communicating a tough message in a presentation, revealing something personal about ourselves at a teambuilding event, or delivering a toast or eulogy.

We’ve all been there.

During the height (or depth) of the pandemic, I was sleep deprived and stressed out juggling the demands of my business with my wife’s own busy career, all while dealing with two children under five in the house.

It’s safe to say I was not at my best!

During an otherwise ordinary conversation with some colleagues on Zoom, I confessed that I was struggling to be the professional I want to be and the father my kids need me to be.

I almost didn’t get through the sentence. My throat caught, my face flushed and my voice broke.

If you’ve had a similar experience, whether in good times or bad, here are some ways you can manage your emotions, maintain your composure and get through these occasions successfully.

1. Give yourself a break.

First, know that it’s OK. Yes, losing a bit of control, especially in a work setting, can be uncomfortable or embarrassing. (And for women, of course, it’s especially perilous as it plays right into traditional stereotypes and biases.) 

But try to keep in mind that we’ve all been there and most of us understand. As the saying goes, “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

2. Practice aloud.

When you are able to anticipate a tough emotional moment, it can be helpful to talk it out. Rehearse your message over and over, out loud, until you feel reasonably comfortable with it. 

3. Understand your emotional triggers.

If there are parts of your message that are especially tough, then try adjusting the content. Think about how you can rephrase, reposition or steer around them.

4. But be ready for surprises.

One of the toughest messages I’ve had to deliver was my father’s eulogy almost 10 years ago. I was ready for what I thought would be the hardest parts. But surprisingly, it was a small, seemingly innocuous detail that tripped me up. 

Describing a childhood fishing trip, I noted that, at the end of the day, my dad baited my hook with the last piece of shrimp from the bucket. Suddenly a rush of emotions came out of nowhere — thinking about him looking out for me as the “baby” of the family, feeling undeserving of the privilege versus my siblings and more.

So, yes, prepare — but also beware!

5. Be careful with eye contact.

Normally, I advise speakers to look audience members in the eye. But that can be tough under difficult circumstances. Believe it or not, in these moments, looking at people you don’t know well may be easier than connecting with those you’re close to.

6. Tune in to your body.

Get a sense of the physical sensations that indicate you’re about to lose control. We all have our own “tells” — flushed skin, a crack in the voice, wobbly knees, that weird “out of body” floating feeling. When you start to feel that, manage it with the next few steps.

Also, something I always tell people in my presentation workshops is that nobody can see your knees shaking or your hands trembling. Except perhaps when you’re holding a piece of paper in your hand. So if you need notes, then keep your hand down to your side when you’re not referring to them. And put them on stiff index cards so they don’t flutter as you do.

7. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

Proper breathing is fundamental to disciplines as diverse as acting, yoga and marksmanship. It calms and centers you and feeds oxygen to the brain. When we’re under stress we tend to hold our breath, so be mindful of that and keep breathing. Also, before your time in the spotlight, take three deep, cleansing breaths.

8. Relax your muscles.

If you feel your muscles tightening up, do your best to relax them. Unclench your jaw, loosen your hands, maybe do a shoulder roll. An important indicator of tension is when you start speaking from high up in your throat instead of down in your chest. Visualize sending your voice downward where it belongs.

9. Pause when needed.

If you start to get choked up, then simply pause, take a breath and collect yourself. And don’t compound the stress by stressing out about your stress! Believe me, people understand. In fact, an occasional pause at the big moments can be helpful rhetorically. 

10. Don’t over-apologize.

The instinct here is to say, “I’m sorry” over and over. You have nothing to apologize for. If you want to say it once, that’s fine, but know that people are pulling for you, and they’re not nearly as worried about it as you are.

Bonus Tip: Avoid it if necessary!

My friend and presentation expert Patricia Fripp points out that before speaking on an issue that involves you emotionally, it’s always safest to be sure you’ve had time to actually process that experience. 

That’s a luxury you won’t always have, but when you do, it’s probably best to give yourself some time and space.

And when you don’t, remember to extend that grace you give others to yourself. You’re human, and your humanity is part of what attracts people to you. It’s a strength, not a weakness. 

Return to Current Issue Spotlight on Health & Wellness | August 2021
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