The Sensational Shift with Susan Bernstein, MBA, PhD
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Feel like crying at work? Here’s why that’s fine.

Painful portraitYou’re not supposed to cry at work, right?

But there’s a particular situation that can make almost any smart, hard-working professional burst into tears on the job.

I call this instance of moist eyes and sobbing at work “The Big Delta.”

The Big Delta happened to me a number of times when I’d knocked myself out on a big consulting project. For example, for a big healthcare conglomerate, I’d burned the midnight oil for multiple nights in a row, putting together a gigantic PowerPoint deck of slides to persuade them to reorganize their business.

I’d learned a bunch of new skills to do the analysis, like stochastic calculus (don’t ask me — I don’t actually remember what it is anymore). I made sure that I’d looked at every detail, from every angle I could think of, and planned to impress them with my analysis. I’d be sure to convince that reorganizing the way I recommended was the best path of action.

Then, I had my “big reveal” moment. 

I presented my findings in a formal meeting. The consulting partner in charge of my project was supposed to present my analysis. But he had a family emergency.  So I got to make the presentation instead.

So, there I was, describing my findings proudly (and a bit nervously) directly to the CEO and his executive team. I did my best to keep my voice and hands from shaking, as I lead these leaders through the charts and graphs and story of why they needed to reorganize in this particular way.

Then I got to the end.

The CEO was stony cold toward me. He showed no changes in his facial expression through the 15-minute presentation. No questions.

He glared at me and said, “Hmm, well, thanks so much, dear.” (I hate it when anyone calls me “dear,” but especially someone in power.)

He went on, “Your strategy is totally flawed. Let’s start with your basic premise…” 

I was devastated.

I’d just been shot down.

In an instant, my mind was flooded with thoughts like:

In that moment, my eyes started to water, and tears streamed down my face. I hunted around for tissues. I wanted to hide my face.

If you’ve experienced anything like this, I’d call it The Big Delta. 

In science, “delta” is shorthand for “difference” or “change.” There’s a big delta, or gap, or difference between what you expected and the feedback you heard.

You were expecting praise (or at least appreciation), and you got the opposite.

So, why do the tears turn on? Why does The Big Delta make you cry?

Because you’re experiencing a sense of shame.

Shame, when prolonged, is a highly toxic emotion. When you feel shame, you’re questioning your self-image and self-worth.

If you cry in a moment like this, it’s highly likely that your tears are mourning a loss. 

What have you lost? You’ve lost the expected appreciation, and unexpectedly got criticism instead. So you’re also experiencing shock.

The next time you experience The Big Delta tears, here’s what you can do:

Give yourself a big dose of compassion

To avoid turning your embarrassment or upset into shame, it’s super important that you have compassion for yourself, rather than beating yourself up.

When you cry at work, avoid turning on the angry parental type voices in your head. So instead of telling yourself “Stop crying! Snap out of it!” Turn the voices into something like, “I’m sorry this situation is so hard for you. Things will shift.”

It’s also helpful to calm yourself with long, slow, deep breathing.  You can also put a hand on your chest and imagine breathing out from your heart. It’s amazing how quickly that can calm you down.

Get objective

Once you’ve calmed down then you can ask yourself some questions to learn from the experience:

Do an honest assessment of what you can learn from your Big Delta. Look at the difference between what you created and what the other person (or people) wanted from you.

Prepare for criticism

I don’t know anyone who likes to be criticized, especially when you’ve given 1000% percent of yourself. When you receive criticism, it can feel jarring.

I encourage you to respond to criticism with questions.

These are simple questions that can facilitate greater understanding between you and the person who’s not seeing eye-to-eye with you about your performance:

Of course, when you feel under threat, you probably won’t immediately leap to “Oh, I need to ask a question now.” That’s not instinctual, right?

So it’s a great idea to practice these phrases with previous scenarios where you felt criticized.

In the case of The Big Delta, your tears are signaling how much you care. So let them flow. Even if you have to run to the bathroom to do it. And then try the debriefs I’ve suggested. I hope they make you feel better

Want more strategies for dealing with emotions in the workplace?

Check out Sensational Self-Leadership, the 3-month experience I created for professional women, to teach you the tools + techniques to transform your emotions into positive, creative fuel.

The result? You’ll have the confidence and power to make the kind of impact you truly desire in business — and your whole life.

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