I was 26, just getting ready to start a shiny new exciting job, when my fiancé at the time left to pursue a relationship with someone else. Meaning, the engagement ring I wore to my job interview was conspicuously absent when I actually started the new job, and I arrived to my new office mostly sleepless and puffy-eyed.
So how are you supposed to be your best professional self in a situation when you're also trying to figure out where to live, or how to breathe, or how to recoup your losses?
My answer to this question was to become what I thought was surely the world's best actor. When prompted by my new co-workers saying "oh, so I heard you're getting married!" I laughed and with a knowing smile said "oh yeah, well I dodged a bullet on that one, thank God we broke up before the wedding, right!?" Cue big huge smile. In a point of pride at the time, I didn't miss a day of work and maintained a facade of cheer and busyness.
But those emotions and stressors I was hiding from my co-workers began to leak out in ugly ways. I became uncompromising in an attempt to control my emotional chaos. I wound up trying to control my coworkers. I lost patience with others, because I had no patience for my own failure, and no capacity to care for the needs of others when I myself was in so much need at that time. Several months into the new job, I burned the bridge with my co-workers and supervisor, and left.
When you experience a personal crisis, a divorce or breakup, a death, an illness, a major financial setback, it can become impossible to pay attention to anything other than that crisis. And yet, there are things in life that still have to get done. Like your job.
Don't Stuff It
Conventional career wisdom might tell you to straighten your tie and splash some water on your face and go in swinging, like the chipper, competent pro that you were pre-crisis. That was my approach, and while it's an option, I don't recommend it as your daily operating strategy. Emotions are like shampoo in your suitcase. You put some pressure on them and they will come out, no matter how tightly you think you twisted up that bottle. They will spill all over the place and you will be a disgusting mess. Even the best actors will experience emotional leakage. So, prepare.
Own Up Tactfully
The best approach is to own up to the fact that something is happening in your life. You needn't divulge all the details, but at the least share the fact that something isn't normal for you. Say something like "I got some bad news this week, I'm so sorry that I'm not quite myself," or "I just experienced a big change at home, I'm likely to be a little less patient right now than I otherwise would be, and I hope you can bear with me through this."
If I had let my co-workers know ("I'm realizing that what I have going on at home is impacting my ability to be patient at work; I am not at my best right now but I am grateful for your ability to be gracious with me"), I might not have damaged those relationships to the same degree.
At a later job, one of my co-workers told us in a staff meeting, "You've probably noticed that I'm not quite myself lately. I'm getting a divorce, and I don't want to discuss it, but I do think I should let you know what's going on. I'm taking some time off next week, and hopefully over the next month I'll start to be back to normal." It was a gesture that elicited understanding, cut him some slack and kept us all from gossiping about why he was behaving differently (and where his wedding ring went).
The ‘V’ Word
The reason that we don't say things like this often enough is that it's really tough to be vulnerable at work, especially if you're trying to make a great impression or compete for a promotion. It's tough to own up to a perceived weakness, admit you're not at your best, or that you're affected by emotions like love or grief or fear or sadness.
But the thing to remember is that most of the time, people are wondering about your strange behavior anyway, they notice that something about you is different. You're likely already not behaving in a way that makes you approachable and amenable at work if you're feeling affected by a personal crisis. So admit to it, that you're human and experience loss and challenge just like every other human on Earth. Far better to own your experience like an emotionally intelligent person, than to disconnect or act like a jerk or even slip up with no good explanation.
Making a Real Connection
There can be unexpected advantages to owning up to what's happening for you when you experience it. When I later told my colleagues at my next job about the end of my relationship, I built amazing friendships with people who opened up to me about their own marriages, families and personal obstacles. Sharing of real human vulnerability, when done appropriately and in context, can increase your connection to co-workers and improve working relationships.
Take Care and Get Support
Ensure that your crisis is a temporary setback and not a spiral that will cost you your job. Get the help and support you need outside of work. Whether that is counseling, medical care, family support, or just time to recharge, acknowledging your need and taking care of yourself will help you bounce back at work that much faster. This may help appease a concerned supervisor as well. Being able to let your colleagues know that you're taking action to feel better and move forward will ease others' concern about you and help maintain your positive professional reputation.
Janet Matta is a career adviser helping young professionals figure out their first and next career moves. Read more at her blog Career Janet.