In high school, I was voted most dramatic in the senior class — and it wasn’t because of any acting aspirations. I was the type of girl who’d announce that she was having a nervous breakdown in gym class, would freak out over a physics test, and wouldn’t think anything of crying if I was upset. Unfortunately, in the workplace, a breakdown is not as simply solved as being excused to take a nap during the nurse’s office. And one time, after a cryfest at my cube turned into my boss asking me if I needed to “take time off” to “deal with my emotions” (like, in a mental-health facility) I realized that sometimes, holding back can equal getting ahead. So, the tried-and-tested rules of breaking down—without your boss getting upset.
Leave. If your boss screams at you or sends you a mean e-mail and you feel the tears start to form, the best thing you can do is get out of the situation. Take a walk, go for coffee, even just chill in the bathroom (corner, handicapped stall is best, stand on the seat, crouch, and cry and no one’ll even know you’re there!) but make sure your boss doesn’t see you cry. It creates a weird power dynamic, and the last thing you want when you’re heaving tears is a hug from your boss. Trust me. Personally, I love letting it all out at Starbucks—from experience, when you’re pathetic-looking enough, sometimes the barista’ll give you your latte for free. And when you’re in a bad mood, the little things make a big difference.
Share your sorrow If and only if you’re dealing with a seriously stressful sitch that has nothing to do with work—like if one of your grandparents died or your best friend was admitted to the hospital—the best thing you can do is let your boss know. That way, she’ll give you the breathing room you need, and won’t second-guess you if she catches you sobbing in your cube. But on the flip side, no one wants someone who’s actively in crisis in her cube. If you really feel you can’t function, take a day off.
Apologize. PMS, a fight with your BFF, and then having your boss bitch you out can totally take you over the edge. And if you do break down, dash off a brief, two-second e-mail saying you’re sorry. A simple I’ve been really overwhelmed and apologize that you had to witness that. Can we discuss the project whenever is convenient for you? shows that you’re over it and ready to work. And then, when you do head into her office, smile big, laugh at her jokes, show her how sunny you are, and act like it never happened. She’ll forget it soon enough.
When the waterworks are okay. At a going away party. When your boss tells the sad story of when her cat was run over by a car. If you’re all crammed into the conference room, watching a “we can do it” presentation that has a John Williams soundtrack (like, y’know, the Jurassic Park theme song). At these points, a few tears are great. They show you’re sensitive, you get it, you’re not afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve. Just don’t wipe your nose on it.