I’ll never forget the first workplace meltdown I saw on social media.
A frustrated guy exacted revenge on his frozen computer screen. He ripped out his keyboard, threw his monitor on the floor, and stomped on it.
The funniest part was the guy in the cubicle next to him. He sat there and watched as if it were a routine occurrence.
What is a Meltdown?
A coworker, friend, or spouse snaps from a trivial offense. The tantrum escalates to the point of hysterics. The response seems wildly disproportionate to the transgression. We call it a meltdown.
What should you do in that situation? Comfort and console? Pretend not to notice? Shoot a video to win social media points?
I witnessed a disturbing scene, not violent like the guy who destroyed his computer, but inappropriate in other ways.
A normally quiet and composed woman let out an uncharacteristic grunt. She followed with a rowdy complaint about the settings on her chair—the seat and armrests were adjusted lower than her preferred settings. She had worked from home the previous day, and someone had used her desk. Desk-sharing was a regular occurrence. There weren’t enough seats to accommodate everyone.
What set her off was that someone had neglected to return the seat settings to its previous positions. It was a minor inconvenience at best, but she launched into a mini tirade.
“This is absolutely disgusting,” she said. “My seat height is way off. The armrests are too low. Who does that?”
I would think most people adjust the chair to their liking, especially if they’re going to use it for eight hours. That logic escaped her. The tantrum concluded with this puzzling statement.
“I’m terrified that my children will soon have to work in a world like this.”
Was her outrage justified? Was the fear of her children’s future warranted? Why would an otherwise composed person blow up at such a trivial affront?
Don’t Play with a Loaded Gun
Most of us could identify with her plight. Maybe not the specific situation, but a seemingly endless line of insignificant injustices that lead to a breaking point. The chair settings were just a trigger. The gun had been loaded earlier.
She probably bit her tongue at those earlier slights, opting for politeness instead of confrontation. Each time she restrained herself, she loaded another bullet in the chamber. The accumulated stress and anger reached a tipping point. The chair situation was one straw too many. She pulled the trigger.
We’ve all experienced situations like that. Someone acts curt with us, takes a dismissive tone, says something insensitive. Then your kids act like brats. Your spouse walks in the door and asks you an otherwise inoffensive question.
“Did you call the electrician to fix the broken outlet?”
You explode in rage, not at the question but at the pent-up anger building inside you.
Why Meltdowns Amuse Us
How did we respond to the woman who raged about her adjusted chair? Her cubicle neighbor slithered away when it became apparent she was losing control.
I turned to my neighbor, and we each stifled exploding giggles. One guy secretly mocked her by lowering his seat as much as the mechanism allowed. A woman, a few desks from the one who lost her cool, struggled so hard to hold in a laugh she fled the scene to release her emotion in private.
None of us made an effort to empathize.
When you’re the observer, these events make you laugh inside. When you see them on social media, you laugh out loud.
Meltdowns often feature incongruous behavior—an extreme overreaction to a trivial affront. That’s why they amuse us, especially if we don’t know the poor soul.
Remember, there’s a human being going through a difficult time. We’re not privy to the chain of events that led up to the implosion. We only see the triggering event. Let’s also keep in mind that we’ve all faced that situation ourselves.
We can do better when dealing with these situations, whether we’re the observer or participant.
Avoiding a Meltdown
What if you’re the one teetering like a pot of boiling water, steam pushing against the cover causing it to rattle? By nature, I’m not the kind of person who shares my feelings. I let them bottle up inside. I know. It’s not the healthiest response, but I’ve found other strategies help dissipate that feeling of mounting tension.
Walk away from the situation.
It’s universal advice, and it works. Remove yourself from the situation, preferably to a place of temporary solitude. If you need to let out a scream, at least do it in private.
Ask yourself what’s funny about the situation.
This technique is not always appropriate, but it can transform your mindset in a flash. A mentor once told me that you couldn’t feel fear, anger, or frustration when you’re curious about finding the humor in a situation. He was onto something. The mere act of straining your brain to think of something funny forces you to forget what you’re angry about.
Repeat these words:
If the offender is another human being (as opposed to a chair or inanimate object), tell them, “Do you know what kind of day I’m having?” If they have the slightest bit of empathy, they’ll get it. They’ll show you compassion. If they don’t, then perhaps you should make it a supersized meltdown.
Witnessing a Meltdown
Do you whip out your phone, clandestinely shoot a video and upload it to every social media channel? It’s tempting. But perhaps the better alternative is to remember that you’re not witnessing an isolated incident.
Like the workplace incident I mentioned earlier, the triggering event will seem petty and trivial; that’s why we find these outbursts so odd. Keep in mind, a chain of events led up to this point.
What you witnessed was the last in a succession of bad breaks. What’s the best way to handle it?
What is your relationship to this person? If it’s a spouse or close friend, ask if anything upsetting happened earlier. You’ll discover the trail of breadcrumbs leading up to this point, and the outburst will make more sense.
If that’s not appropriate for the given relationship, give the offending person space. If that’s not possible, nod in agreement to their complaints, show some frustration of your own at the perceived injustice. It validates what they’re feeling.
This approach often cuts into their emotions and blunts their outburst.