the appearance of delight while fantasizing about the kill
October 24, 2016 6:26 AM   Subscribe

How do professional women* manage to maintain poise, or, even more--smiling--in the face of overwhelming emotion?

I am thinking of Hillary Clinton at the debates. It must have taken a great deal of practice** and self-control to be able to maintain that level of composure in the face of public abusiveness and bullying over such a long period of time.

If you are a person who once had trouble maintaining a cool demeanor under demanding circumstances, how did you get past it? What were your tricks? Hiding in the bathroom crying--not helpful, right?

Everything shows on my face, but maybe I don't want necessarily to share every emotion, and maybe I don't want to share negative emotions in public for many different reasons.

(Note Hillary Clinton is Olympic level at this and I could never hope to achieve that level of smiling 'go fuck yourself' composure; I would just like to fake it better.)

*I am asking specifically about women. If there is some overlap, great, but just so this isn't an immediate derail, there are a variety of cultural expectations about women and their emotions and how it relates to leadership that require unpacking but for sake of this thread I'd like to just acknowledge that's a given because of the emotional tightrope women are expected to walk in many settings.

**if you have no problem maintaining that composure and have always been philosophical and good at it and are a basically even-keeled person, you have my greatest admiration and envy, but for the purposes of this question I'm interested in people who worked and some how overcame this.
posted by A Terrible Llama to Work & Money (29 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
I literally bite my tongue or dig my nails into my palms. Seems to work. Also keeps me awake during times of great boredom at work.
posted by sockermom at 6:50 AM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Imagining various scenarios ahead of time and visualizing myself staying cool has helped.

In the moment, thinking of a role model (someone I admire at work, a film character, or Hillary) and channeling her/pretending I am her has helped.

Sometimes I also imagine a third party who cares about me (mom, friend, boyfriend) watching things unfold and thinking of how it would look to them gives me a little remove from the situation and emotional space. It can also help to think of the third party making snarky commentary about the upsetting person/situation.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 7:01 AM on October 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I'm working on this too (I've got a very expressive face), but the last meeting I was at in which Random Guy stood up to ask One Of The Recurring Stupid Questions I actually did think of Clinton. I thought "if she can deal with a fucker like Trump, surely I can handle this minor league jerk". It worked pretty well, but we'll have to see if it keeps working.

My boss also mentioned touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth-- she says that creates a neutral expression.
posted by Kpele at 7:05 AM on October 24, 2016 [15 favorites]

Physically, every time I start to feel myself fall prey to the panic spiral, I consciously scoot to the front of my chair, lift my chin slightly, draw my shoulders back and down, take a slow, deep breath, and yep, rest my tongue lightly on the roof of my mouth just behind my front teeth. It's something I learned from meditation practice, kind of a reset button to bring you back to the here and now, and it works a treat in angsty meetings.

Mentally, I like to draw on the power of all the generations of women who had to grit their teeth and endlessly tolerate men's shit for their whole lives without even the slimmest hope of ever getting to the point I am in my career or life in general, and silently thank them for carrying on in the face of what must have felt like insurmountable adversity. Whenever I think of all the untold millions of women who paved the way for us, little by little, my backbone automatically feels a bit straighter and a bit stronger.
posted by amnesia and magnets at 7:12 AM on October 24, 2016 [35 favorites]

Practice. The more you deal with crap, the better you get at it, or you find another job/ life. Confidence. You know you are good at what you do, a person to be valued, and that helps you resist crap. I have read that there's an acupressure point at the fleshy area between the thumb and the hand, so I massage or pinch that area.

Women produce oxytocin, which literally, biologically makes us more likely to produce tears.

It's my belief that one reason women are culturally encouraged to cry is that crying can make you literally unable to speak. So when I think I might cry, I try to get mad instead, so I can still speak up.

I have a huge, really, yuge, even, amount of empathy, compassion and respect for Hillary Clinton. so much hate flung at her and she is still standing, speaking out, fighting for what's right. Thanks for the above comments. I'll keep her in mind when the crap starts to fly.
posted by theora55 at 7:13 AM on October 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I also have a very expressive face and this is something I'm really bad at.

One thing I do know is that I cannot CANNOT cannot be fantasizing about the kill AT ALL while trying to maintain a neutral expression. That is not a thing I can do. If I need my face to not show what I'm thinking, I need to be thinking of something else and not the thing that's currently pissing me off. I will never be good enough not to let it show on my face, so distraction by thinking about something that is actually neutral (or happy, if I'm supposed to be smiling) is my best tool.

I have learned to channel more things that would in the past have made me feel sad into anger, though. Crying at work isn't cool, especially in a male-dominated workplace, but men "get" anger. Anger is also a really great motivator to get things done. I've accomplished more trying to find an outlet for my anger than I ever have crying in a bathroom. (cf. Hillary's abortion response in the 3rd debate; controlled fury can be productive.) If you're in a situation where you can't let yourself be mad, that doesn't help much, but sidestepping the sad and going straight to ticked off is at least a way not to cry at work.
posted by phunniemee at 7:19 AM on October 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

Two things. First, as others have mentioned, I press my tongue into the roof of my mouth, which helps neutralize my expression and also makes it nearly impossible to cry. Second, I assume a "power posture" and make sure I'm standing/sitting up straight, ears over shoulders, head parallel to the floor, chest out. If possible, I try to put my hands on my hips (Wonder Woman) which really does work wonders.

And practice, practice, practice.
posted by writermcwriterson at 7:30 AM on October 24, 2016

I had the speaking center come out to one of my classes this fall, and they recommended doing multiplication tables in your head if you needed to calm down (it gives your brain something else to do). I've had to use that trick a couple times this fall, and it worked a treat for me.
posted by joycehealy at 7:50 AM on October 24, 2016

I have an expressive face (I refer to it as the neon sign on my forehead).

The thing that has helped me most is to translate what my face says, in more neutral terms. That way I acknowledge what is obvious, and I come across (hopefully) as sincere.

I've worked on banking a vocabulary of terms that I use when I need to. Things like "I'm concerned that ... " or "I'm not crazy about that, and here's why: ..." or "Can you explain why ..." or "I (we) need to determine ... " or "Let's focus on ... " or "As I see it, the real issue here is ... "

I often mentally channel HRC at the Benghazi hearings. The thought of that alone makes me smile the thousand-yard smile.
posted by Dashy at 7:51 AM on October 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: One trick I have used is making a little checkmark or "x" in my notebook every time the person making me angry said something frustrating. That let me feel like my reaction was being given some life and validation and reduced the pressure I felt to visibly express it.
posted by prefpara at 7:55 AM on October 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: First, I really appreciate everyone's comments so far. Please don't let my weighing in here suggest I don't want more feedback -- it's been super helpful and I appreciate every bit and as much as I can possibly get. I suck at this.

I wanted to mention a thing about my experience that might not be universal but is nonetheless difficult for me personally:

So when I think I might cry, I try to get mad instead

I rage cry. I know that it comes from my childhood and the feeling of a)scorn around showing weakness, b)inappropriateness of female anger, c)my own frustration of having lost control. I have a nice therapist to chat about that with--but it remains a lovely sub-problem, because if you're crying people think that you're weak and sad and it might be that but it for me is also that I am choking on my own rage and frustration and demonstration of my femaleness.

It might be easy to say 'fuck it, nobody makes a big deal out of it if some dude has a tantrum. nobody paints his whole sex with a 'can't take the heat' brush' -- but it bothers the fuck out of me nonetheless. Also, if that's easy to say--you don't hear a lot of people saying it.

Also--this isn't a thing that happens constantly or anything. Maybe it comes up a few times a year. But when it does, it's a very, very big deal to me.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:13 AM on October 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm working on it, but if I'm shocked or blindsided by something, it's hard for me to keep a neutral expression. It's not always possible, but if I can anticipate what might be said in a certain situation, it helps me stay calmer. I find myself thinking, "Yup, there he goes again, so predictable," and marvelling at my own powers of prediction. It also helps me formulate possible replies ahead of time.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:35 AM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Okay. I also rage cry for pretty much the same childhood reasons and when I'm not conscious of it, my face shows EVERYTHING*. I have learned to keep a small smile on my face, no matter what I'm feeling inside. Not a smirk, not condescending, just a small "I'm interested in what you're saying!" smile. It takes a LOT of effort but I find that doing so keeps me from spiraling into the rage and stops the tears. I also have been known to bite my cheek or the inside of my bottom lip to keep from crying. Having a little bit of detachment helps as well. Like if someone is giving me bad news or awful criticism, I listen with one ear but then I mentally start listing what they're wearing or what I can see in my peripheral vision. In really bad cases, I'll politely interrupt and say, "Oh, hang on just a minute, I need a pen/tablet/tissue because I'm about to sneeze/that report that we're talking about," which gives me a minute to step out of the conversation and compose myself (REALLY DEEP BREATHS in through the nose and out through the mouth).

Also, and I know this isn't super helpful, but getting older (I turned 46 this year) has severely limited my ability to give any fucks anymore and I find myself rapidly losing the rage cry trigger.

* just this weekend we were at a pumpkin farm. my husband left to use the restroom. when he walked back, he saw me looking at someone and said, "okay, what's the deal? i could feel the judgment on your face a mile away." he was right. i was judging someone. silently, but clearly obviously.
posted by cooker girl at 8:44 AM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, along the lines of what hurdy gurdy said, I think of taking an imaginary bingo card along to charged family gatherings, so rather than heating up when somebody pushes my buttons, I can think "there's N-4!" and sort of mentally roll my eyes. There are probably similar "boxes" for annoying meetings and dominating jerks, etc. -- oh look! a put-down of my opinions! yay, another guy gets credit for my idea merely by repeating it As A Dude! and so forth. Not fixing the patriarchy, but getting a bit of your zen on by getting some distance from the phenomena...
posted by acm at 8:44 AM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

My job involves a lot of diplomacy and not visibly reacting when people say ridiculous or heated things. The easiest thing for me is to almost dissociate; I pretend I'm an actor playing a role and the role is Lady Who Is So Calm and Poised She Might Actually Be A Statue Who Knows Maybe. So it's fine for me to be secretly upset and angry, but the character I'm playing isn't upset or angry.
posted by superfluousm at 8:49 AM on October 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: The first thing I do is remember Charlize Theron's advice about how to walk like a queen. It's the same kind of physical re-centering that a lot of people have mentioned, but has a small element of happiness ("I'm thinking about a Tumblr gif set and the evil queen!") that helps defuse and re-channel my rage.

The other thing I started doing in graduate school, unconsciously, was that every time someone said something upsetting, I found myself tilting my head just a little bit to the side; I think that this took some of the pressure off my face to be expressive, since I was letting it out in another way. Now, people close to me recognize that if my face goes still and my head tilts to the side, I am NOT HAPPY. For people who don't know me as well, this move translates more like "quizzical" and less like "murder," which is helpful in keeping it together. (This is similar to other advice I've read, like clenching your fists or curling your toes; I think sometimes our bodies just have to let our emotion out somehow.)
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 8:58 AM on October 24, 2016 [9 favorites]

I do what @superfluousm mentions: I mentally dissociate by pretending to be an actor who is playing the part of someone who is calm and focused on problem solving while in a meeting getting their ass unfairly handed to them by a client. It creates some mental space between me and what I'm experiencing. I've learned the hard way to make sure and let myself have the chance to feel the feels later, because otherwise I start to not trust that I'm an actor. But as long as I vent after (to my spouse, a friend, colleague, whoever is appropriate), this works really well for me.
posted by OrangeDisk at 10:23 AM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Most of these are repeats but with my own spin:

Imagining various scenarios ahead of time and visualizing myself staying cool has helped.
I do this, too! I read something once about how even mentally practicing for an emergency situation like evacuating a plane or a fire can be enough to create neural pathways you can rely on in an actual situation. So in my mind, by practicing some pretty general scenarios I'm creating something a lot like muscle memory that I like to call emotion memory.

The suggestion by superfluousm of being in character is also similar to what I do. I call it "putting on my professional pants." When I have on my professional pants, I put my emotions in a box. I may even mentally think, "Put it in a box and look at it later." I also literally put on something, although actually a watch. When I put on my "professional watch" it's my reminder to be a different person, and when I have trouble maintaining that I look at my watch and take a deep breath. My basic state is a roly-poly ball of happiness, which not only can also be read as weak - there's no winning - it means the second I feel something other than happy it's immediately obvious. So I've found that by turning my head to look at my watch I also can hide the brief moment of all that emotion crossing my face. That's useful for when I can't react. If I need more than a moment, I'll look at my phone, which has one of these babies as the screensaver (the Do No Harm) which also makes me smile, naturally.

I also channel other women, and I've memorized a bunch of quotes from them. For example, I kind of fell in love with the show Vikings, particularly the character Lagertha, who is totally badass. Anyway, if I have a meeting or a situation ahead of time that I know has the potential to make me upset, I will braid my hair a little bit like hers, just a little bit, which is kind of a physical reminder of how I want to come across and then mentally think of her badass quotes if someone says something. Or I'll think, "What would Beyoncé do?" Just taking that second to channel can help.

Or, if I can react, but have to be "non-emotional" about it, I'll say the quotes I've memorized aloud. There's a variety of situations where saying something like "You couldn't kill me if you tried for a hundred years," or "Enemies can be so stimulating" (Katherine Hepburn) with a big smile, even if it's a total non-sequitur, can throw someone totally off what they're doing, which gives YOU a second to gain control of yourself. And it's almost always worth throwing someone off in those situations.

There's situations where I feel emotional because it's just something at work, and then there are those situations that I feel emotional because I'm caught up in some kind of microaggression that's basically sexist. Much of the time it's because I'm not acting like I'm expected to, somehow. Then I think of that quote by Elizabeth Cady Stanton: I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns. In those moments, when I'm being regarded as an adjective - not submissive enough, aggressive, bossy, etc. - I'm also feeling an adjective - frustrated, angry, sad. And so I tell myself, I'm going to be a noun. I'm going to be a noun. I'm going to be a noun. And usually I draw back my shoulders, look the person in the eye, and become a stone cold bitch, someone isn't powerless - an adjective -but has the power. A lot like Charlize Theron's advice, which I love!

Then there's embracing it. If I'm being a little emotional and I can tell it's not coming across well or someone says something, I'll say something like, "I'm glad I have passion for X. It makes [my product] better because you know I pour everything into it," or "It must be hell to work on something and not care." Or quote Elizabeth Taylor: "I sweat real sweat and I shake real shakes." Make them defensive. I'm a rage crier too. And I'll be honest - sometimes I just go ahead and do it, but I turn it on its head by saying something like, "You've pissed me off so much I'm crying in a Herculean effort not to absolutely destroy your ego" or something like that. Which I've practiced ahead of time!
posted by barchan at 10:27 AM on October 24, 2016 [13 favorites]

aw nuts, I forgot my favorite one! Which isn't a repeat. And that's to harness the amazing power of the question.

I learned this from watching someone who became the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He used questions to give himself time or to establish himself a lot. For example, he would walk into a room and instead of asking how everybody was doing would ask, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Not only did he give the impression of caring, he also came across as someone who had the power to do something for you. It also created an individual connection.

So I have a whole box of questions that I root around in when a person in a situation is making me feel emotions. Not only does mentally going through that box steer myself, it also temporarily makes the other person focus on their own thoughts for a moment, which gives me a chance to regroup. So I may ask, "Is this what you really want to do?" or "Do you really want to do that?" which always gives someone pause. I've got some discipline specific ones and a few general ones, here's a few: "Are there other options?" "So you are thinking [repeat what they just said]?" "Are we considering all the X?" "Are you bothered by this?" (that's often a good one) "Should we bring other people into this conversation?" "Do you have other ideas?" "What would you like done?" I try to make these questions as generic as possible, because that makes it easier to bring them out on the fly.
posted by barchan at 11:08 AM on October 24, 2016 [24 favorites]

Practice. Stare at your face in the mirror. Arrange it into a neutral expression and then hold that expression while you think through the most embarrassing thing you've done this week or the most aggravating traffic/customer service/sexist experience you've had this week or the saddest movie you've seen. Just practice holding your face in a neutral expression the same way that a dancer or an athlete or a musician practices arranging their body into the proper position to do their task,

Practice holding a 1-beat-2-beat-3-beat before responding to anything and everything in all circumstances at work until it becomes second nature. This moment gives you space to make it not personal, to pull your self and your worth out of the situation. Do this even when things are not upsetting so it really becomes second nature. I have long had a great reputation for being calm and incredibly diplomatic and imperturbable (sometimes aloof and unlikeable, but whatever) at every job I've had because I do this. It really helps keep your emotions in check if you are consciously waiting to respond.

Shift your gaze so you are looking almost imperceptibly to the side of the obnoxious person's gaze. So that instead of looking them directly in the eyes, you're sort of looking in one eye and not the other. Without moving your head, just your gaze. A million years ago, a friend of mine told me this is subtly unnerving to people but does not code as submissive. I don't know if that's true but I find it also helps distance me from the situation or person which is upsetting/angering/triggering.

Also practice grounding your work interactions in your body, not your heart. Spend your time thinking about whether you're holding yourself straight, whether your feet are planted firmly, whether your shoulders are square and your chin is up--don't concentrate on whether you're tired or angry or hungry or bored or stressed. Separate your feelings from your interaction. This is just a trick I learned working in the public interest because caring is exhausting. The process of grounding professional interactions in my body not my heart makes it much easier not to react emotionally in the moment.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:24 PM on October 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

I was a bullied child for many years. The one benefit of that was learning how to not react when dealing with confrontation. I learned how to control my breathing (think yoga), which allows me to appear calm all the time...even if I'd what I'd really like to do is strangle the person who is being a jerk.
posted by LilithSilver at 12:28 PM on October 24, 2016

Once, I literally thought to myself "what would Jessica Fletcher do?" and acted accordingly. Remarkably effective.
posted by thetarium at 1:22 PM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Act quizzical. Ultimate lulz, just watch the holes dig deeper. "Oh really? Tell me more about that. What exactly do you mean when you say, 'she's a real bitch?' Who gets to be a bitch, exactly? Can you be a bitch? Or do you mean in contrast to airquotes 'fake bitches?' I'm confused about your context here."

Make sure you follow up your silly woman nonsense with a smile!
posted by fritillary at 2:00 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I harness the power of pure complete bloody-minded stubbornness. If someone is pissing me off I will be damned if I let them know that they are getting to me.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:08 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

The tongue to the roof of the mouth is interesting. I tend to widen my eyes which helps me not cry and also allows me not not say anything immediately since (I hope) I'm making a 'WTF did you just say?' face.

I was just testing it now and found that when I widen my eyes my tongue makes its way to the roof of my mouth automatically (assuming my mouth is closed, I can widen my eyes with it open and it stays where it was but yeah, that was a mess of an expression).

So if putting your tongue to the roof of your mouth seems complicated to do in the moment, widen your eyes and keep your mouth closed and it seems to find that spot itself.
posted by kitten magic at 3:14 AM on October 25, 2016

In line with the "pretend you're an actor playing a calm character" advice above, I sometimes pretend I'm a spy who is undercover, and can't lose her cool or the Bad Guys Will Win. (Popular options for this role include Emma Peel, Peggy Carter, and Natasha Romanoff.)

I have gone from literally crying in my boss's office to doing an important first meeting with the person who was going to be my new boss and pulling it off with, I was told, impeccable poise and professionalism.

It wasn't me, it was Emma Peel undercover as me, but it all looks the same from the outside. :)
posted by oblique red at 9:59 AM on October 25, 2016

Short answer: get older. I would rage cry all the time in my early 20s, it almost never happens now that I'm past 40.

More short term solution: walk away. It's easier to keep your emotions under control once you realize you don't have to just stand there and take what anyone throws at you.
posted by MsMolly at 3:49 PM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm past 40.
I'm 47. Still hoping to grow up. ;)

Thank you so much to everyone responded. I couldn't possibly go best answering -- there are so many fantastic pieces of advice and I look forward to incorporating many during a challenging six hour period tomorrow.

I may also put a piece of paper with the words "Hillary Clinton" in my pocket.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:44 AM on October 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again to everyone. I wound up marking a few bests because I keep returning to them in my mind and have found myself using them.

I also did and will again write 'Hillary Clinton' on a Post It and carry it around.

(Thank you, Hillary.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:42 PM on March 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

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