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How to Keep it Together at Work When Your Personal Life Is a Mess

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We’ve all been there, even if you don’t want to admit it. It’s life. And take it from someone who usually has great composure in a professional setting. You can try as hard as you want, bottle it all in, throw on some peppy tunes, but sometimes you just can’t help losing it a bit at work.

I started my first real job in February (here at Levo, or course), and up until about 3 weeks ago, I was the epitome of professional. I showed up on time, wore appropriate clothing, engaged in meetings, spoke up when necessary, you get the picture. But then Monday rolled around, and I felt like my life (outside of work) had fallen apart. I was knee deep in friend drama, utterly confused about the dating scene in NYC (it’s rough), and I just found out that I was, yet again, roommateless and apartmentless for my impending move in September. (In case you were wondering, apartment hunting in New York will be one of the worst experiences of your life if you so choose to brave the mayhem. You’ve been warned.)

All of the craziness happened so fast. In the aftermath, I was quietly sitting at my desk trying to keep it together, but then my hands started shaking, my breathing started getting sporadic, my heart was pounding, then I abruptly left the office and headed to a deserted hallway in my office building. I didn’t know what to do, so I called my parents for some moral support. The minute I opened my mouth to talk about what was happening, the tears started to roll. I think it took roughly 5 minutes for me to calm down and get a word out. A woman had walked by me during my meltdown and gave me that “look,” the one that’s full of sympathy and usually makes you feel even worse.

I had shared my whole story with my Mom, and managed to feel a little better. I went to the bathroom to freshen up (I’m definitely an ugly crier), and then attempted to go back to the office like nothing had happened. Well, that didn’t work. Tons of emotions were flooding through me, and I found myself thinking that this was my first experience in learning how to balance my personal life with my work life. In an age that’s flooding with technology, it’s nearly impossible to separate the two, at least at a small company like Levo. We can open Facebook up at our leisure, keep our phones on our desk, and essentially communicate with our friends and family during the work hours. I was having a tough time, and I didn’t know how to get away from it, or handle it.

Even though I don’t necessarily think I dealt with my first balancing experience particularly well, I did learn some important lessons that will hopefully help me, and others, down the road:

1. It happens to everyone.

To let off steam, I exercise. And part my exercising this summer has included playing a weekly tennis match with one of my friends. Because we play on free courts in the city, we usually have to wait a bit, giving us plenty of time to “girl talk.” After telling her my depressing story, she admitted that she, too, has cried at work over coworker issues, and it may have even happened more than once. It’s almost like strength in numbers. Somehow you automatically feel better knowing you’re not alone.

2. It could be worse.

After I finally managed to be coherent when I was on the phone with my parents, they told me that they thought I had lost my job, which would definitely have been much worse. In the moment, whatever’s happening to you seems like the earth is shattering below your feet. But in reality, you’ll get back up, move forward, and the hurt will eventually be a distant memory. Maybe I didn’t know where I was going to live in a month, but I had a job that I loved, parents that cared enough to listen to me blabber (or blubber), and friends that would agree with just about everything I said because they knew it would make me feel better. It really could be much worse, and it’s important to remember that.

3. You CAN talk to your coworkers.

While it might not be the best idea to let your coworkers in on all your deepest, darkest secrets, it is ok to ask them to talk for a bit. Go get some fresh air, share what’s going on, and they might be able to offer some sound advice. If they’re a little bit older, remember that they’ve probably been through the same experiences as you. During my meltdown, one of my coworkers said something that really resonated. These people that I was stressing over weren’t worth my time. Even if I’ve said that in my head a million times, hearing someone else say it made it stick.

4. Shedding a tear won’t hurt your career.

Not only did my experience not hurt my career, but it sparked an idea (this post) that could add another topic to my writing repertoire. My coworkers and my boss were all understanding, and they know that sometimes things like this happen. When other things in your life might not be the best, it’s probably not a good time to worry about your job, too. Accept that you had a personal moment and find a way to still succeed. If you need to work from home? Ask your boss. If you need to take a personal day? Do it, that’s what they’re there for. Sitting at your desk feeling upset won’t help your productivity, or those around you.

5. Find an outlet.

It could be writing, running, eating, talking, yelling, anything that will help you release some of that emotion and steam. During my days of unrest I ran the furthest I’ve ever run, considered starting a blog, probably made my mom want to change her phone number, and ate my fair share of ice cream. It all helped, and it all helped me move on.

You’re never going to be completely composed at work. Life happens, so it’s best to have a plan of action for when it does. What are your tips for keeping it together at work? Let us know in the comment section below!

Photo: Robert Daly / OJO Images / Getty Images


Work-Life Balance #Personal Life Career Advice
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This article couldn't have come at a better time. I too am going through a personal downfall just as my career seems to be advancing. I fear as a young professional of showing weakness, but as you mentioned, I'm sure most of my colleagues and superiors could relate to my situation. I think there is nothing wrong with taking a day off to get myself together, so that I can reevaluate and focus my time on activities and people that matter most. Thanks so much for sharing and making me feel like I'm not alone!

Camille Surejam
Camille Surejam

Thank you for this post !

It happened to me this year too, several times beacause of several personal issues and professionnal pressure. When i finaly took the time to figured everything out, to solve what had to be solve and to take some time alone to digest, learn and accept all of this, i get better and could move ahead.

Taking time for yourself to do this can be really helpful.

Thank you again ! That's, indeed, good to know that we are not alone.

I have the same fear on weakness, not only as a young professional, but also as a young female manager to older males. I learned that even males can sympathize with the life-work balance feelings, and have as much advice to offer a young girl as another young woman. Thanks for sharing!

What a great post! As a twenty-something fresh out of college, I know exactly where you're coming from...I had my own "work breakdown" after a dating situation (okay: ex-boyfriend situation) became very public at the office (he sent me a love letter, to work...).

I got all teary-eyed and was having a moment. Two other girls sitting closely to my desk, without needing to ask what was wrong, changed our music station to Beyonce. Sometimes a woman just knows!

It's important to try to laugh it off and know you're not totally crazy... people understand. One of the women, four years my senior, said that she felt for me, that "that time right after college is hard." It was nice of her to empathize, and then to move along with the workday with "Single Ladies" in the background!

Like you said, it really could always be worse. Thanks for this, and keep your head up, you're far from alone!

This is a great piece, Erica. I think support places a HUGE factor in how we recover and move forward. We cannot depend solely on ourselves to pick up all the pieces and move on. Although, I have done this many times, it isn't as effective as reaching out.

I recently had a loved one commit suicide. He worked for the same company as I did, and when we began seeing one another he got a job elsewhere in order to save me from ourselves. A lot happened after that, but I will say this - coming back to work after what happened was a trial. I took a day off, but knew I needed to pull myself together and get busy. Busy helps and busy at work is, at least, productive. The support from my fellow co-workers was tremendous and I definitely grew from it.

You learn so much about yourself when you're forced to deal with hardships, and you become so much stronger when you power through them with all your might. Thank you for sharing this post, so very much. I know that feeling. I have been there a few times!


Great advice, Erica! Definitely agree with finding a creative outlet and taking a personal day.


I just had this day at work this past Thursday!! I just felt like I had a ton of things going on at home and as soon as I walked into the office my boss started asking questions about a project. Answering to her right away felt a little overwhelming so I asked if I can look into it and get back to her. I went to my desk, spilled my entire glass of water all over myself and the keyboard and cried. Once I had my moment, I did some deep breathing and then went back to work. It was tough but I wanted to show that even with my emotions I am a hard worker and contribute greatly to the company. I am SO glad you wrote this and I was able to read it now! Very helpful and it's nice to know it sometimes happens to others.

Jessica Pajak
Jessica Pajak

I really needed to see this article this week! Thanks for sharing your trials with us, Erica. It's nice to know I'm not alone in having a more difficult time keeping it together at work when my personal life gets a little rough. While everyone has experiences like this, that's not always the first thing you think of. I definitely agree with taking a break, whether it's stepping outside just to decompress or to call your mom (I completely understand what you mean when you say your mom probably wanted to change her phone number).

Your article summed up my 2013. I started the year recovering from emergency surgery, and as a freelance designer I was excited to get chosen for a long-term project with an old client. I worked steadily throughout the year, through my father's fall, recovery, rehab, infection and ultimate death. My client was 35 miles in one direction, Dad was 20 miles in the other. More than once I was caught weeping in the bathroom. More than once I had to leave early and (safely) drive to Dad to advocate for him.

All the while, my Mom is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's. It was a tough three months dealing with Dad. And we didn't tell her, it would have upset her but she'd never remember.

My client continued with the project thru this past Feb, when I was told that it would continue for a few months because they found more items to be included. I celebrated by ordering a new laptop! Two weeks later, she called and emailed, so I called her on a Sunday afternoon - the rest of the project was being given to another freelancer who "has a different skill set." WTH does that mean? I've had no work since.

For the record, studies have shown the when women cry in the workplace it's out of frustration, not manipulation (which is the reason men believe we cry).

Bethany Huet
Bethany Huet

I enjoyed reading this article and like the rest of the ladies I have also had plenty of moments like this. Recently it was at my first summer internship unpaid job. I had some health issues and my personal family life and problems somehow got tied into the health problems and it all happened at my job, first thing in the morning. I ended up having to leave to go home and schedule doctors appointments as well as manage my family problems. I got through it eventually all on my own. So my question is what do you do when you don't have that kind of support group to lean on and listen to you vent it all out?

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