Uncomfortable with Discomfort? Here’s How to Feel Better (Part I)


We’ve all been there: a dramatic coworker confronts you or you end up in the hot seat during an important meeting. Your face gets red, your heart starts pounding, maybe your palms sweat and your mouth gets dry. In addition to the physiological symptoms you’re experiencing, a rush of emotions threatens to overwhelm you- shame, guilt, anger, maybe foolishness, impostor syndrome, or complete betrayal mixed with hurt. They’ve finished their scathing remarks and are waiting on your answer; what’s there to do?

Actually, several things. In Part I, I’ll lay out some tips for you to use in the moment, and in Parts II and III, I’ll help you think through your feelings afterward and move past the uncomfortable situation for the future of your work wellness.

So you probably know that in a heated moment, stress hormones flood your brain, making it harder to think clearly, stay calm, and generally act normal. Basically, when it’s super crucial for you to stay sharp, poised, and confident, you end up, well… not. Rather than let those feelings overcome you, the following are useful tools anyone can employ to mitigate tense emotional effects:

  1. Apply acupressure. It doesn’t totally matter where you decide to do it- easy recommendations include pinching the area between your shoulder and neck (relieves anxiety), pressing your thumb down on the inside of your wrist (relieves nausea), or even pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth (allegedly keeps tears at bay)- but the trick is to absolutely believe it’s the most effective tool in the world. So if you’re someone like me who’s convinced by science, pick one and read anything that tells you it works until it actually does. Oh, and don’t start giving yourself a full back massage or calf rub in a meeting; that’s just awkward.
  2. Seek insight by inquiry. To give yourself time to think of an answer as well as gain clarity over what’s happening, start by asking a question. Let’s say your boss just finished chewing you out for a recent project in front of your whole team. Rather than jump into defense mode or just shutting down and crying, regain influence of the situation (and yourself) by asking a question. Something simple like, “What specifically was wrong with the report?” or “How would you have liked me to conduct that meeting?” will suffice. This helps to minimize anger and defensiveness internally while ensuring you get to the heart of the conversation, as well as determine if there’s an actionable solution you can provide. Asking a question, and then some follow-up questions, takes the undue heat of off you and places onus back on the other person to provide you with details pertinent to the situation.
  3. Power pause. This one doesn’t work for everyone, but some people can nail this technique, which entails simply silently pausing. At the end of a rant or during a heated confrontation, it can sometimes be beneficial to intentionally and obviously give yourself the space and time to act instead of react. So what does this look like? Maybe you sit silently. Maybe you nod your head to indicate thoughtfulness or shift your legs slowly. Maybe you take a sip of water or jot down a note. Whichever method works for you, ignoring the social awkwardness that comes with silence and owning it instead can be helpful, and it can allow you to regain control of the audience, since when you speak in another minute, you’ll now seem like the most wise sage that ever existed.
  4. Have a catchphrase. For my most confrontation-averse friends, this is the tool I recommend the most, since it’s easy and almost always works. For this one, create a catchphrase based on your shortcomings. If you say yes to managers when you don’t have capacity, your catchphrase could be “Let me look at my workload and get back to you.” If you agree to bad ideas to get out of conflict, you could say, “Let me think about that and follow up after the meeting.” If you immediately admit fault when pressed, you could say, “I’ll look over the project and give you my thoughts later today.” The idea here is to take in all the information others have to give, and then work through it on your own time, before agreeing to anything. If that means you have to keep repeating the catchphrase, then so be it, but don’t feel forced to fold when it’s not comfortable for you.
  5. Name colors. Given to me by a therapist, this technique serves for when you just had to experience a lot of emotional junk, and there’s no longer anything for you to say or do, but you’re still feeling waves of emotions threatening to overwhelm you. When that’s happening, and you’re forced to sit through the rest of the interaction, start naming colors in your head. Look around. Notice the shades around you, and then descriptively and decisively name each one of them. Heather gray. Charcoal. Cerulean. Khaki. Off-white, or eggshell? This activity works by triggering a very different part of your brain than is activated in intense emotional moments, and it helps to re-center you and focus on something other than mounting anxiety.

These techniques are useful for anytime heart rates or emotions run high, but you have to decide which situations are right for them and which are not. Let me know how they work or if I missed your favorite, and stay tuned for Part II, where I’ll give you my tips for staying cool after an altercation.

Jaclyn Grigg is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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I dislike conflict, so the very specific tools you have mentioned to help in the heat of the moment will be very useful if I find myself in an uncomfortable situation. Thank you!