Anyone who knows me well would tell you that I’m a highly emotional person. I feel things strongly, whether those emotions are joy, sadness, absolute excitement or fear. You name it.
With that comes the inevitability of tears.
No, I don’t just cry all of the time and mope around. Quite the opposite - I’m usually a very happy, smiley person. But I am also easily moved to tears: by confrontation, by a TV ad, by frustration, even from laughing too hard.
I kid you not, in middle school, I once had a teacher come running across the cafeteria to ask me if I was okay because I was laughing so hard that I’d gone silent and tears were streaming down my face. Yes, I was okay. I just happened to have a hilarious best friend who caused me to do this quite frequently.
As I moved into my adult years, this propensity for waterworks showed no sign of disappearing. Damn it! Nope, it was definitely here to stay… so I had to learn to deal with it.
In an office setting, this can be tough. Our culture teaches us that showing this level of emotion at work is unprofessional. Add to that the fact that we are women and it is seen as doubly unbecoming.
For those of us who are bad at shutting off the tears when they are about to spill over, it can feel downright mortifying at work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve silently pleaded with my eyes to hold their shit together until I could get out of a meeting or make it to the bathroom. My eyes never listened...
Instead of wanting to curl up under our desks and die of embarrassment, I suggest we take a new approach to crying at work: let’s get rid of the stigma already!
If you’re slightly cringing at that statement, don’t worry, doing so isn’t going to automatically translate into everyone wailing away at their desks the whole day. What it will do is help employees to feel less insecure about themselves if they do cry and allow coworkers to have real, honest relationships with one another and with their work.
Seriously, why are we expected to be devoid of emotion when we’re at the office? It’s not like all of a sudden a switch flips when we walk into the lobby and we become non-feeling, non-emotional beings. That’s not how the human brain works!
I’d actually argue that offices are their own little microcosms of human interaction that can lead us to feel a wide range of emotions. Including emotions that make us cry. So how can we be expected to turn off those emotions simply because we’re in an office setting? We can’t. Yes, some of us are better at hiding those emotions when at work than others, but the truth is we’re all feeling them.
Taking crying for what it is - a completely human reaction to a range of emotions - reduces the stigma around it and allows employees to come to work as their authentic selves.
When employees are more authentic at work they will be more fully present and committed to the job at hand.
So how do you tackle this crying at work stigma as a 20-something who isn’t in a leadership position at your company?
1. CUT THE JUDGEMENT
If you or another colleague cries at work, check any judgement that comes up for you. Any thoughts of “I look weak” or “She’s just so emotional” are no longer welcome.
Calling out our own judgmental mindsets helps us to be more compassionate with ourselves and our colleagues.
2. ENGAGE IN NORMALIZING BEHAVIORS
If you see a coworker cry, help to normalize it and remove her shame. That means comforting her and letting her know that it’s totally okay. Emotions are real and she’s allowed to feel them, even at work. That also means shutting down any office gossip about it. Don’t engage anyone looking to find out what’s going on under the guise of “concern” (i.e. nosiness).
Similarly, stop apologizing for crying at the office. That only perpetuates the stigma around crying and makes it seem like you are ashamed, which you shouldn’t be since we established earlier that crying is just a normal, human response to stressors. So ditch the “I’m sorry!” statements. Simply acknowledge that it happened and move on.
Act like it’s no big deal, so it becomes no big deal.
3. FIND YOUR COMFORTABLE CRYING SPOTS IN THE OFFICE
If you’re someone who is prone to tears, it’s important to have places where you can go have #allofthefeels in peace.
This isn’t about being ashamed of crying and hiding yourself away. Rather, it’s about having a place where you can work through your emotions without having to explain what’s going on. Let’s face it, there is nothing worse than having 10 nosey coworkers in your face when you’re crying.
In one of my previous jobs, I had a specific stall in the women’s bathroom that I used as my own personal (albeit tiny) meltdown room. I’ve also been known to use specific tucked away conference rooms or the backseat of my car.
The key is finding a place that makes you feel comfortable and lets you work through your emotions. Again no judgement of the act of crying - just privacy.
4. TRAIN YOUR MANAGERS TO UNDERSTAND WHY YOU CRY
Don’t worry, I'm not suggesting you should say “I’m a big crier” in your interview. What I mean is that if you tend to be a crier when processing negative emotions, explain to your boss what’s going on for you if it happens in their presence.
For example, I once had a male boss who used to look at me horrified when I cried. In this particular job, the crying usually happened during meetings pertaining to my career aspirations. I was really unhappy, but didn’t know how to fully articulate it to him and that was frustrating. All of a sudden, mid-meeting, I’d get choked up and feel the waterworks coming. A tiny voice crack was my sign they were about to spill... cue the tears.
At first, he would keep saying to me “Don’t cry! Why are you crying? Why are you getting so emotional about this?” Of course, in the midst of crying, I couldn’t actually explain it to them - that was part of the reason I was crying!
Once this had happened a few times, I sat down (at a time that I was totally composed) and explained to him that my crying stemmed from frustration. I explained that it was simply my way of expressing and releasing my frustration. Just like other people got angry and yelled or got silent and distant, I cried.
I explained that I needed to cry so I could let the emotion out, let it pass, and then get on with work. It was simply my physical reaction. Nothing more, nothing less.
Once he began to understand this, the questions stopped and he would simply hand me a box of tissues from across the table. As a result, I felt way less insecure because I didn’t have to keep explaining myself every time. It was just me - his highly successful sales person who happened to cry sometimes. NBD.
Being transparent and open will help your manager better understand how you handle frustration and help them better relate to you in the moment.
As a woman who has cried to every boss she has ever had (yes, seriously) AND has a track record of being a high performing employee, I can tell you that crying at work does not mean you are weak or any worse at your job. It simply means that this is the way you process emotions.
My hope is that the more we talk about this topic, the less taboo it will become.
Personally, I believe any hope of changing how we view crying at work is going to come on a company-by-company cultural basis. And really, it all comes down to having compassion and holding space for one another. We do it in other aspects of our lives, so why not do so at the office as well?
So next time you cry at work (or see a colleague crying at work) think about how you can remove the shame out of the situation and help to shift the conversation around it in your office to a more accepting and honest one. Everyone will be better off for it.
Have other tips that have worked for opening up the conversation around crying at your organization? Please share in the comments! I’d love to hear them!
P.S. If you do find yourself crying at work with high frequency, it might be time to assess where these emotions are coming from. Are these the result of isolated incidents (such as frustration over losing a client or the outcome of a project)? Or the result of general unhappiness in your job? Take it from someone who found herself crying in the bathroom stall multiple times a week, it’s often a sign that it’s time to figure out an exit strategy or internal job change. If you want to talk about it, I’m here to help!