Crying at Work
One of my most cringe-worthy moments in the last few years of work was during a trust exercise for a team I was supporting. The exercise was meant to evoke emotions. Sharing personal feelings and playing outside your comfort zone was encouraged as a way to connect with your team. As we know, vulnerability leads to trust, and trust in a workplace leads to all kinds of magic. So then why did I feel so ashamed when I cried? And not only did I cry, I then felt the need to make an excuse for it and the words, “Sorry, I’m pmsing” came blurting out of my mouth. Omg, what is wrong with me, I thought. Double humiliation right there. The rest of the session I was half paying attention, half preoccupied shamefully analyzing my cry-fest and pms admission.
Later, I replayed the situation over in my head, my mortification haunting me - I'm such a wimp, how could I do this? It wasn't pretty or nice and what I really needed in that moment was a little empathy and love. (I will say, the leader of the team was very kind to me and made me feel comfortable about my meltdown - but still, I wanted to hide.)
Why did I feel so shameful about something as natural to all humans as crying? As if my crying needed an excuse? As if it’s not a fact that most women pms? As if your tears automatically stop producing once you badge into the building? As if! I thought back on other moments I cried at work – sometimes these were situations that had nothing to do with work, and sometimes they were work-inducing. Whatever the cause, why in each of these moments, had I felt utterly mortified? Some ideas come to mind:
Because I was embarrassed
Because I created an uneasy situation for those round me
Because I looked weak
Because I felt exposed
And just as my last post brought attention to apologizing for how we look, I want to explore apologizing for how we feel, especially when expressing a deeply emotional reaction such as crying. We are not immune to emotions in the workplace. In fact, I think showing emotions means you care deeply enough to react in this personal way. Whether a good long bathroom cry or knot-in-your-throat discussion you need to have with your manager where you fight back the tears as hard as you can but can no longer hold them back and you explode – these are not moments to be sorry for or to cover up with excuses. Looking back, I wish that during these challenging situations, I would have recovered with something like, “I’m crying because I’m an emotional person and this topic is important to me.” Or, “I’m being vulnerable with you because I trust you.” Or even using any of the language we’re taught in EI sessions on how to become aware of and express our emotions. It may have been helpful to even have this language on hand before going into a meeting where I anticipated getting overly emotional.
When you feel the emotions swelling up, feel free to cry! Other activities I've found useful - plugging in my headphones and listening to some go-to happy music, calling or texting a friend, just taking a breather. Better yet - find a colleague who 'gets it' and will give you the empathy and confidence you need to get though the moment. But whatever you choose to do, don't apologize.
And should you be so lucky to be on the receiving end of crying - Know that this person feels deeply enough about this topic to shed tears. Ask if they need a moment or want to resume at another time. Tell them it’s okay to express emotions this way at work and that they can trust you. Tell them you cry, too! At the end of the day - the goal is to create a safe space where people can bring their whole and true selves to work - tears and all.
No matter who you are or where you live, life is hard right now. Throw in whatever you have going on at work that you care about, and the emotions add up. Crying should not induce shame or guilt and the next time you cry, remember that you are human and it’s okay. In fact, it may even bring you closer to the audience you fought so hard to stay calm in front of.