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Are you sad or frustrated? Lessons on leaky eyeballs in the workplace.

Crying on the job. Why does it happen and what does it mean? Science has a surprising explanation that will change the way you think and talk about crying.

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She stood in front of me, tears pouring down her face, and apologizing profusely for those tears.

I recently gave a keynote speech at a conference in Los Angeles. The theme was “Best Bold You.” My job was to set the energy bar high and remind the audience that finding their “Best Bold” selves was absolutely possible.

And yet, there she was.

Between her sobs, apologies, and the start of questions, I inquired if we could have a conversation about her leaky eyeballs.

“Are you sad or frustrated?” I asked gently. Her eyes widened.

I learned to ask this question from my brilliant friend Erin Rand, who taught me about some of the science behind leaky eyeballs. It’s changed the way I think about crying at work and how I speak to people about it.

Let me start by saying, I’m not a scientist. There’s a lot more complicated stuff going on in our bodies, and we are all, as Erin would also say, unique. But the high-level concept is this:

When someone with lots of estrogen in their body gets angry or frustrated, the biochemical reaction in your body leads to leaky eyeballs. Starting in your gut and throat pressure builds, and then out comes the water.

When someone with lots of testosterone in their body gets angry or frustrated, that same biochemical reaction manifests the need to move physically.

The tear ducts (like most of our bodies) of women are smaller than those of men. Which means women’s bodies need less build-up of liquid for the “pressure valve” to release.

I’ve watched my own reactions to sadness, anger, and frustration. Even though I’ve felt like it at times, I haven’t punched anyone at work. I have, however, cried (even if I’m not known for doing so a ton).

Back to my teary friend at the conference.

Her answer to my question came back quickly: “Frustrated.” I proceeded to explain the science behind leaky eyeballs. Then I asked her if when she felt they crying coming on—that tightness in your gut and throat—she got frustrated with yourself.

Her eyes widened again. She nodded. “So if the biochemical reaction of your initial frustration was just a chemical reaction in your body, should you get more frustrated with yourself for losing control of your tear ducts?”

While I was having this conversation, something amazing happened. The tears ceased. Hearing that tears were a chemical reaction to frustration and not a character flaw changed my friend’s biochemistry. It reduced the “you will cry” hormones running through her body, enough so that the crying stopped.

What does the science of crying and frustration have to do with what I usually share, considering the question, “What are you known for?” Why am I sharing a story about science and a couple of weepy women?

AS HUMANS, WE CAN’T HELP BUT LABELS THINGS: WITHOUT LABELS LIKE “CHAIR” OR “TABLE,” IT’S HARD TO KNOW WHICH ONE WE SIT ON AND WHICH ONE WE SIT AT. AND THAT SAME BRAIN MECHANISM OFTEN CAUSES PEOPLE TO LABEL WOMEN AS, YOU GUESSED IT, “EMOTIONAL.”

Labels do a phenomenal job of helping us organize the information inside our brains. But they can also mislead. Labels are something other people give us; positive or negative, labels get attached to you but aren’t about you. And sometimes they’re wrong. In your leadership practice, I challenge you to recognize when you’re use labels like “emotional” and question them—as they apply to you as well as others.

Before I parted ways with my now not-teary friend, I shared these two takeaways with her.

  1. When this happens in the future, take a deep breath, and share your frustration. Then give the scientific reason why your eyeballs are about to leak. For her, it’ll reduce the inevitable shame we all feel when we know we’re about to cry. For the person she’s talking to, they learn that her tears are not an emotional weapon she’s wielding to get her way, but possibly just a biochemical reaction to frustration.
  2. Next time she’s standing in front of someone who’s visibly upset, try asking them, “Are you sad or frustrated?”

It might open up the conversation and allow the underlying problem to emerge. And here’s another truth you should consider. In my experience, if a colleague is crying, they’re only thinking about HOW to stop crying. They’re not thinking about the problem at hand at all. So why ask them, “What’s the problem?”

Regardless of the particular estrogen and testosterone combination in the person’s body, the reaction I get is consistently one of relief, curiosity, and “Wow, this explains…”

I hope you’ve had the same epiphany.

DE-STIGMATIZING WHAT IS A CHEMICAL REACTION WOULD HELP US ALL BE BETTER CO-WORKERS AND MANAGERS. SO I TRY TO SHARE THIS LESSON ABOUT LEAKY EYEBALLS WITH AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE.

Will you join me?

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